Command network coordinates arms flows in Ukraine, officials say

WASHINGTON – As Russian forces continue a scouring campaign to conquer 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 of the CIA’s operatives in the country have continued to operate in secret, mainly in the capital Kiev, where they lead much of the the vast amounts of intelligence with which the United States is shared. Ukrainian troops, 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 the diplomatic staff returning after Russia abandoned its siege of Kiev — hints at the magnitude of the secret attempt to provide help. Ukraine on the 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 Joe 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 Wormuth offered an inside look at the operation last month and said the special operations cell has 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.

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 run a battlefield mapping app that the Ukrainians use to attack 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 equipment and were equipped with new portable surface-to-air missiles, as well as Belgian and American rifles. .

“What is an untold story is the international cooperation with the special operations forces of many different countries,” Lieutenant General Jonathan Braga, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told senators in April when describing the planning cell. “They definitely joined forces in far too big an impact” to support the Ukrainian army and special forces.

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 was in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, 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 Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and retired senior CIA officer.

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 Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the training has 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,” Milley told reporters who traveled with him on a recent flight back to the United States after meeting European army chiefs in France.

After a meeting in Brussels this month, 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 lot of effort,” said 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.