Since 2014 Ukraine has relied on a number of special operations units for key operations. In 2014 Ukraine had a Special Forces Command consisting of 4,000 troops similar to the Russian Spetsnaz, a Russian term for special purpose military units. After World War II the Russian special operations troops evolved into the spetsnaz. All participants in World War II had some form of special operations troops and such troops have existed for thousands of years. While the U.S. has united all its special operations troops into SOCOM (Special Operations Command), most nations allow special operations to exist throughout the military.
In 2016 Ukraine combined many of its special operations troops into the SSO (Special Operations Forces), an organization based on the American SOCOM. This was part of the military reforms that were turning the Ukrainian military into a NATO compatible force. The Ukrainians still created special units for special situations. For example, the Kraken Regiment was created on the same day (24 February) that the 2022 Russian invasion began. The Kraken Regiment does not belong to the Special Operations Command, and works directly for Ukrainian military intelligence. Since its formation, the regiment has grown to a force of nearly 2,000 volunteers, nearly all of them special operations veterans. Kraken exists to carry out reconnaissance missions for the Ukrainian high command and occasional combat, sabotage and internal security missions. Early in the war Kraken was a key factor in finding and capturing or killing Russian agents inside Ukraine. Kraken often worked with Ukrainian special operations forces or Ukrainian internal security operatives on these counterintelligence missions against Russian agents or Ukrainians who were working for the Russians.
Kraken was a key element in the September offensive in the northeast (Kharkiv). The army came to depend on Kraken to deal with obstacles quickly rather than having the army handle it and suffer more casualties and take longer. Six months into the war, Kraken had already established a reputation for getting things done quickly. Ukrainian troops proceeded more confidently when they found that Kraken had gone before them and Russian units were dismayed if they believed they were facing Kraken.
Kraken operations are kept secret because surprise is one of the most essential items in the Kraken toolbox. Kraken has become a major problem for Russian forces, who tell stories (many exaggerated) of Kraken operations. The Russians have spetsnaz units similar to Kraken and have personnel trained to find and eliminate Kraken operatives. Early in the war Russia found that their spetsnaz forces operating inside Ukraine were much less effective than operating in any other area outside Russia. Part of this was because many Kraken members have been fighting Russians in Ukraine since 2014. Experience matters, and in Ukraine the Russians spetsnaz are at a disadvantage and have taken heavy losses because of that. This has not removed spetsnaz operations from Ukraine but has made these operations rare and be conducted very carefully. The spetsnaz are believed to be operating in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine where there are problems with Ukrainian partisans. These partisans have grown in number as more Ukrainian territory is cleared of Russian forces. Ukrainian special operations forces are used to help support and expand partisan operations. If Kraken is involved, they keep it quiet.
Kraken is the latest special operations force created to deal with the changing situation in Ukraine. This is a pattern that first appeared back in 2014 when the Russians sized Crimea in early 2014 and later went after two eastern provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk) collectively known as Donbas (Donets Basin). Donetsk had about two million people and Luhansk a million. Crimea had 2.3 million, including the port of Sevastopol which was leased to Russia and contained 250,000 people, including 20,000 military personnel. Ukraine had only 6,000 combat ready troops in their entire country and that made the Russian seizure of Crimea much easier.
Donbas was different. Half the population spoke only Russian while the other half spoke Ukrainian and usually Russian as well. The two languages are very similar with Ukrainian pronouncing many words differently and have many unique words. This is similar to how English is spoken in the United States and Britain as well as English speaking areas worldwide. Ukrainian and Russian are two dialects of the same language that evolved over a thousand years ago around Kyiv in the south and Moscow in the north. In the 20th Century Russia (Soviet Union) made serious efforts to suppress the teaching or use of Ukrainian. This failed and only made Ukrainians more determined to achieve permanent independence, which finally happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. Russia decided to end that independence in 2022 with an invasion of the entire country. That failed.
