Ukrainian underground unit claims successes against Russian forces in Bakhmut

Eastern Ukraine (CNN) — His forearms swelled from the strain of holding the tight leash of a drooling dog. The creature’s muffled grunts could be felt and heard, along with the grunts of a revving truck.

It was fitting, given that its owner’s call sign is Brabus, named after the German company that specializes in pumping up luxury vehicles with artificial testosterone.

“Come on,” growled Brabus as he was towed to a roadside building for our clandestine meeting with some of his special ops team.

They are part of a dark tapestry of units belonging to various Ukrainian intelligence organizations. They operate in twilight landscapes in the war against Russian occupation on and beyond the front lines.

Other groups run by Ukraine’s intelligence services include the Russian Volunteer Force and the Legion of Freedom for Russia – made up of Russian citizens fighting to rid their country of President Vladimir Putin – which are currently making inroads inside. of Russia from Ukraine.

But Brabus and his group are entirely local. Former soldiers with specialized skills, they joined forces with a former Ukrainian forces officer at the start of the invasion of Russia last year.

“At the beginning of the war, there was an important role for small groups who could fight secretly against the Russians. Because Kyiv region, Chernihiv region, Sumy region are forested areas. Therefore, the role of small groups was important and developed rapidly,” the Brabus boss said from inside a camouflaged balaclava.

An aerial view of a battlefield with damaged Russian tanks near Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, May 27, 2023. (Libkos/AP)

During these first days and weeks, small groups of men in pickup trucks, armed with NATO-supplied NLAW-type anti-tank rockets and javelins, ambushed, trapped and eliminated the invading Russian columns along the main arteries coming from the north.

Bold, fast and incredibly brave, they took advantage of the Russian military Leviathan; finally, north of kyiv and Sumy, they stopped the invasion in its tracks.

While then divided into “reconnaissance units”, some have since been absorbed into formal army structures.

But all clung to the free, partisan style of warfare with higher stakes but greater autonomy.

Those who survived, and many more who did not, are now often put to work on tactical tasks for strategic effect. In short: kill Russian officers to break Russian morale.


Brabus and his group, all former soldiers with specialized skills, rallied around a former Ukrainian forces officer after the invasion of Russia. CNN has blurred this image for Brabus’ safety. (Credit: Brabus)

Night vision

Brabus agreed to share, to some extent, the story of such an operation.

In early March, when eastern Ukraine was blanketed in snow on the frozen ground, Brabus said he and his team crept through skeletal forests to a regular military post on the front line in south of Bakhmut.

He said intelligence signals suggested Russian units were being swapped. This meant that there would be more officers present than normal, and better still, the new leaders would be naive and prone to fatal mistakes.

Illustrating the story with video footage shot at the time, he explained that his group immediately engaged in a fierce firefight with Russian paratroopers new to that front.

“We fired with all our firepower,” he said, his eyes shining with pleasure at the memory of the Ukrainian fire.

Two videos glow metallic orange. Trees appear silvery black, while living things, such as humans, appear as intense moving white dots. These are video recordings of his sniper thermal sight while Brabus was at work.

The videos are quiet, but all the more haunting. Somehow, the white figures can be seen to be bent over, perhaps crouching. One imagines these Russian soldiers scanning the darkness, in search of threats, their nerves raw at each crunch of snow and twigs under their feet.

The red crosses of his thermal sight land on one of the figures. The cross jumps with the recoil of the rifle and the little ghost collapses to the ground. The red cross slides to the right, jumps again, another creak.

“On the left were their dugouts and their (Russian) trenches from which they could see our positions. We eliminated, or rather I eliminated, the paratroopers on the left flank, ”explains Brabus in the typical clinical language of reports military.

His unit’s task, however, was not to help entrenched troops fighting in the “meat grinder” of the Bakhmut front, he said. Their prey was the leadership of Russian paratroopers.

“We are a distraction recognition group. We did the reconnaissance, we got the information, we prepared the operation,” he said.

“How many Russians did you kill that night?” we asked.

“Seven,” says Brabus.

sow chaos

He cheers up when he talks about the gun that sits behind him, like another huge mascot, in the cafe where we meet. This is a modified Soviet-era 12.7 heavy machine gun that a local gunsmith fitted with a thick, bulky silencer.

Firing from an underground cache with a range, he says, of two kilometers, this weapon is almost silent, says Brabus.

Smoke rises from buildings in this aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the fiercest battles with Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)

In May, he was in a shelter overlooking a crossroads of trees near Bakhmut. Another video shows him aiming and then turning his face away from the gun as he releases it, sending high-explosive supersonic bullets, thicker than a man’s thumb, towards groups of enemy forces.

A drone operator, two kilometers from Bakhmut, watches where the bullets are hitting and asks for adjustments to his aim. The video captures his voice crackling over the radio, “perfect, perfect.”

“With that,” says Brabus. “I kill a lot of Russians, a lot.”

Ukraine is now advancing south of Bakhmut along a salient about six kilometers deep, repelling Russian forces.

And, as their counteroffensive to retake Russian-captured territory is underway, Ukrainian forces are fighting in increasing numbers along an east-west front between Donetsk and Zaporiya.


An aerial view of a battlefield with damaged Russian tanks near Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, May 27, 2023. (Libkos/AP)

Since Brabus and his group were in Bakhmut, there seems to be growing anarchy among the Russian commanders. Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prighozhin’s Wagner Company, which controlled the city, arrested and beat the commander of the nearby Russian 72nd Brigade.

They released a recording of the injured “confessing” to being drunk and opening fire on them. He was beaten and released.

He now accuses Wagner and his mercenaries, who already have a well-deserved reputation for murder and summary executions, of attacking these men.

It is this kind of chaos within the ranks of the enemy that Ukraine most desires, indeed needs most.

Brabus is happy to do its part in trying to create it.

— Additional reporting by Olha Konavolava, Pierre Bairin and Sanjiv Telreja.

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