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Emblem of the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine

Like all post-Soviet states, Ukraine inherited its special forces (Spetsnaz) units from the remnants of the Soviet armed forces, GRU and KGB units. Ukraine now maintains its own Spetsnaz structure under the control of the Ministry of Interior, and under the Ministry of Defense, while the Security Service of Ukraine maintains its own Spetsnaz force, the Alpha group. The term "Alpha" is also used by many other post Soviet states such as Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as these units are based on the Soviet Union's Alpha Group. Ukraine's Berkut special police force gained mainstream attention during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution as it was one of the main forces used by the government to quell the uprising. Ukraine relies on Spetsnaz forces for various activities like intelligence gathering, fighting fraud and organized crime, responding to terrorism, electronic warfare, as well as responding to mass protests. Spetsnaz units were extensively used during the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution by the Yanukovych regime to suppress Euromaidan protesters. During the subsequent Crimea Crisis and the War in Donbass the new government was hesitant to use these forces as they were seen as symbols of the previous regime. Many Spetsnaz members found a purpose by joining a territorial defense battalion or the National Guard of Ukraine; ironically they often fought side by side with Euromaidan protesters with whom they recently clashed. Spetsnaz units were eventually deployed to combat separatist forces as they began to gain ground. Ukraine's 3rd Separate Spetsnaz Regiment has been responsible for defending the Donetsk International Airport which has faced nearly daily battles since May 2014.[1][2]

Ukraine's Spetsnaz forces have had a dubious reputation as they have been used by the government of the day to extort, scare, and blackmail businesses and individuals. Moreover, many units, especially those of the Security Service of Ukraine, are highly autonomous and essentially functioned as mercenaries for various oligarchs or government officials. During the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution Spetsnaz units have been suspected of carrying out sniper attacks on protesters in Kiev. Because of this reputation many units were dismissed after the fall of president Yanukovych.[3][4]

Active units[edit | edit source]

Security Service of Ukraine[edit | edit source]

The badge of the SBU Alfa Group

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) maintains its own special forces unit called Alpha Group which was created from the Kyiv territorial unit of the Soviet era Alpha Group where it became Service "C" of the SBU in 1992.[5]

Ministry of Interior[edit | edit source]

Current active units of the Ministry of Interior are:

  • Cheetah: 200 man unit stationed in Crimea, forced to evacuate due to the Crimea Crisis
  • Tiger: The unit is designed to combat terrorism and preserve public order. The unit was active in suppressing protests during the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution.
  • Omega: Stationed in Mariupol the unit has been active in the 2014 War in Donbass. Designed to combat terrorism, often works along with Vega special forces unit.
  • Scorpion: Specializes in the defense of Ukraine's nuclear facilities
  • Falcon: Stationed in Kyiv and designed to battle organized crime
  • Cobra: Specializes in mountain combat
  • Griffin: Tasked with protecting courts, ensure the safety of judges
  • Jaguar: Tasked with stopping hooliganism and riots, and suppressing riots in prisons. Was actively involved in the suppression of Euromaidan protests; afterwards units were also deployed against pro-Russian separatists.
  • Titan: Ensuring the safety of foreign deputies, investigating fraud and counterfeiting rings.
  • Bars: Main purpose is to ensure law and order in case of protesting students, football hooligans as well as various security duties. Was active in suppressing the Euromaidan protests.
  • Scat: Protection of ports as well as other marine structures such as dams and vessels. Specialize in underwater demolition.
  • Shadow: Specialize in intelligence and counterintelligence activities and sabotage. Designed to operate for prolonged periods of time behind enemy lines.
  • Vega: Combat terrorism, works closely with the Omega unit.

