Since February over 20,000 foreigners have come to Ukraine to aid the war effort. Most were veterans of their own armed forces, and some were special operations veterans. There are currently international and national prohibitions against unofficially participating in another country’s war, though this practice has been going on for as long as there have been countries.. This doesn’t stop the most determined volunteers, many of them willing to fight and not just provide support (as trainers and advisors).
Ukrainian Special Operations Command, which is the fifth branch of the Ukrainian military, saw an opportunity and recruited several hundred foreign special operations veterans to serve in a Special Operations capacity. While special operations techniques are much the same everywhere, a common language is not. Most foreign “operators” (as special operations personnel are known) know English as a first or second language. One reason for this is that during World War II the British were responsible for developing and widely using modern special operations techniques. British operators were in high demand by foreign nations for instruction on how it is done.
The spetsnaz are somewhat different. While well trained and capable, spetsnaz lack the specialized training non-Russian operators undergo so more complex missions can be carried out. The spetsnaz are more similar to the World War II British commandos. These men operated in larger groups for raids and some special operations missions. The British SAS (Special Air Service) and SBS (Special Boat Service) operators often began as commandos and upgraded when they had the opportunity. SAS were operators who knew how to use a parachute while SBS are more similar to the U.S. Navy SEALS (Sea, Air Land) operators. Britain still has commando units in the form of their marines (Royal Marine Commandos) and air assault troops. The American army has its 75th Ranger Regiment. The rangers often work with operators when more troops are needed for an operation.
When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it inherited some spetsnaz units. The Ukrainian spetsnaz did not upgrade in a big way until they met lots of NATO operators who were sent to Ukraine after 2014 to train local troops, including Ukrainian spetsnaz. Gradually the Ukrainian spetsnaz evolved into Western style operators. This enabled Ukraine to screen foreign volunteers for men who had been operators and were willing to do that as part of the Ukrainian forces. Most of the foreign opera tors spoke English as a second language and a few knew Russian or Ukrainian. These two languages are very similar, sort of dialects of each other. The Ukrainians managed to make that work. Operators all use a common set of techniques and hand signals. Operators are trained to carry out some missions with no spoken commands, just hand signals.
That is not always possible because the most common task for operators is known as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance). Despite the proliferation of aerial and satellite surveillance, there is still a need for small teams of operators to quietly enter the combat zone, get as close to enemy forces as possible and observe and report what the enemy is up to. Ukrainian operators have an edge in that they have Starlink satellite communications. The Starlink user kit consists of a small satellite dish and a modem that connects with a PC or tablet. The operators must also carry a battery to power Starlink. The operators must position the Starlink dish carefully so that it is connected with a Starlink satellite but not visible to enemy forces. The operator with the tablet must adjust the light levels of the display so not enough light is generated to be detected by the enemy. The ISR teams also use night vision devices, often the type that look like binoculars because that’s what they are, with night vision added. All operators have the knowledge and skills to do all this quickly and quietly and with minimal spoken communication. The Russians know about these ISR missions, are always on the lookout for them and are sure that an ISR team is observing when they suddenly get hit with a lot of very accurate artillery, sniper or machine-gun fire from the enemy. At this point the ISR team has to be prepared to make a rapid exit along one of several routes they noted on their way in. They are lightly armed with assault rifles or PDWs. These Personal Defense Weapons are much smaller assault rifles or submachine guns firing 9mm pistol ammo. In addition, each usually carries a pistol and knife and not much ammo for reloads. Operators travel light, meaning no bulletproof helmets or vests. Speed is essential if you have to leave the area while angry Russian search parties are trying to surround you.
These ISR missions are common for the foreign operators because they have all the skills and only need to know a few key words or phrases in Ukrainian to operate together. The five- or six-man ISR team will include one Ukrainian operator who can deal with any Ukrainian civilians encountered. All members of the team use a foreign operator’s form of communication and because of that the team leader is often one of the foreign operators.
Foreign volunteers generally travel to Ukraine at their own expense and work without pay. They are housed, fed and otherwise supported but are not, in the classical sense, mercenaries. Most stay for just a few months and those who die have their bodies returned home by Ukraine. Some of the International Legion volunteers had been active members of foreign militaries and served in Ukraine between 2014 and 2021. These volunteers were particularly valuable because they had been part of the NATO effort to turn Ukrainian forces into a NATO compatible force.
This turned out to be a major advantage because the Russians were still using their rigid Soviet era command and troops control procedures. By 2021 the Ukrainians had adopted the more flexible Western methods where junior commanders were trained to improvise when necessary. The Russian troops who did any of that were spetsnaz (special operations) forces. Most Russian troops follow detailed orders and, when they encounter something not covered in their orders, they halt and wait for further instructions. This gives Ukrainian forces a major advantage. After nearly a year of fighting the Russians have not changed, even though the more flexible Ukrainians constantly win battles because of their initiative.