The Ukrainians are fighting a brilliant military strategy of using “Defense in Depth” which they learned to do quite quickly. It stalls and confuses the Russians because it includes multiple levels of simultaneous attacks from conventional and irregular forces. Retired US Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Perry Blackburn described these in an exclusive interview for Ukrinform.
He’s been in Ukraine helping distribute much-needed supplies to denied areas with his nonprofit group AFGfree.org. Recently he began an assessment of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense’s efforts to recruit, train, organize and equip Ukrainians in their force structure. Now he’s helping create a cohesive strategy with Ukrainian Territorial Defense to “train the trainers” on the combat basics of how to effectively “shoot, move, and communicate.”
- In regard to where the war is now, what are you seeing as far as conventional tactics that Ukrainian forces have been using that are most effective against the Russians?
-The defense they're doing is a classic “Defense in Depth.” Ukrainians learned to employ the strategy quickly, and it has been an important strategy against the enemy's advance. It stalls and confuses the Russians when there are multiple levels of simultaneous attacks from conventional and irregular forces, with complete support from the Ukrainian people.
I think the other conventional method that Ukrainians are using quite well is the counteroffensive, the counterattack. As we know, in our military, the only time we defend is to prepare for the offense, and I think that the Ukrainian military is starting to use those same tactics – defend to prepare for the offense, and you see that on the ground a lot more lately than you did on the early days.
- What are Ukrainians doing well, both from a conventional military standpoint and with unconventional or irregular forces? What tactics, techniques, and procedures are Ukrainians using that are effective against Russians?
- Well, to be honest, I really haven’t seen anything effectively used by Russia against the Ukrainians. Growing up in the Cold War era, we knew Russians were going to be a slow, but not methodical, invading force. That they would use artillery to try to punish their opponents and make them capitulate.
I think that's what we saw early on, but somehow, folks forgot that lesson and thought that Russians were about speed and flexibility and that this was going to be over within seven days. But the Ukrainians had a great-great vote in this thing, and they stood up against that and have done an amazing job.
What I’ve seen from the Ukrainian perspective, first of all, is they've come together. They’ve bonded as brothers and sisters at war, and they've established a quick trust in their leadership in President Zelenskyy, which is paramount in conducting any kind of operations against an enemy force. You’ve got to trust each other, and they have absolutely done that, and they've trusted other nations to be part of this effort, even if it’s through support.
The second thing is they've done a great job of using “irregular forces." And I think those couple things there we can't discount on the battlefield. One of them is more the humanitarian side of it and then the other side of course, is how you effectively use your tactics, techniques, and procedures “irregularly” against an enemy to abate their advance and then neutralize it; and then counterattack that and regain the territory. And though as slow as that can be at times because it is irregular, combine that with the conventional Ukrainian forces, and you see that they are making some great strides.
I’ve seen it on the ground with a lot of the folks that we work with for humanitarian aid that are pushing in supplies in denied areas that may have been captured initially by the Russians but are now pulling back, those areas need supplies quicker than in other areas of Ukraine.
So, we're able to “by-with-and through” the Ukrainians to make that happen and reconstitute those areas a lot quicker. And that's from the governmental side of Ukraine, the military side of Ukraine, and private organizations like AFGfree that are doing that type of work.
- Do Americans still get questions about the arrival to Ukraine of munitions and where are the arms and supplies? What were you seeing on the ground, where the supplies, ammunition, fuel, bullets, and other essentials are needed? Are those munitions getting there, or do we need to do something else in the interim?
- We need to do something else absolutely. We're way too slow on this effort to help the Ukrainians. As far as I’m concerned, the entire world was way too slow. We saw it coming before the Olympics. Many of our world leaders even spoke about a Russian invasion.
I believe the world waited to see if Putin was actually going to do it. Maybe they thought that they didn't want to provoke him, but at the end of the day, that was the wrong decision to make. And now they're trying to play catch up, and it's very difficult to play catch up while you're in direct contact in battle with the enemy.
But on the flip side of that, I have to say Ukrainians I've met, both the civilians and the military, are unbelievably gracious folks. I mean, it just tears at your heart a little bit. I hate to say it that way, but there's so much gratitude for everything that everyone is doing and that they don't complain about it.
You know, I guess I’m the one that intellectually has seen the slowness in the progress, but they are just doing what they can with what they have, and in the interim, they're using their “irregular forces” to fill that gap, and gap of supplies.
And when I talk about supplies, I’m not just talking about armament. I'm also talking about humanitarian supplies. Folks are in a war zone. There have been a lot of indiscriminate missiles that have been launched by the Russians that have killed innocent civilians - absolutely unprovoked. No nation in the world could stand back and say that any of those attacks were justified. And it's not one or two of them as if it were a targeting mistake. I mean, multiple times this happened in Ukraine.