The Russians should have understood this based on what happened in Crimea and Donbas after 2014. Most of the people in these three areas considered themselves Ukrainian and that pro-Ukraine attitude grew stronger after 2014. In 2014 Russia discovered that most of the Donbas Russians were loyal to Ukraine and tried to solve that problem by sending in Russians who pretended to be Donbas residents. These outsiders provided most of the armed men who comprised the separatist militias that took control of about half of the two Donbas provinces in 2014. Russia found some Donbas natives to join up too, and often served as officials in the separatist governments. There was a lot of infighting among the various Donbas separatist militias and Russian sent in spetsnaz to remove the most troublesome militia leaders. This usually meant just killing enough of them to reduce the infighting. By then (2016) Russia had signed a ceasefire with Ukraine that halted most of the fighting. Russia constantly violated the ceasefire agreement and tore it up in 2022.
One of the events that caused the Russians to accept a ceasefire was the spontaneous emergence of a Ukrainian special operations unit called the Cyborgs, who held onto the main Donetsk airport for eight months. The Cyborgs did this while surrounded and the separatists had to destroy the new airport, the second largest in Ukraine, that had recently been built at a cost of nearly a billion dollars.
The surviving Cyborgs were overwhelmed in January 2015, with only 44 of them being taken alive after running out of ammunition. The saga of the Ukrainian defenders of Donetsk airport by the "Cyborgs" inspired Ukrainians and demoralized Russian separatists in Donbas. The Cyborgs earned their nickname because of their tireless and stalwart defense of the airport for 242 days. This was a motley force consisting of Ukrainian Army soldiers, Territorial Defense soldiers, and volunteers from various paramilitary organizations. Cyborg numbers varied between 100 and 200 throughout their siege. They were periodically supported, resupplied and reinforced by nearby Ukrainian Army units. The closest Ukrainian forces got to the airport defenders was two kilometers away from the airport terminal building the Cyborgs defended. Ukrainian army support included lots of artillery fire, which was very effective thanks to the Cyborg's forward position and excellent observation posts, especially the airfield's air traffic control tower. There were counterattacks with small units of armor against pro-Russian rebel attempts to encircle the airfield. Separatist troops and tanks attacked the terminal building with the help of some convenient fog. On January 19 2015, after taking some parts of the control tower, the separatists used demolition charges to collapse parts of the terminal's first floor ceiling, peppering many defenders with a rain of debris which killed and wounded many of them. The tower eventually collapsed. By the end of the 19th both sides claimed control of the airfield. By the 21tst Ukraine admitted that the rebels had overrun the area. The rebels claimed to have taken 44 of the Cyborg defenders alive. After 2015 the airport was cleared of rubble but there were no attempts to rebuild it.
The spontaneous emergence of the Cyborgs led to Ukraine encouraging similar initiatives until and after the Russians invaded in 2022. This included Ukraine officially establishing an International Legion for defending Ukraine. So far about 20,000 foreigners have enlisted, most of them veterans of their own governments’ armed forces, and some were special operations veterans. There are now international and national prohibitions against unofficially participating in another country’s war, though this has been pretty much constant for the last few thousand years. 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, now the fifth branch of the Ukrainian military, recognized an opportunity and recruited several hundred foreign special operations veterans to serve in a branch of Ukrainian Special Operations. Russia also obtained some foreign fighters, most of them foreign mercenaries already working for the Russians in foreign wars. Ukraine attracted far more foreigners who traveled to Ukraine at their own expense and worked for nothing. The volunteers were housed, fed and otherwise supported but were not, in the classical sense, mercenaries.
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 is a process that continued after the invasion and is one reason NATO nations so quickly, massively and continuously supplied Ukraine with weapons, supplies and other essentials after the invasion. Nine months into the war that aid amounts over $100 billion, with most of it already in Ukraine or on the way. In 2021 the Ukrainian defense budget was about $600 million. In 2022 it is nearly three billion. Russia nearly doubled its defense budget, to $100 billion in 2022. This defense spending growth was made possible by heavy borrowing at very high interest rates. That was because lenders saw Russia as a risky investment because of massive international sanctions and its military defeats in Ukraine.