Ministry of Defense[edit | edit source]

The Special Operations Forces are one of the five branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

File:3-й окремий полк спеціального призначення.svg

3rd Special Forces Regiment Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

Patch of the 8th Special Forces Regiment Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

Patch of the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Center Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

  • Special Forces Command, Kyiv
    • 99th Staff and Support Battalion, Berdychiv
    • 3rd Special Forces Regiment, Kropyvnytskyi
    • 8th Special Forces Regiment, Khmelnytskyi
    • 73rd Maritime Special Operations Center, Ochakiv
    • 140th Special Operations Center, Khmelnytskyi
    • 142nd Training Center, Berdychiv
    • 16th Informational-Psychological Operations Center, Huiva
    • 72nd Informational-Psychological Operations Center, Brovary
    • 74th Informational-Psychological Operations Center, Lviv
    • 83rd Informational-Psychological Operations Center, Odessa

Berkut special purpose police force[edit | edit source]

Berkut emblem

Ukraine's Berkut ("eagle"), a special police force, was perhaps the nation's most well known Spetsnaz unit and served under the Ministry of Internal Affairs until its dissolution in 2014. Following the Crimea Crisis, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs absorbed the Crimean Berkut unit.

The force came to worldwide attention during the Ukraine without Kuchma riots, as well as the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. Berkut is essentially a successor to the OMON special police units of the Soviet Union and is analogous to SWAT teams in the United States. A Berkut unit was stationed in most cities of regional significance. The unit specialized in riot control and tactical law enforcement. Due to Berkut units being stationed in most regions of Ukraine, the term became synonymous with Spetsnaz or law enforcement and many special police units were referred to by the name.[6]

Berkut had been accused of excessive brutality, intimidation, and being involved in various criminal activity throughout its history. Some examples include:

  • 23–25 June 1995 — Assaulted Crimean Tatars near Sudak (Crimea) and helped criminals to escape angry crowd[7]
  • 18 July 1995, "Black Tuesday" — Prevented burial of Patriarch Volodymyr (Kyiv)[8][9]
  • 24 August 1998 (Independence Day) — Violent dispersal of a peaceful protest by coal miners for not having been paid for two and a half years in Luhansk[10] (governor of Luhansk Oblast - Oleksandr Yefremov)
  • November 2000 — March 2001, Ukraine without Kuchma — Protected government from angry crowd
  • 19 August 2013 — Attacked a parliamentarian during the 2013 Kiev political protests near city hall
  • Beginning 22 November 2013, attacked protesters of the Euromaidan[citation needed]
  • 23 January 2014 — Kidnapped Alexandra Haylak, a 22-year-old volunteer of the Euromaidan medical service, stripped her of all identification, and left her in the woods near Vyshhorod.[11]
  • 23 January 2014 — Andriy Parubiy, an opposition member of Ukraine's parliament, reported that Berkut was altering standard issue stun grenades, making them lethal devices by wrapping them with nails and other shrapnel and using them against Euromaidan protesters. Parubiy showed reporters samples of the altered weapons.[12]

Due to their history of brutality, as well as their involvement in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, the unit developed a dubious history and was disbanded by Ukraine in 2014.

2014 Ukrainian revolution[edit | edit source]

Ukraine's Alpha SBU emblem

Many special police units were active in responding to the protests of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution including the Tiger and Leopard special forces groups of the Ministry of Interior, Berkut special police force, and SBU Alpha Group.[13][14] On 18 February, after months of civil unrest protests took a harsher turn storming parliament. Troops thought to be SBU Alpha were seen heavily armed and carrying AKM rifles; military jets could also be seen flying over Kyiv. By February 20 there were reports of snipers appearing on rooftops. This led to perhaps the most bloody standoff of the revolution, which resulted in over 100 sniper deaths which SBU is also suspected of covering up.[15] By February 23 police presence in Independence Square had dissipated, which was unusual as it was not part of an agreement signed by the new government. This corresponded to the disappearance of president Yanukovich. Sensing a change in power, police forces likely abandoned their post. Throughout the revolution, police units were holding back protesters, however, having pulled units in from all over Ukraine into Kiev, protests flared up across the country eventually resulting in a change of government.[16]

War in Donbass[edit | edit source]

