Ukraine Update: Former U.S. Special-ops Soldiers Train Ukrainian Soldiers, Says New York Times

ukraine troops

A number of U.S. veterans are reportedly training Ukrainian soldiers near the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, said the New York Times in an article — In Ukraine, U.S. Veterans Step In Where the Military Will Not — on July 3, 2022, Sunday (

“Americans are in Ukraine,” states the New York Times, noting that the exact number of U.S. citizens fighting on the front lines of the conflict is unknown.

The New York Times adds that some of these Americans are also volunteering for casualty evacuation teams and to be bomb disposal specialists, logistics experts and instructors.

The New York Times also claims that there are currently small teams of former special operations members providing training to Ukrainian soldiers and, in some cases, helping Kiev’s forces plan combat missions.

The Pentagon has denied any affiliation with any U.S. volunteer groups and has repeatedly warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Ukraine to take part in the conflict.

Perry Blackburn Jr., a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, who is one of the volunteers currently providing training to soldiers in Ukraine, confirmed to the New York Times that his unit does not receive any communications from the U.S. military and that Washington is unlikely to take any responsibility for the unit’s actions.

“We have no communication with the U.S. military, period,” he told the New York Times. “That’s a line they don’t want to cross. They are not going to take any responsibility for our well-being or our actions. In fact, they’d probably do just the opposite.”

Some of the veterans see their mission in Ukraine as a way to further America’s interests while insulating Washington from direct involvement.

“We are executing U.S. foreign policy in a way the military cannot,” said Andrew Milburn, a retired Marine Corps Special Operations colonel who leads another group of volunteer veterans who provide training and advice.

“I’m plausible deniability,” he told the New York Times. “We can do the work, and the U.S. can say they have nothing to do with us, and that is absolutely true.” Milburn noted that he receives no response whenever he tries to contact American military officials in Western Europe.

“Every time we reach out, we get rebuffed,” he said. “They are so afraid that something bad is going to happen and it will look like it was the purview of the government. We are persona non grata.”

The report said:

‘During 31 years in the Marine Corps, Mr. Milburn held leadership positions in the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations command, including as the commander of the Marine Raider Regiment. He initially went to Ukraine as a freelance journalist but said he changed course after seeing the Ukrainian military hand assault rifles to inexperienced students, shopkeepers and other citizens before sending them to fight.’

The New York Times says that some experts are warning that the presence of American volunteers could trigger a “tragic mishap that entangles the United States in a Vietnam-style escalation.”

“Just as in Vietnam, the risk is that we get inadvertently drawn deeper and deeper in, one small step at a time,” George Beebe, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia analysis, told the New York Times. “The difference is the stakes are higher in Ukraine. It would be much easier for the United States and Russia to get into a direct conflict that could quickly turn very serious.”

At least 21 Americans have been wounded in combat since the conflict started, states the New York Times, citing a nonprofit organization that evacuates them. Also, two U.S. nationals have been killed, according to the State Department, while two others have been captured and one is reportedly missing in action.

The report said:

‘A small number of American Special Operations trainers started quietly working with the local military.

‘That was the situation in South Vietnam in 1961, a few years before full-blown U.S. military involvement, when the American presence was limited to a military “advisory group.”

‘It is also the situation in Ukraine today. As a bloody conflict churns on, small teams of American Special Operations veterans are training Ukrainian soldiers near the front lines and, in some cases, helping to plan combat missions.

‘There is a notable difference, though. In Vietnam, the trainers were active-duty troops under the control of the Pentagon. In Ukraine, where the United States has avoided sending any troops, the trainers are civilian volunteers, supported by online donations and operating entirely on their own.’

According to the report, Mr. Milburn connected with about two dozen other Special Operations veterans in Ukraine, and soon they were calling themselves the Mozart Group — a name chosen as a retort to a private Russian military company, the Wagner Group. Through contacts Mr. Milburn and others had built years before with Ukrainian Special Operations troops, the Mozart Group soon set up training camps close to the fighting. Mr. Milburn said it had trained about 2,500 Ukrainian troops.

The group offers basic military instruction for soldiers headed to the front and occasional classes on how to use American weapons, like the shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile.

It also provides some specialized instruction and advice for Ukrainian commandos.

