Behind the rifle companies, artillery batteries, and armor groups of the Ukrainian military is a shadow but far from a new unit bringing the fight directly to Russia. A small group of highly trained and experienced special operators have crossed the border, by helicopter and by foot, and hit Russia’s support infrastructure. Essential fuel, communications, and ammunition depots have been struck, and the group says they are far from finished.
While the details of these recent operations have yet to be released, at the time of writing, some insight can be gleaned from news and open source information. This unit, the “Shaman Battalion” has a short but vibrant history. They have reportedly been conducting deep strike raids, ambushes, and assassinations on high-value targets since 2014. However, it wasn't until 2022 that they became so prominent.
Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces taking part in joint exercises on UK Royal Navy's destroyer Dragon. October 10, 2020 (Photo from Kyiv Post)
According to members of the group, they pulled members from across the military and civilian spheres who were willing to go above and beyond for Ukraine. This group included veterans, businessmen, and even a politician. The missions they would undertake would bring what they saw happen in Ukraine to the Russian homefront.
Many of these individuals are experienced in combat sine the 2014 invasion. A portion of them have trained with NATO forces in Ukraine, with even some going abroad to train with US, Canadian, UK and other European special operations units. The members of this battalion are required to be experts, not only of their own warfighting doctrine, but of other nations as well.
Earlier in the war, an attack on an oil refinery in the Russian city of Belgorod struck a nerve. Videos circulated on the internet of Ukrainian Mi-24 ‘Hind” attack helicopters flying low over the area. According to the founding member of the battalion, this was “ just the tip of the iceberg.”
Ukrainian special forces training in the United States. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Patrik Orcutt.)
In an interview with The War Zone, the leader states “there were previous missions, multiple big numbers of them, into Crimea and other territories,” says Shaman, whose callsign mirrors the name of the battalion he leads. “We had some operations in Russia long before 2022. Because Russia actually started this war against Ukraine in 2014, not in 2022.”
“We're using ordinary tactics of SOF [special operations forces ] units. It's a routine and right thing to do. We're raiding their rear. We’re conducting diversions. So there's nothing really special about it. It's indeed complicated work to do. But we love it and we're doing it with pleasure.”
This unit has reportedly crossed into Russian territory, as well as the occupied territories of Crimea and eastern Donbass, to hit their enemy where they least expect it. Members of the unit report that they have been deployed in Russia with the help of highly capable helicopter pilots, then conducted raids and sabotage missions once on the ground.
Russia has dnid this, and said the existence of such a group is a propaganda mission by Kyiv to bolster foreign support and solidify domestic fervor in its fight. However, the members say this is only the beginning. More recently, strikes at a Russian air base in Crimea show that their mission continues.
Ukrainian special forces in training. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Patrik Orcutt.)
The Saki Air Base strikes were reportedly the work of Ukrainian special operations troops, an unnamed Ukrainian defense official says. While unverified, if it is true, it would show that this ‘Shaman’ unit is capable of hitting even places that are heavily defended and deep in enemy territory.
Now, they say Russia is not able to continue the forward momentum of war, resorting to long-range missile strikes to wear down the Ukrainian people. “The only thing they're capable of is bombing shopping malls, striking them with their missiles, killing civilians. causing harm to peaceful people. That's the only thing they are capable of to date,” says another member who goes by the call sign ‘Sydney.’
These units are likely organized in a similar fashion as US or UK special operations teams. Small groups of 12 or less men, kitted with equipment that is neither traceable to Kyiv or to any Ukrainian army unit, are sent on missions where each individual is intimately involved in the planning and preparation process. For cross-border operations, this would involve sanitizing their kit so as to appear completely unknown to the authorities.
Each member would have to be intensely knowledgeable about the area they go into. Local customs, dialects, and locations of police and military units are essential. As the members of this unit state, only people who volunteer for the mission are sent. It is entirely optional for members to go out on missions.
The unit also plans for this war to be a long one. ‘Sydney’ states "This war is forever. This war will go on until everything that obstructs us from having our normal simple lives no longer exists.” He says that the fighting is likely to become generational, and “I'm sure that our kids will also be fighting.”
“We will get them properly trained. They will be better prepared than we are.”
Cover image from The Times (Times Newspapers Limited, UK)