Ukraine's Special Forces, War in Donbass, March 2015

Due to the corruption of the Ministry of Interior many Spetsnaz units and commanders were sacked, Berkut being the most notable. However, Russian Spetsnaz units soon recruited many of the released members. During the Crimea Crisis Berkut members could be seen alongside Russian "little green men" who later admitted to being Russian Spetsnaz members. SBU also reported that about 30% of its Alpha group members were unaccounted for and were likely fighting alongside Donetsk or Luhansk insurgent groups and in March 2014 the Alpha group only had about 200 active members still loyal to Ukraine.[17][18]

At the beginning of the Crimea Crisis and the War in Donbass Ukraine's parliament stated that their forces only had 6,000 combat ready infantrymen, this compared with approximately 20,000 troops stationed at Russian bases in Crimea alone. At the time Ukraine also had a sizable number of units deployed across the world as part of missions such as Operation Atalanta, ISAF, Kosovo Force, and over 200 troops attached to a UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo.[19] This meant that Ukraine's most experienced and well trained troops were deployed and unavailable at the start of the conflict. Ukrainian government immediately began a process of mobilization and the creation of reserve forces such as a National Guard, however it would be several months until these units would be trained. Therefore, Ukraine's depleted Spetsnaz forces, without the aid of a larger conventional force, or an effective local police force, were called to defend the state. According to Ukraine's Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak, Spetsnaz forces operated largely alone during the first period of the war in Ukraine's Donbass region as they were the only units fit for duty at the time.[20][21]

A group of heavily armed men appeared in Donetsk on 3 March 2014. These were dubbed as Russian Spetsnaz operatives invading Ukraine by some, or American Blackwater operatives by others. However, it was revealed that it was actually members of Ukraine's Alpha group escorting Andrey Shishatskiy, the ex-governor of Donetsk, after he was attacked by a group of pro-Russian separatists. Several months later Mariupol was declared the administrative center of Donetsk oblasts due to unrest, and most administrative functions were transferred there.[22]

Despite having lost many members, Ukrainian Spetsnaz was called to service in April 2014 once Russian insurgents began to advance into Ukraine. One of the first large scale missions was to retake the Kramatorsk airfield as a pivot point to put pressure on Donetsk, which had largely been taken over by insurgents. On 15 April, Spetsnaz unit Omega stormed the airfield retaking it and capturing an undisclosed number of pro-Russian insurgents in the process.[23] Kramatorsk airfield was the scene of prolonged fighting even after its recapture. On 25 April insurgents launched a failed attempt to retake the airfield destroying a Mil Mi-8 helicopter and an An-2 transport. The airfield was surrounded by insurgents for several months until the liberation of Kramatorsk from insurgents in July 2014.

On April 25, 2014 Ukraine's Spetsnaz units were some of the first units to encounter insurgents in Sloviansk, which was to become a rebel stronghold. Ukrainian Spetsnaz units began to systematically destroy rebel checkpoints around the city in April so that regular forces could break through into the city, however it would be several more months until the main components of the Ground Forces of Ukraine were able to break through into the city.[24]

On 26 May 2014 Russian insurgents launched an attack taking Donetsk Airport, the nation's second busiest airport at the time. For the first time in the conflict Ukrainian forces responded almost immediately instead of waiting several days by launching airstrikes from Su-25 aircraft and launching Mi-24 gunships to suppress the attackers. Spetsnaz forces as well as airborne troops were airlifted to the scene to battle the insurgents for the airport starting the First Battle of Donetsk Airport. With the help of air support government forces drove out insurgents by the next day and took control of the airport. This was the first successful operation in the War in Donbass, as prior to this insurgent forces were accustomed to quick victories and government forces typically took several days to respond to attacks. After the battle many foreigners including Chechen terrorists were revealed to have fought against Ukrainian forces.[25]