And so those efforts are just as crucial because you have to show the population that you're supporting that effort, the humanitarian effort, as hard as you are promoting and supporting the military effort. And that's what brings this nation together. I mean, it's truly remarkable to see.
I’ve been here in Ukraine in the past. I actually played American Football in Kyiv against the Kyiv Patriots a few times. And to see this nation turn itself and grow the way they have with great infantry officers like Infantry officer Kateryna Koval. It's just unbelievable, and I’m proud to say that we here at AFGfree are helping with that effort. Unfortunately, we didn't win that game against the Patriots. They’re ready-made to play American football here, right? There's no doubt about it; they're “Meat Eaters!”
- You launched AFGfree.org after the US pullout from Afghanistan to help Afghan citizens with security, safe passage, and humanitarian assistance. When Russia invaded Ukraine, you adapted this successful project to help Ukrainians. How does it work now?
- Initially, there’s not a whole lot of similarity. Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and it's difficult for them to get out, whereas, in Ukraine, we're able to move supplies from other countries into here. So initially, we helped with the evacuation, feeding, and with sheltering. And by sheltering, we're talking about moving people, providing a shelter of some form, and the continued movement in and out of Ukraine.
In the areas that are denied and war-torn, we're able to do what Special Forces folks do and what our AFGfree.org models itself out of, and that is work by, with, and through the Ukrainians to provide the supplies and humanitarian aid that's needed in the direst areas.
So not just bringing supplies in for places that are permissive and able to be supplied easily, we use Ukrainians in our operation who have the knowledge of the land to actually “work the seams” of the Russian forces to get supplies, food, and comfort items behind enemy lines, and get them to the people that need it - the Ukrainians. Then to move out of the way and continue that line of effort without being disruptive. That's the big thing that we've been able to do in some of these denied areas and that we will continue to do as long as needed.
That’s part of Russia’s tactic, but the Ukrainians are doing a great job of mitigating that so the military can continue to fight. The “whole nation approach” that is happening here in Ukraine hasn’t been seen since World War 2. Ukraine is a country that truly has come together as a whole nation to fight tyranny.
- What strategy can Ukraine use in dealing with diversionists or saboteurs?
- In every war, there are saboteurs, people that are trying to sabotage what you are doing, including your own Ukrainian people. In Afghanistan, we had Americans there showing up to fight Americans at one time. Separate environment but the same concept - they’re trying to sabotage your efforts.
And here’s where the civilian population makes a difference. Let the military focus on the military efforts, but the “underground” efforts that can take place with the civilian population will be able to root those saboteurs out. And the civilian population also can actually apprehend them because it becomes more of a police action than it does a combat action.
So, you have to use that police action effort that you have in the cities of Ukraine rather than use the military. You can see it in the Russian actions as they use more cyber Disinformation to their benefit and their false narratives. Then all of a sudden, you actually see some Ukrainians repeating Russian Disinformation and propaganda who are either unwitting or serving an active part of the Russian effort.
This isn't new to war, and you must understand that fact, and that's where the police effort is definitely required. And the civilians are the ones that will “root them out,” more so than the military – the military will stay focused on the close fight and on the deep fight, shaping the enemy.
- LTC Blackburn, what final words of “Straight Talk” about the war will you give the people of Ukraine?
- We all need to understand that there are these maps going around, and they’re all over the internet, and it shows there are all of the red areas, as though the Russians have total control of the red area. That's an inaccurate picture. There are Russians in those areas, but it's “nodal” – meaning, there are certain “nodes” that they are occupying, but not all of the east is totally controlled by the Russians. And the Ukrainians are the reason they’re not. They’re putting up a fight at every single step, every line of communication, every avenue of approach, and every maneuver corridor you can find Ukrainians putting up a fight. Not just their conventional military, but also irregular forces, and that’s really making a difference.
I've been with the greatest fighting force the world’s ever seen and one of the greatest combat units I think that ever stepped foot on earth - the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). But Ukrainians impressed me with how they have really rallied behind their President and their leaders.
I’ve seen Ukrainians when they can't take another step - to take another step. I’ve seen them appreciative for the little bit of effort that we've given them with AFGfree.org, and that, to me, is a difference-maker in this war effort, and it will be at the end of the day because that will win the war. It will be the efforts of Ukrainians.
Mike Robinson, U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, on behalf of Radio Free Ukraine, specifically for UKRINFORM
Photo: Volodymyr Tarasov