One of many fight items of the Safety Service of Ukraine’s “A,” or Alpha, division, preventing on the jap entrance of Ukraine on July 20. (Sasha Maslov for The Washington Submit)

ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — A few of Ukraine’s most elite particular forces at the moment are working barely again from the entrance line — with virtual-reality glasses that give a drone’s-eye view.

Final 12 months, there have been alternatives to creep into Russian-occupied territory at night time to take out enemy targets. Now, with huge minefields and different fortified Russian defenses stalling Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive, an uncrewed aerial automobile armed with explosives does that in daylight as a substitute.

A Ukrainian particular forces staff in July 2023 manually directed a drone to hit a cluster of antennas affixed to a tower in a city occupied by Russian troops. (Video: Alpha Unit)

A 3-man staff final month manually directed a drone to hit a cluster of antennas affixed to a tower in Polohy, a city occupied by Russian troops in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia area. The Russians had been utilizing the digital warfare system to spoil the work of Ukraine’s satellite-guided rockets.

The drone, fabricated from Styrofoam-like materials and costing $1,500, crashed into one of many antennas, detonating on contact. With the Russians’ jamming potential instantly disrupted, the Ukrainians then destroyed the tower with a strike from a U.S.-provided Excessive Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. The missile slammed into the construction with the type of precision the Ukrainians have come to depend on of their 17-month combat to expel the Russian occupiers. However had the drone not disabled one of many antennas first, the HIMARS rocket in all probability would have missed.

That type of operation has change into a trademark of particular forces items such because the Safety Service of Ukraine’s “A,” or Alpha, division, which lately granted Washington Submit journalists uncommon entry to its groups aiding common navy brigades in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which now stretches throughout the nation’s southeast.

The character of this battle — fought principally at a distance with artillery and with the perimeters separated by densely mined fields — has pressured conventional particular operators to transition from covert ways they used extra usually earlier within the battle. Now, the preventing is basically completed with know-how, together with a big selection of self-detonating drones that the expert troopers direct from a protected distance — a tactic that gives a extra preferable risk-to-reward ratio than sneaking behind Russian traces.

“What’s the downside with going behind enemy traces? Whole mining,” stated Oleh, the primary deputy director of the Alpha forces, who, like others on this article, requested to be recognized solely by his first identify for safety causes. “It’s nearly not possible to go someplace secretly. It’s important to use some type of demining tools. This implies you’ll already be recognized.”

The work of the Alpha items provided a window into the early challenges in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, through which restricted advances have been hard-gained because the Russians have hunkered down in defenses ready over many months. Alpha fighters are educated to do every thing from firing an antitank missile to working a cell air-defense system. Their snipers are thought to be one of the best in Ukraine. However all have turned their focus to drones these days as their targets turned tougher to succeed in.

The struggles of the Alpha fighters illustrate the steep challenges the Ukrainian navy now faces at each degree — even amongst its most elite and efficient items — because it runs right into a Russian pressure that has ready and adjusted since its repeated missteps within the fall, when Ukraine recaptured massive swaths of territory within the Kharkiv and Kherson areas.

The jap entrance line, close to the besieged metropolis of Bakhmut, is much less mined than the large fields of the southern Zaporizhzhia area. However it’s nonetheless onerous to get near the Russians. Just lately, a staff of Oleh’s fighters had “a comparatively shallow entry” into enemy turf close to there and 14 of them had been wounded, he stated.

“And with our assets, the lack of 14 folks is a big loss for us,” Oleh stated. “Sure, the enemy additionally suffers losses. However once more, are our losses applicable in these circumstances, and are they justified? I can’t use these 14 folks in different operations within the close to future.”

“The issues that might be completed a 12 months and a half in the past or a 12 months in the past, which had been comparatively protected and had been completed, now we have to assess the appropriateness,” he added.

Ukraine’s principal inner safety service, the SBU, created its Alpha division in 1994 with a give attention to counterterrorism operations. That work stays, however extra has been added amid battle.

The top of the SBU, Vasyl Maliuk, lately confirmed that its specialists had been chargeable for attacking the Crimean Bridge final 12 months, a dramatic strike that briefly disrupted a key Russian provide route. The service has additionally been behind current sea drone strikes on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, in accordance with a Ukrainian official, who spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of they weren’t licensed to debate the matter publicly.

When the Russians had been making an attempt to seize Kyiv, Alpha’s principal job was defending the federal government and its leaders, together with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Oleh stated. However since final 12 months, he has spent most of his time in Zaporizhzhia, now overseeing Alpha items aiding in the principle focus of Ukraine’s counteroffensive — a bid to sever the land hall between Russia and Crimea.

Alpha is selective: To get in, recruits need to move a health check, a polygraph check and a psychological examination. Efforts to widen recruiting in the course of the battle to type a separate assault unit yielded simply 80 new members, Oleh stated.