Mozart would be a natural conduit for U.S. military support, he said, but when he tries to contact American military officials in Western Europe, through both official communication and back channels, he receives no response.

The report said:

But the United States is wise to be cautious, said George Beebe, a former chief of the C.I.A.’s Russia analysis and the director of the Quincy Institute, a nonpartisan foreign policy research institution.

Few ever contemplated that Vietnam could grow into an enormous war, he noted. U.S. involvement started with a group of 300 soldiers in 1955 who trained South Vietnamese soldiers to respond to what some U.S. officials at the time called “a minor civil war.” Slowly, the United States committed more men and more fire power — decisions that, at the time, seemed not just reasonable but necessary, Mr. Beebe said.

Americans began accompanying South Vietnamese platoons on missions, then supporting them with aircraft. As the effort grew, so did the American troop presence. Finally, a 1964 incident in the Gulf of Tonkin drew the United States directly into the war, eventually leaving 58,000 Americans dead without achieving any strategic goals.

“I’m not saying escalation in Ukraine is automatic,” Mr. Beebe said. “But the danger is that we start crossing over red lines before we even know where they are.”

But just as in Vietnam, Mr. Beebe said, the United States is now forced to choose between only bad options, trying to support an ally without antagonizing a powerful foe.

The New York Times report said:

‘Americans on the front lines say that Russia is stoking a broader conflict and that the United States has little choice but to respond.’

U.S. Assessments Face Scrutiny

On July 2, 2022, a report by The Washington Post — Top of Form

As Ukraine war bogs down, U.S. assessments face scrutiny — said:

‘The shifting nature of the war in Ukraine has prompted a split among analysts and U.S. lawmakers, with some questioning whether American officials have portrayed the crisis in overly rosy terms while others say the government in Kyiv can win with more help from the West.’

The report said:

‘U.S. officials acknowledge that as Russian forces have massed firepower, they have gradually seized territory in the east. That includes capturing the strategically important city of Severodonetsk in June and threatening to do the same in its nearby sister city, Lysychansk.

U.S. officials have downplayed the gains, calling them halting and incremental, while highlighting the significant number of Russian military fatalities that have come as a result.

‘But the Ukrainians have sustained heavy casualties, too. Independent estimates indicate each side has seen tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded. The Pentagon has largely refused to publicly discuss its assessments of killed and wounded.

‘The Defense Department’s overriding concern about discussing the Ukrainian military is balancing what can be said at an unclassified level and not providing an “unintended assessment” that Putin can use to his advantage, Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said.

‘“We’re simply not going to do Russia’s BDA or intel work for them,” Breasseale said, using a military acronym for battle damage assessment. “However, I think we have discussed what we can, when it is knowable, demonstrable and objective.”’

The report added:

‘The scrutiny is fueled by U.S. government assessments of other wars, notably in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials habitually glossed over widespread dysfunction and corruption and sidestepped questions of whether battlefield successes were not only achievable but sustainable. Successive administrations insisted Afghan forces were “in the lead” even as their performance was often deeply flawed — and their survival depended on U.S. logistical support and air power.’

It said:

‘Several observers said what the Biden administration says about the war in Ukraine appears to be accurate but that the Pentagon sometimes withholds information that would be unflattering to Ukrainian partners or highlight limitations on U.S. support.

‘Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that with Ukraine as opposed to Afghanistan, the Pentagon lacks the incentive to “perennially” say the army that it is supporting is turning a corner. There are no known U.S. troops involved in the conflict, limiting the administration’s interest in making such pronouncements, she said.

‘But Schake criticized what she characterized as Pentagon officials “congratulating themselves” about the type and amount of weapons they are providing while leaving out that the United States could send more, faster.

‘“Our sense of self-satisfaction and complacency and confidence is actually a disservice to Ukraine,” she said, calling such complacency “practically and morally suspect.”

Schake assessed that Ukrainian forces are able to win the war and probably in the process of accumulating arms ahead of a major counteroffensive that cannot begin until they have enough to repel the Russians.

‘“We just need to slam the gas pedal on the floor and help them succeed as fast as possible,” she said.’

It said:

‘Others more wary of U.S. involvement in Ukraine see Washington’s assessments as incomplete for different reasons.

‘Benjamin Friedman, a policy director at Defense Priorities, said that Ukraine’s stated objective to push Russian forces out seems “increasingly unrealistic” and that the Biden administration must do more to press Ukraine to negotiate with Russia and strive for a political settlement.

