WASHINGTON — As Russian troops press ahead with a grinding campaign to seize eastern Ukraine, the nation’s ability to resist the onslaught depends more than ever on help from the United States and its allies — including a stealthy network of commandos and spies rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training, according to U.S. and European officials.
Much of this work happens outside Ukraine, at bases in Germany, France and Britain, for example. But even as the Biden administration has declared it will not deploy U.S. troops to Ukraine, some CIA personnel have continued to operate in the country secretly, mostly in the capital, Kyiv, directing much of the massive amounts of intelligence the United States is sharing with Ukrainian forces, according to current and former officials.
At the same time, a few dozen commandos from other NATO countries, including Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania, also have been working inside Ukraine. The United States withdrew its own 150 military instructors before the war began in February, but commandos from these allies either remained or have gone in and out of the country since then, training and advising Ukrainian troops and providing an on-the-ground conduit for weapons and other aid, three U.S. officials said.
Few other details have emerged about what the CIA personnel or the commandos are doing, but their presence in the country — on top of the diplomatic staff who returned after Russia gave up its siege of Kyiv — hints at the scale of the secretive effort to assist Ukraine that is underway and the risks that Washington and its allies are taking.
Ukraine remains outgunned, and on Saturday, Russian forces unleashed a barrage of missiles on targets across the country, including in areas in 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 that begins in Germany on Sunday and at a NATO summit in Spain later in the week.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, which before the war had been training Ukrainian commandos at a base in the country’s west, quietly established a coalition planning cell in Germany to coordinate military assistance to Ukrainian commandos and other Ukrainian troops. The cell has now grown to 20 nations.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth offered a glimpse into the operation last month, saying the special operations cell has helped manage the flow of weapons and equipment in Ukraine. “As the Ukrainians try to move that around and evade the Russians potentially trying to target convoys, you know, we are trying to be able to help coordinate moving all of those different sort 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 intelligence about where the threats to those convoys may be.”
The cell, which was modeled after a structure used in Afghanistan, is part of a broader set of operational and intelligence coordination cells run by the Pentagon’s European Command to speed allied assistance to Ukrainian troops. At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, for example, a U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard team called Grey Wolf provides support, including on tactics and techniques, to the Ukrainian air force, a military spokesperson said.
The commandos are not on the front lines with Ukrainian troops and instead advise from headquarters in other parts of the country or remotely by encrypted communications, according to American and other Western officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters. But the signs of their stealthy logistics, training and intelligence support are tangible on the battlefield.
Several lower-level Ukrainian commanders recently expressed appreciation to the United States for intelligence gleaned from satellite imagery, which they can call up on tablet computers provided by the allies. The tablets run a battlefield mapping app the Ukrainians use to target 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 gear and were equipped with new portable surface-to-air missiles as well as Belgian and U.S. assault rifles.
“What is an untold story is the international partnership with the special operations forces of a multitude of different countries,” Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told senators in April in describing the planning cell. “They have absolutely banded together in a much outsized impact” to support Ukraine’s military and special forces.
The CIA officers operating in Ukraine have focused on directing the intelligence that the U.S. government has been providing the Ukrainian government. Most of their work has been in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, according to current and former officials.
Although the U.S. government does not acknowledge that the CIA is operating in Ukraine or any other country, the presence of the officers is well understood by Russia and other intelligence services around the world.
But the agency’s expertise in training is in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, former intelligence officials say. What Ukrainians need right now is classic military training in how to use rocket artillery, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and other sophisticated weaponry, said Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and retired senior CIA officer.
Pentagon officials say a first group of 60 Ukrainian soldiers has been trained on how to use the systems and a second group is now undergoing training in Germany.
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the training has begun in a “rational and deliberate” manner as Ukrainians who have historically used Soviet-era systems learn the mechanics of the more high-tech U.S. weapons.
“It’s no good to just throw those systems into the battlefield,” Milley told reporters traveling with him on a recent flight back to the United States after meetings with European military 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 weaponry to Ukraine.
“That all takes a bit of time, and it takes a significant amount of effort,” Milley said. U.S. troops need six to eight weeks to learn how to use the systems, but the Ukrainians have a two-week accelerated training program, he said.