"Our enemies no longer sleep tight"
“Our enemies no longer sleep tight” Commander of Ukraine's new Special Operations Forces on progress, plans
The Ukrainian Week spoke to the commander of the Special Operations Forces on establishing the new unit and the future of Ukrainian Special Forces.
Have the Special Operations Forces (SOF) of the Ukrainian Army been successfully formed? What has been done?
I have been leading the SOF for one year and five months. During this time, all objectives in the first phase have been completed: formation of headquarters, their staffing and the operational training of officers. Existing Special Forces and Information & Psychological Operations units were brought into this structure. Furthermore, in 2016 we formed four new military units virtually from scratch. We mainly focused our efforts on creating a training centre. It has been fully functioning since December and the necessary infrastructure has been established. It conducts the entire range of courses for training soldiers.
We should reach full capacity by 2020. The task for 2017 is to revise the regulatory framework in accordance with NATO standards. Although this is quite an unusual process, because everyone has a different understanding of "NATO standards". To this end, we are working with representatives of the Alliance. They are giving us invaluable help with the reforms. Of course, we also need both logistical and informational assistance, but we have learnt how to work effectively ourselves. So it's now a mutually beneficial partnership. We have unique experience that they are interested in studying, whereas we are adopting things from our foreign counterparts that are already setting us apart from Soviet Special Forces. A different way of thinking and different approaches to planning.
But the most important thing is that we are changing our mentality during both training and operations. We treat people differently. And all this is taking place amidst active fulfilment of combat operations. Shaping the image of new forces is a somewhat unusual field of work for us military men. In the beginning, when we did the first intake for the qualification course, nothing was organised quite the way it should have been. The task was completed, but with scandals and problems – there weren't enough students. Then we turned to our Western partners. They helped us to make a website and launched a page on Facebook. Promotional materials were developed that were distributed in enlistment offices and bases. Selection for the fourth course is taking place now, but we don't really have to look anymore: we have more than 20 candidates for each place. This has freed up many resources and makes it possible to choose who really is the best.
Are you still facing problems in terms of the legislative framework for the SOF?
The main difficulty is that there were simply no such forces in Ukraine before. But we're gradually moving forward according to the approved Formation and Development Concept. De facto, we are doing our job despite the inadequate legislation, refining it in the process. We were the first in the Armed Forces to complete development programmes for 2020 with all the necessary measures, timeframes and, most importantly, cost estimates.
Do these imperfections in the legislation not lead to a sort of unnecessary competition with other security forces, particularly during combat missions in the ATO zone?
It's not about competition, but the creation of an activity matrix where each unit takes its own place. We are at this stage now, synchronising processes so as not to interfere with other structures. When we have common objectives, we work together more effectively. There are already positive examples of this. As part of our initiative with the Security Service, we are conducting joint training sessions this year to establish a strict counter-intelligence regime.
The SOF is not only made up of Special Forces soldiers. What can you tell us about the Information and Psychological Operations (IPsO) specialists? Do they collaborate with government agencies or NGOs?
Indeed, Special Forces are a sort of brand. They are at the sharp end. However, the forces also include IPsO
units and, given the seriousness of information warfare, it is difficult to overestimate their importance. Unfortunately, I can state that today we do not have dominance in the infosphere. This is primarily due to material factors: Russian media organisations have much more money and have been created for a specific purpose over many years. Our IPsO units have already had several changes of leadership, they were first assigned to Intelligence, then Moral and Psychological Support, and then they were attempts to create separate structures. At present, we have developed a concept for their use and defined the forms of operations. For the first time in the history of the Armed Forces, there was IPsO training this year that involved representatives of related units – the Security Service, State Border Service, the Moral and Psychological Support administration of the Armed Forces General Staff and civil-military co-operation units. Because of the nature of this event, NGOs did not participate. However, we are actively working with volunteers.
Have there been any changes to SOF operations after you received separate funding from the Ministry of Defence?