‘“Nobody wants them to cede territory, or hardly anyone wants them to cede territory,” Friedman said. “But you have to assess the situation honestly and say that you’re trading peace for territory. I think we should be doing more to pressure them, and I think we’re sort of doing a disservice not just to regular Ukrainians, but to a lesser extent Americans and everyone else who is suffering economic problems because of the war.”

‘Friedman said the U.S. government is “spinning for Ukraine for the obvious reason that we are rooting for them” and because a more blunt assessment of Ukrainian losses or liabilities might assist Russia.

‘“It’s natural,” he said, “not to criticize the people you’re fighting with, and certainly not in public.”’

The report said:

‘Feelings are similarly split on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said he does not think the administration is spinning what is happening in Ukraine. Overselling success against Russia could undermine future support from Congress, he said, when there has been “a remarkably trusting and congenial dialogue” about the war since it began.

‘Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer and combat veteran, said that “the story of this conflict” is the degree to which the administration is disclosing large amounts of detail about what is happening in Ukraine, and that it has been “remarkably open and candid in what is going on.”

‘“We didn’t tell the American public what ISIS was going to do next,” Moulton said, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group, “or what the insurgents in Afghanistan were going to do next. But that’s exactly what we’ve done with Putin.”

‘While U.S. support for Ukraine has engendered a degree of bipartisanship seldom seen in Washington, Republicans still see challenges for the administration.

‘Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) said the fighting now has a well-defined line of conflict, with territory changing hands slowly. It can be difficult, he said, to understand the nuance of what is coming next as a result.

‘“I think that’s the fundamental challenge, is we don’t really know,” he said. “But we know it probably is not going to be quick.”

‘The Pentagon’s role is to communicate what the Defense Department is doing and why, Meijer said. The administration doesn’t “have the greatest track record of communicating accurate analytical statements to the American public that don’t quickly collapse when events change,” he said, alluding in part to early predictions from top U.S. officials that Putin’s military would quickly topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

‘“Think of the prognosis on how long the Afghan government would hold after the August 31 withdrawal date,” Meijer said. “Think of the initial estimates of how quickly Kyiv would fall in the wake of a Russian invasion.”

‘Meijer, who served in Army intelligence units, said the truth can be “watered down, so it’s as inoffensive as possible” when intelligence is shared with senior U.S. officials and presidential appointees.

‘Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) also pointed to last summer’s evacuation of Afghanistan, saying that while administration officials highlighted how many planes of evacuees they were able to move per day, they often downplayed “the overall strategic debacle.” In the end, thousands of Afghan interpreters and other allies in the war were left behind.

‘“I think in Ukraine, they’re very much focused on the amount of stuff that they’re moving and the speed with which they’re moving it — once it’s approved by the White House — and I think losing sight of the fact that Russian is grinding the Ukrainian military down,” he said.

‘Waltz said that while the Pentagon is looking through “the very narrow parameters of the mission” it has received from the White House, it also has a responsibility to the American people “to see the forest through the trees.”

‘“They’re describing their success and their very narrow mission set, but what they’re not explaining is: Does that mission set meet American interests?” Waltz said.

‘Waltz said the United States is good at seeing where the front lines of the war are and assessing where tanks, ships and planes are on the battlefield. It is more difficult, he said, to assess the accuracy of what the Ukrainian Defense Ministry tells the U.S. military, how well the equipment the United States provides is being used, how quickly ammunition is being launched and whether any is disappearing onto the black market because of corruption.

‘As Biden faces criticism from Republicans, he also is vulnerable to pressure from the left flank of his party, which already is looking for an exit strategy.

‘Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said that while he applauds the administration’s objective in stopping Russia from seizing Kyiv, the United States cannot resign itself to a “prolonged, never-ending conflict that is wreaking havoc on the American economy and the global economy.”

‘“I believe we should declare victory for the president’s efforts in standing up for a sovereign Ukraine. We should say we won. The Russians lost. They did not achieve their fundamental objective,” he said.

‘Democrats, he said, are not resigned to support Ukraine at all costs.

‘“People don’t want to see a resigned attitude that this is just going to go on as long as it’s going to go on,” Khanna said. “What is the plan on the diplomatic front?”’


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