High-profile attacks behind Russian lines hint at how Ukrainian special forces may be using their US training
- Recent explosions in Crimea have damaged Russian military hardware and other infrastructure.
- Russia hasn't blamed Ukraine specifically, but Ukrainian officials have said they are behind the blasts.
This month, the Ukrainian military has again showed Russia and the world its commitment to winning the war, carrying out attacks far behind Russia's frontlines.
On August 9, Ukrainian forces struck a military target in Crimea, the first Ukrainian attack there since Moscow invaded and illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014. At least six blasts rocked Russia's Saki air base, which is home to the 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment, but the source of the attack remains unclear.
On Tuesday, there more explosions at an ammunition dump in northern Crimea. Russia's Defense Ministry said a fire at "a temporary ammunition storage site" caused the blast, calling it "an act of sabotage."
In both cases, Ukrainian officials have said or suggested that their forces were involved, which hints at how Ukrainian forces might be using the training they've been getting from Western special-operations forces since 2014.
Special operators or ballistic missiles?
The explosions at Saki Air Base on August 9 destroyed at least eight aircraft — Ukraine has said nine — including Su-30SM fighter jets and Su-24M fighter-bomber, in addition to ammunition, fuel supplies, and aircraft storage facilities.
Russia has said the blasts were caused by accidental detonations of munitions and blamed the destruction on fire-safety violations.
US officials have not determined what caused the blasts but have said they weren't caused by a US-supplied weapon — ruling out the powerful M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. (The US-made MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System could reach the base if fired from Ukrainian-held territory but the US hasn't provided that weapon, despite requests from Kyiv.)
Some Ukrainian officials denied responsibility but others said their forces were involved in the explosions at the base. Ukraine could have used a domestically developed long-range missile but it's not clear if it has such a weapon in service, though Kyiv has been working on one.
One Ukrainian official told The Washington Post that the attack was a result of a special-operations raid. Whether that claim was made to hide the actual cause of the attack is still uncertain.
The explosions on Tuesday also hit an electrical plant and power lines, rail lines, and residential buildings, Russia's Defense Ministry said. Another blast, reportedly caused by a drone, hit a military airfield in central Crimea.
Following those explosions, a former senior Ukrainian official told The Guardian that Ukraine had "intelligence assets" operating in Crimea. A current Ukrainian official told The New York Times that an "elite" military unit "behind enemy lines" was responsible for the blasts in northern Crimea.
Special-operations raids could be plausible considering the training that Ukrainian commandos have received from special operators with the US and other NATO militaries and the capabilities those commandos have already displayed during the war.
Since 2014, the US special-operations community — primarily Green Berets from the Army's 10th Special Forces Group — has led a multinational effort to train Ukrainians, which has had a pivotal role in moving them away from their Soviet-era mindset and tactics and into the 21st century.
Insider understands that during those years of training, US special operators placed particular emphasis on operational and contingency planning and on updating the tactics, techniques, and procedures of Ukrainian commandos.
Throughout the war, Ukrainian special operators — whose ranks also doubled during that period of Western training — have repeatedly struck behind Russian lines, taking out resupply convoys and other vulnerable targets.
The attack at the Saki Air Base, moreover, has the indications of a special-operations raid. The explosions started in the morning, when all the aircraft were on the ground prior to launching the day's sorties — the Russian air force's nighttime combat capability is questionable at best.
Special operators naturally train and fight in the darkness, allowing them to surprise and out-maneuver larger conventional forces, and Ukrainian operators may have used the cover of night to approach the base. Those operators may have then triggered the blasts in the daytime with time-delayed or remotely detonated explosives.
Small drones have also been used to attack Russian installations in Crimea, though that method would likely require the drone operators to remain closer to the target for longer.
The start of a counteroffensive?
The attacks come as the Ukrainian military appears to be gaining the strategic initiative, dictating major moves on the battlefield with Moscow scrambling to respond.
Ukrainian officials told Politico that the attack on the air base could be considered the start of a counteroffensive toward the southeastern city of Kherson, which is north of Crimea.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his military advisers gambled when they launched a counteroffensive toward the south just a few days after Russian forces launched a renewed offensive in the Donbas region in mid-May.
That gamble seems to be paying off, as Russian forces have failed to make meaningful advances in Donbas and are now urgently relocating to meet the Ukrainian threat to Kherson.
Ukraine now has "a unique chance and window of opportunity," as an advance on Kherson and across the Dnieper River could limit Russia's ability to maneuver and bring more of Crimea into range of Ukrainian weapons, Sergii Grabskyi, a Ukrainian army reserve colonel, said on a recent podcast.
A number of factors will influence events in the months ahead. Ukraine and Russia have both sustained heavy losses among experienced troops, and the onset of autumn may make operations more challenging.
Both sides struggle with combined-arms warfare — that was evident for Russia early in the war, and Ukraine may now face similar difficulties.
"Since 1992, in our field exercises, we did not study offensive actions. We always planned defensive actions," Grabskyi said. "After eight years of war, Ukrainian forces are brilliant in defensive actions, but they have a very limited or almost zero experience to conduct large-scale offensive actions."
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
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