WASHINGTON – As Russian forces continue a scouring campaign to capture eastern Ukraine, the country’s ability to withstand the onslaught depends more than ever on the help of the United States and its allies — including a creeping network of commandos and spies rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training, according to US and European officials.
Much of this work is done outside Ukraine, for example at bases in Germany, France and Great Britain. But while the Biden administration has said it will not send US troops to Ukraine, some CIA personnel in the country have continued to operate in secret, mainly in the capital Kiev, and have led much of the massive intelligence the United States shares with Ukrainian forces, according to current and former officials.
At the same time, several dozen commandos from other NATO countries, including Great Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania, are also working in Ukraine. The United States withdrew its own 150 military instructors before the war started in February, but commandos from these allies have remained or have since moved in and out of the country to train and advise Ukrainian troops and provide leadership to Ukrainian troops on the ground. weapons and other aid, three US officials said.
Few other details have emerged about what CIA personnel or commandos are up to, but their presence in the country — alongside diplomatic staff returning after Russia abandoned its siege of Kiev — hints at the magnitude of the covert effort to assist Ukraine under way and the risks Washington and its allies are taking.
Ukraine remains hopeless, and on Saturday Russian forces unleashed a barrage of rockets at targets across the country, including in areas to 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 starting Sunday in Germany and at a NATO summit in Spain later this week.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, which had trained Ukrainian commandos before the war at a base in the west of the country, quietly established a coalition planning cell in Germany to provide military assistance to Ukrainian commandos. and other Ukrainian commandos. troops. The cell has now grown to 20 countries.
Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth offered an inside look at the operation last month and said the special operations cell had helped control the flow of weapons and equipment into Ukraine. “While the Ukrainians are trying to move that and evade the Russians that may be trying to attack convoys, we’re trying to help coordinate moving all those different types of shipments,” she said at a national security event held by the Atlantic Council. .
“Another thing I think we can help with,” she said, “is information about where the threats to those convoys might be.”
The cell, which is modeled after a structure used in Afghanistan, is part of a broader set of operational and intelligence coordination cells operated by the Pentagon’s European Command to accelerate allied aid to Ukrainian forces. At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, for example, a US Air Force and Air National Guard team called Gray Wolf is providing support, including tactics and techniques, to the Ukrainian Air Force, a military spokesman said.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
The commandos are not on the front lines with Ukrainian troops, but instead advise from headquarters in other parts of the country or remotely via encrypted communications, according to US and other Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters. to discuss. But the signs of their creeping logistics, training and intelligence support are being felt on the battlefield.
Several lower-level Ukrainian commanders recently expressed appreciation to the United States for information obtained from satellite images, which they can access on tablet computers supplied by the Allies. The tablets have a battlefield mapping app that the Ukrainians use to attack and attack Russian troops.
On a street in Bakhmut, a town in the hard-fought Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, a group of Ukrainian special operations forces had US-flagged patches on their equipment and were equipped with new portable surface-to-air missiles, as well as Belgian and US rifles.
“What is an untold story is international cooperation with the special operations forces of many different countries,” Lieutenant General Jonathan P. Braga, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command, told senators at the United States in April. describing the planning cell . “They definitely joined forces in way too big an impact” to support the Ukrainian military and special forces.
Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat on the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, said in an interview that the relationships Ukrainian commandos had developed in recent years with American and other counterparts had proved invaluable in the fight against Russia.
“Knowing who you were dealing with in chaotic situations on the battlefield and who to get weapons from was critical,” said Mr. Crow, a former army guard. “Without those relationships, this would have taken a lot longer.”
The CIA officers operating in Ukraine have focused on directing the intelligence provided by the US government to the Ukrainian government. Most of their work has been in Kiev, according to current and former officials.
While the US government does not recognize that the CIA is active in Ukraine or any other country, the officers’ presence is well understood by Russia and other intelligence agencies around the world.
But the agency’s expertise in training lies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations, former intelligence officials say. What Ukrainians now need is classic military training in the use of missile artillery, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and other advanced weapons, said Douglas H. Wise, a former Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director and retired senior CIA officer.
“We’re talking large-scale battles here,” Mr. Wise said. “We are talking about modern tank-on-tank combat with huge forces. I can’t imagine the CIA training Ukrainian guys on how to fire HIMARS.”
The Biden administration has sent four of its mobile multiple-missile systems to Ukraine so far and announced on Thursday that four more were on their way. They are the most advanced weapons the United States has delivered to Ukraine to date, with missiles with a range of up to 40 miles, bigger than anything Ukraine has now.
Pentagon officials say an initial group of 60 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained to use the systems and a second group is now undergoing training in Germany.
Gene. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the training had started in a “rational and deliberate” manner as Ukrainians who have used Soviet-era systems in the past learn the mechanics of the more high-tech US weapons. .
“There’s no point just throwing those systems onto the battlefield,” General Milley told reporters who recently traveled with him on a flight back to the United States after meeting European army chiefs in France.
After 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 into Ukraine.
“It all takes some time, and it takes a considerable amount of effort,” said General Milley. 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 officials who have worked with the Ukrainian military have expressed frustration at some of the training efforts.
Ukrainians, for example, have struggled to evacuate wounded soldiers at the front. The United States could step up frontline first aid training and advise Ukrainians on setting up a network of intermediate mobile hospitals to stabilize and transport the injured, former officials said.
“They lose 100 soldiers a day. That is almost the culmination of the Vietnam War for us; it’s terrible,” said a former Trump administration official. “And they lose a lot of experienced people.”
Army green berets in Germany recently began medical training for Ukrainian troops, who were taken out of the country for instruction, 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, Pentagon officials said.
Military advisers from a dozen allied countries have also trained thousands of Ukrainian servicemen in Ukraine in recent 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, it has added a house guard company — trained in resistance tactics — to each of those brigades, General Richard D. Clarke, the 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 hardened and well-trained troops, according to former US officials who have worked with the Ukrainians.
The former Trump administration official said Special Operations Command had allowed small groups of US operators to work in the field with Ukrainian officials before the war. The US teams were sometimes referred to as Jedburgh, a reference to a World War II attempt to train partisans behind enemy lines, the official said.
The modern special operations teams mainly focused on training in small unit tactics, but also worked on communications, battlefield medicine, reconnaissance and other skills requested by Ukrainian forces. Those efforts, the official said, ended before the Russian invasion, but would have been useful had they continued during the war.
It may not be worth the risks of having American trainers on the ground now, other former officials said, especially if it sparked an escalation by Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin.
“Would the improvement in training be worth the possible price to pay?” said Mr. Wise. “An answer probably isn’t.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Ukraine.