WASHINGTON — As Russian troops push forward with a fierce campaign to seize eastern Ukraine, the nation’s ability to resist attack depends more than ever on help from the United States and its allies, including a stealthy network of commandos and spies that they are rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training, according to US and European officials.
Much of this work occurs outside Ukraine, at bases in Germany, France and Britain, for example. But even as the Biden administration has declared that it will not deploy US troops to Ukraine, some CIA personnel have continued to operate in the country in secret, primarily in the capital Kyiv, directing much of the vast amount of intelligence that the United States it shares with Ukrainian forces, according to current and former officials.
At the same time, a few dozen commandos from other NATO countries, including Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania, have also been working inside Ukraine. The United States withdrew its own 150 military instructors before the war began in February, but commandos from these allies stayed on or have been in and out of the country ever since, training and advising Ukrainian troops and providing a conduit on the ground. for weapons and other aid, three US officials said.
Few other details have emerged about what CIA personnel or commandos are doing, but their presence in the country, as well as diplomatic staff members who returned after Russia abandoned the siege of Kyiv, hint at the scale of the effort. secret to help Ukraine that is underway and the risks that Washington and its allies are taking.
Ukraine continues to be outgunned, and on Saturday, Russian forces launched a barrage of missiles at targets across the country, including areas in the north and west that have been largely spared in recent weeks. President Biden and allied leaders are expected to discuss additional support for Ukraine at a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized nations that begins in Germany on Sunday and at a NATO summit in Spain later in the week.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, which before the war had been training Ukrainian commandos at a base in the west of the country, quietly set up a coalition planning cell in Germany to coordinate military assistance to Ukrainian and other Ukrainian commands. troops. The cell has now grown to 20 nations.
Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth provided a glimpse into the operation last month, saying the special operations cell had helped manage the flow of weapons and equipment into Ukraine. “While the Ukrainians are trying to move that and evade the Russians who are potentially trying to target the convoys, you know, we’re trying to be able to help coordinate the movement of all those different types of shipments,” she said in a national security event organized by the Atlantic Council.
“Another thing I think we can help with,” he said, “is intelligence on where the threats to those convoys might be.”
The cell, which was modeled on a structure used in Afghanistan, is part of a broader set of intelligence and operational coordination cells run by the Pentagon’s European Command to speed up allied assistance to Ukrainian troops. At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, for example, a team from the US Air Force and Air National Guard. grey Wolf provides support, including tactical and technical, to the Ukrainian air force, a military spokesman said.
Better understand the Russia-Ukraine war
The commandos are not on the front lines with Ukrainian troops and instead advise from headquarters in other parts of the country or remotely through encrypted communications, according to US and other Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters. operational. But the signs of its stealthy logistics, training, and intelligence support are tangible on the battlefield.
Several lower-level Ukrainian commanders recently expressed appreciation to the United States for intelligence gleaned from satellite imagery, which they can check on tablets provided by allies. The tablets run a battlefield mapping app that the Ukrainians use to target and attack Russian troops.
On a street in Bakhmut, a town in the hotly contested Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, a group of Ukrainian special operations forces had American flag patches on their gear and were equipped with new man-portable surface-to-air missiles, as well like Belgian and American missiles. assault rifles.
“What is an untold story is the international partnership with special operations forces from a multitude of different countries,” Lt. Gen. Jonathan P. Braga, commander of the US Army Special Operations Command, told senators in April describing the planning cell. . “They have absolutely come together in a very big impact” to support Ukraine’s military and special forces.
Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat on the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said in an interview that the relationships the Ukrainian commandos developed with their American and other country counterparts in recent years have proven invaluable. in the fight against Russia.
“Knowing who to deal with during chaotic battlefield situations and who to hand over weapons to has been critical,” said Mr. Crow, a former Army Ranger. “Without those relationships, this would have taken much longer.”
CIA officers operating in Ukraine have been focused on directing the intelligence that the US government has been providing to the Ukrainian government. Most of his work has been in Kyiv, according to current and former officials.
While the US government does not acknowledge that the CIA is operating in Ukraine or any other country, Russia and other intelligence services around the world understand the officers’ presence well.
But the training agency’s expertise is in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, former intelligence officials say. What Ukrainians need right now is classic military training in how to use rocket artillery, such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and other sophisticated weapons, said Douglas H. Wise, former deputy director of the Agency. Defense Intelligence and retired senior. CIA officer.
“We’re talking about full-scale combat here,” Wise said. “We are talking about modern tank vs. tank battles with massive military forces. I can’t imagine the CIA training Ukrainian guys on how to fire HIMARS.”
The Biden administration has so far shipped four of the mobile multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine and announced Thursday that four more were on the way. They are the most advanced weapons the United States has supplied to Ukraine so far, with rockets that have a range of up to 40 miles, longer than anything Ukraine has now.
Pentagon officials say a first group of 60 Ukrainian soldiers has been trained on how to use the systems and a second group is now undergoing training in Germany.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the training had begun “rationally and deliberately” as Ukrainians who have historically used Soviet-era systems learn the mechanics of higher-end US systems. technology. weapons
“It’s no good throwing those systems onto the battlefield,” General Milley told reporters traveling with him on a recent flight back to the United States after meeting with European military chiefs in France.
Following a meeting in Brussels this month, General Milley and military leaders from nearly 50 countries pledged to increase the flow of advanced artillery and other weapons to Ukraine.
“All of that takes a little bit of time and requires a great deal of effort,” General Milley said. US troops need six to eight weeks to learn how to use the systems, but the Ukrainians have an accelerated two-week training program, he said.
Still, former military officers who have been working with the Ukrainian military have expressed frustration with some of the training efforts.
For example, the Ukrainians have had trouble evacuating wounded soldiers at the front. The United States could step up training in frontline first aid and advise Ukrainians on how to set up a network of intermediate mobile hospitals to stabilize the wounded and transport them, former officials said.
“They are losing 100 soldiers a day. That’s almost like the height of the Vietnam War for us; it’s terrible,” said a former Trump administration official. “And they are losing a lot of experienced people.”
Army Green Berets in Germany recently began medical training for Ukrainian troops, who have been flown out of the country for training, a US military official said.
From 2015 to early this year, US Special Forces and National Guard instructors trained more than 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in western Ukraine, near the city of Lviv, officials said. Pentagon.
Military advisers from around a dozen allied countries have also trained thousands of Ukrainian servicemen in Ukraine over the past few years.
Since 2014, when Russia first invaded parts of the country, Ukraine has expanded its small special forces from a single unit to three brigades and a training regiment. Over the past 18 months, he has added a company of hometown guards, trained in resistance tactics, to each of those brigades, Gen. Richard D. Clarke, head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, told the Senate in April.
The Ukrainian military’s most acute training problem right now is that it is losing its most battle-hardened and best-trained forces, according to former US officials who have worked with the Ukrainians.
The former Trump administration official said Special Operations Command had small groups of American operators working in the field with Ukrainian officials before the war. The American teams were sometimes called Jedburgh, a reference to a World War II effort to train partisans behind enemy lines, the official said.
Modern special operations teams focused primarily on training in small unit tactics, but also worked in communications, battlefield medicine, reconnaissance, and other skills sought after by Ukrainian forces. Those efforts, the official said, ended before the Russian invasion, but would have been useful if they had continued during the war.
Having American trainers on the ground now might not be worth the risks, other former officials said, especially if it provokes an escalation by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“Would improved training be worth the potential price to pay?” Mr. Wise said. “One answer is probably no.”
Thomas Gibbons Neff Y Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from the Ukraine.