Like different particular forces, Alpha groups can generally have the identical features as common navy brigades, equivalent to working a howitzer. However their assignments are sometimes carried out in small teams — meant to inflict excessive enemy losses utilizing fewer assets.

The whole Alpha division has only one artillery gun, a 105mm British L119 that’s at present within the Zaporizhzhia area, utilized by a gaggle that calls itself “Tiger Woods,” as a result of its strikes are as correct because the American golfer. At a base close to the city of Orikhiv, the fighters have a satellite tv for pc picture of the Zaporizhzhia plains divided into squares. Usually the preventing, they stated, is going down within the skinny tree traces that separate every area. That’s the place the Russians have their posts and conceal their weapons.

Due to the dense community of mines, the Ukrainians are advancing, slowly, on foot. Right here, south of Orikhiv, they’ve moved greater than two miles for the reason that counteroffensive began in early June, the Alpha troopers stated.

Just lately, they stated, a gaggle of troopers approached a Russian trench line they thought was deserted. As they began to stroll by way of it, they realized the ditch was booby-trapped with mines. All 5 Ukrainians had been injured by the blasts, and the Russians, who had been hiding close by, then began taking pictures, killing 4 of them. One wounded soldier escaped after different Ukrainian items began firing shells on the trench. They’d watched the ambush of their comrades on a feed from a reconnaissance drone.

“Mines are in all places on the outskirts of the trenches,” stated Ilya, an officer in Alpha’s artillery unit. “First, it must be cleared by artillery, then assault teams will go. If the assault group encounters any resistance, it’s again to the artillery, then again to the assault teams. Very slowly. However that is our actuality.”

Somewhat than contending with minefields, the place Alpha has achieved biggest success is with loitering munitions, which vary in dimension and price. The three-man staff that destroyed the antenna tower focuses on targets associated to Russians’ jamming potential and communication infrastructure.

A second group working within the Zaporizhzhia area lately used a RAM II self-detonating drone made in Ukraine, which appears to be like like a small grey aircraft with a propeller within the again and may fly as much as 25 miles.

The Alpha division alone this 12 months has broken or destroyed greater than 322 tanks and armored automobiles, 48 artillery programs and 65 particular tools objects, stated Oleh, the deputy director.

However “now it’s tougher,” stated Pasha, who heads the Alpha unit launching the RAM II drones.

Since final 12 months, the Russians have been utilizing a Pole-21 digital warfare system that suppresses all satellite tv for pc navigation over an space of as much as 150 sq. kilometers. Meaning “we fly by landmarks; we don’t have GPS right here in any respect,” Pasha stated. And sometimes, simply when the drone might need a goal in sight, the feed will go darkish due to the Russians’ jamming.

It’s positioned a premium on focusing on the digital warfare programs themselves.

“We’ve got very exact means,” Pasha stated. “The navy prioritizes giving us a goal to hit, and solely then, if we are able to’t hit it, they switch it to HIMARS or artillery — as a result of artillery could not hit in any respect, and HIMARS additionally has nuances. If the digital warfare is working, it might not hit the goal both.”

In preparation for the Ukrainians’ counteroffensive, the Russians concentrated extra of their digital warfare programs within the Zaporizhzhia area, Pasha stated. It’s made him yearn for a change of surroundings.

“We preferred working within the Donetsk area higher,” Pasha advised Oleh. “There are extra targets there. There’s extra lively work there, and there may be much less digital warfare. … This space is essentially the most fortified. And they’re merely in a dead-end protection.”

“Then let’s work right here for the final day, after which I’ll give an order, you’ll be transferred there,” Oleh advised him.

“No downside,” Pasha stated. “We want outcomes — to destroy the enemy.”

An Alpha sniper group close to the jap metropolis Bakhmut stated the Russians are dug into their defenses there, too, making it troublesome to search out targets. The Russians “enter their positions within the morning and don’t depart the dugout till night time,” stated Felix, one in every of Alpha’s snipers.

His unit hasn’t had conventional sniper work since early Might, he stated, specializing in reconnaissance within the meantime.

There have been extra alternatives final 12 months, he stated. A 12 months in the past, when the western financial institution of the Kherson area was nonetheless occupied, Felix and two others from his sniper unit acquired intelligence from locals in an occupied village a few Russian navy commander. They studied the place cows walked by way of the fields, marking which areas appeared to not be mine. Then at night time, the group crossed the Inhulets River by foot, quietly coming into enemy-held territory and planting MON-90 mines on the highway close to his automotive earlier than retreating, he stated.

“He stood out due to his automobile,” Felix stated. “Since he was the boss, the automotive needed to be extra lovely and so forth.”

The group then waited for the suitable alternative earlier than remotely detonating the explosives. “After he was neutralized, they’d a giant panic. They had been a bit depressed,” Felix stated with amusing.

He lamented that the identical type of mission wouldn’t be attainable now as a result of the Russians have extra intensely mined every thing forward of their outposts. “It’s a bit extra of a chance,” Felix stated.