In May and June 2014 Special Forces units were involved in aiding regular army and National Guard Units in the First Battle of Mariupol. By this time Russian separatists had captured most of Donetsk Oblast as far north as Yampil', although government troops retained control of key points such as Kramatorsk and Donetsk airfields. Insurgents then spread south toward Mariupol, the second largest city in the Donbass. On April 17, 2014 a large group of several hundred separatists attempted to storm a military base in Mariupol. The Ukrainian military counterattacked and an Omega special forces unit was air lifted unto the scene to help local troops drive back the attackers. During the failed assault 63 separatists were captured and three killed. The Omega special forces group was then tasked with protecting Mariupol for the remainder of the First Battle of Mariupol.[26] Later on 9 May separatists stormed the city police headquarters; Omega and National Guard Units attempted to recapture the building but Ukrainian forces eventually retreated outside the city and cordoned off the city limits with check points. On 13 June Omega special forces, along with National Guard units, Azov Battalion and Dnipro Battalion stormed the city. In the ensuing 6 hour battle government troops recaptured all buildings from separatists and hoisted the Ukrainian flag over the city hall.[27]

Ukraine's special forces have also carried out several operations deep into rebel held territory, operating in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.[28]

Spetsnaz forces have also been responsible for locating and neutralizing terrorist cells operating deep inside of Ukraine, clearing cities that had been recaptured from insurgents, as well as searching for potential saboteurs. In May, the SBU raided and arrested several potential saboteurs in the Odessa region.[29][30]

The Ukrainian Naval Infantry maintains its own small Spetsnaz force in the form of the 73rd marine Spetsnaz detachment; the detachment is named "Seals" after the United States Navy SEALs and is built around the same purpose.[31] In August 2014 the commander of the 73rd marine Spetsnaz detachment was killed in an operation near Donetsk, Ukraine. Major Alexei Zinchenko was the first loss for the 73rd marine Spetsnaz detachment as well as the first marine killed in the War in Donbass.[32]

While forces from the Ministry of Interior are often involved in locating spies and saboteurs, the Spetsnaz units of the Ministry of Defense have been more directly involved in the war. Perhaps the most well known are the Spetsnaz units responsible for defending Donetsk International Airport. The Airport was raided on April 18, but maintained operations until May 25, 2014 after which it faced nearly daily attacks. The 3rd Separate Spetsnaz Regiment have earned the nickname "Cyborgs"[citation needed] and has been involved in the Second Battle of Donetsk Airport. Rebels have on multiple occasions stated that they have captured the airport, however the flag of Ukraine has been flying over the dispatch tower, suggesting the airport was actually not captured. The airport's garrison has been able to withstand attacks by Russian T-72 tanks, Grad and Uragan rocket artillery, as well as 2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortars without any air support. By September, Russian Spetsnaz forces began to actively aid the rebels in assaulting the airport, however, they only managed to advance 500 meters closer to the complex by the end of the month.[33]

On 22 November 2014 Spetsnaz groups Cheetah and Titan stormed the Odessa oil refinery. There were no injuries during the operation. A statement from the prosecutor's office of the Odessa Oblast stated that Spetsnaz forces were used to secure the refinery's assets. In April a Ukrainian court ruled that the refinery's assets were to be liquidated, however it was suspected management was trying to profit by illegally selling 55 million hryvnia worth of assets without court approval. Prosecutors attempted to enter the refinery on 17 October 2014 to enforce a court decision to confiscate the refinery's assets but were stopped by security, therefore the decision to use Spetsnaz forces to secure the premises and carry out the previous court order was made by the prosecutor's office.[34] On 10 August 2016 Russia accused the Special Forces of Ukraine of conducting a raid near the Crimea town of Armyansk which killed 2 Russian servicemen; the government of Ukraine denied any involvement. Ukrainian intelligence services reported that there was indeed a border clash, but stated it was a friendly fire incident between the Russian military and the border service of Russia's Federal Security Service.[35][36]

On 5 December 2016, Ukrainian separatist media claimed a Canadian national, reportedly serving with the 73rd Special Naval Center, was killed during an operation near Vodyanoye.[37][38]

References[edit | edit source]

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