Previously, funding was minimal and not directed to us, but now our command is an administrator of funds under a separate Ministry of Defence budget item. We now have calculations on how much is needed for particular operations. Now everything is counted and we understand how much everything is worth. This increases our efficiency. Approaches to how these funds are spent are also changing. As an experiment, the Defence Minister of Ukraine allowed several units of the SOF to purchase their own equipment instead of the standard centralised procurement. Unit commanders made their own decisions on what they need and the necessary quality. The experiment was considered a success, so now each Special Forces regiment has been allocated UAH 5 million (~$190,000) to purchase equipment. This has never happened before.
Does the level of Ukrainian SOF units meet international standards, such as NATO? How do your colleagues from abroad assess our forces?
One of our units, the first to be trained according to the new standards and be adapted for activities with NATO forces, participated in the Flaming Sword international special operations exercises in Lithuania in May this year. Before then, Ukraine had only been represented as a combat component, but this time we prepared a unit that was formed according to the new personnel structure of the Alliance: headquarters, battle group, combat and logistical support. Our military performed real tasks at their posts in multinational units with their American, Lithuanian and Georgian counterparts. Some serious work was carried out. Following the training, the Ukrainians were positively assessed by NATO Special Operations Command.
In addition, this year we arrived at the training in our own Armed Forces aircraft for the first time. For our partners, this is an indicator that we are increasing our operational capabilities. Of course, a transition to NATO standards is not just about documents. You can reform and rename a tank platoon of, say, T-34s however you want, but they will never turn into Abrams. Above all, serious equipment with modern technology is required, as well as infrastructure upgrades. Indeed, work is now being done to develop an aviation component in the Ukrainian SOF. Not all NATO countries can afford this, but it greatly increases the effectiveness of the force. There is support on this issue from the General Staff, but at the moment we are looking for resources to complete this task.
When Special Forces are mentioned In Ukrainian society, the example of Israel's Mossad and especially its operations abroad are often discussed. When will the Ukrainian military be able to demonstrate something like that?
Unfortunately, in this matter we are again limited by current legislation. To work abroad, you need cover, physical resources and documents. Which is defined by the regulatory framework. I cannot report all the details of our operations, but I will repeat that the development of documentation does not interfere with actually completing missions. We have men that are motivated well enough to work even in such conditions. I can quite credibly and responsibly declare that our enemies no longer sleep soundly. In 2014, a reconnaissance group from a special operations reg-
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THAT WE ARE CHANGING OUR MENTALITY DURING BOTH TRAINING AND OPERATIONS. WE TREAT PEOPLE DIFFERENTLY. AND ALL THIS IS TAKING PLACE AMIDST ACTIVE FULFILMENT OF COMBAT OPERATIONS
iment was ambushed while evacuating pilots. It took us two years to work out who betrayed them. We found him. We brought him in from the occupied territory. Now this person is under investigation. We do not forget and do not forgive – we will come for each of them. This is reality.
What is being done to free SOF soldiers who are in captivity in the occupied Donbas?
We are doing everything possible to get them out, unlike the Soviet approach, when Special Forces were immediately abandoned in the case of their capture. This practice has been stopped. We are currently working on bringing them back home. This is our duty.
At the beginning of the ATO in 2014, special operations soldiers, as the most well prepared men, were sent to perform tasks that were not suited to them due to the lack of combat-ready units. At the time, this approach was called "hammering in nails with a microscope". Has this situation changed now?
Indeed, such a problem existed. I always recall a time when special operations men were used as an antitank reserve. And they performed the task. But now the situation is different. I had a conversation on this issue with the chief of the General Staff at the end of last year – he made a decision to significantly reduce the number of SOF soldiers in the ATO zone. Nevertheless, the readiness to return is literally measured in hours.
Ihor Luniov was born in 1962. He graduated from the Odesa Artillery Command School. In 2001-2003, he commanded the 25th Airborne Brigade, later became deputy commander of Airborne Combat Training. He was one of the leaders of the defence at Donetsk Airport. Luniov has been head of the Special Operations Command of the Armed Forces since January 2016.