Russia Has 'Plenty of Surprises' Left: U.S. Spec Ops Veteran in Ukraine

  • Erik, a 26-year veteran of U.S. Army special forces, warned that Western policy makers must not underestimate the tenacity of Russians fighting in Ukraine.
  • Despite a year of sub-par performances, Moscow is pushing hard for fresh gains in the east and south of Ukraine, with its units reinforced by hundreds of thousands of mobilized reserves.
  • Russia is also seeking military assistance from Iran, North Korea and China.

Western policy makers must not underestimate Russian formations fighting in Ukraine, an American veteran training Kyiv's forces has said, despite a year of missteps by a military that was considered the second-most potent in the world and a leader in President Vladimir Putin considered by many to be a shrewd strategist.

Erik—who didn't wish to share his full name for security reasons—is a 26-year veteran of U.S. Army special forces who has been working in Ukraine over the past 12 months, training Ukrainian troops for front line combat. Previously working for the Mozart Group, Erik is now coordinating around 20 volunteers through the Ukraine Defense Support Group (UDSG).

Moscow's troops are currently pushing hard for fresh gains in the east and south of Ukraine, in what analysts and officials in Kyiv and the West have said constitutes Russia's spring offensive.

"You can never count the Russians out," Erik told Newsweek. "I've been dealing with the Russians since 1989. They have resiliency and tenacity. If you count them out, they will surprise you...I'm sure the Russians have plenty of little surprises left."

The Kremlin is reportedly expending large numbers of troops—and Wager Group mercenaries, most of whom are believed to be former conscripts—to make limited gains, particularly around the city of Bakhmut. But with some 300,000 mobilized troops coming onto the lines, Moscow has fresh manpower to wield.

Russian with Z in Red Square picture
A man wearing a military uniform with a Z letter, a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine, takes a photo at Red Square in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in central Moscow on February 13, 2023. Moscow is pushing hard for fresh gains in the east and south of Ukraine. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russia began its full-scale invasion with the ambition of capturing Kyiv and toppling the government in just a few days. But now Moscow is taking tens of thousands of casualties to surround—not yet even seize—a settlement that military experts say offers little strategic value.

The Russian game plan seems to be a long war, with incremental advances at the front combined with intense Russification—which Ukrainians say constitutes genocide—in occupied areas. Continued infrastructure strikes are intended to hollow out Ukraine's fighting capacity, while the Kremlin hopes war fatigue will fracture a unified Western response without which Kyiv couldn't continue.

While Russia seeks to stabilize and expand its battlefield control, Moscow is also looking abroad for help. "At the strategic scale, you cannot count out the assistance they're getting from the Iranians, and to a much lesser extent the North Koreans," Erik said. "And it's yet to be seen with the Chinese."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said last month that while the war is not yet over, "Russia has lost; they've lost strategically, operationally and tactically."

But Kyiv still faces a tough fight to reclaim all of the territory occupied by Russia since 2014, Erik said. Ukrainian troops are now looking to absorb the Russian push and retaliate with their own spring offensive, supported by Western tanks and reserves. Erik and his UDSG colleagues are training Border Guard units, who will be among the fresh formations.

"The Russian army today is different compared to the Russian military of one year ago," Erik said. "They've lost a lot of capacity and capability. A lot of their trained officers were killed. They pulled out a lot of their trained cadre from throughout Russia, even in the east. They have fewer tanks, they have fewer aircraft."

"But they've also can't count them out at all and say they are no longer a force to be reckoned with."

Ukraine troops prepare artillery shells Donetsk Bakhmut
Members of Ukraine's 10th Mountain Brigade prepare to fire 122mm artillery shells at Russian troops on March 2, 2023 in the Donetsk Region of eastern Ukraine. Moscow is pushing hard for fresh gains in the east and south of Ukraine. John Moore/Getty Images

The well-executed retreat from the occupied southern city of Kherson in September was an indication that Moscow and its commanders had learned lessons from the first seven months at war, Erik said. So too was Russia's stemming of Ukraine's counter-offensive in the northeast and its gradual—if costly—progress in the east.

Russian units, Erik said, are constantly probing to find Ukrainian weak points, and exploiting any gaps they find with punishing artillery fire and assault operations.

"They are thinking and learning, and you can see that with their operations now," Erik said. "This is a little bit more of a 'drip drip' to find out where the weak points are." He added: "They probe, probe, probe with high loss of life, and then they'll pull back. Then they'll probe again with high loss of life. But it's not like waves and waves."

"They've definitely learned," Erik added. Many Western observers overestimated Russia's military capability before its invasion of Ukraine. But Erik warned that the same observers must not now assume that the Russia threat is neutered. "The problem with the West is that we go to extremes," he said.

Newsweek contacted the Russian defense ministry by email to request comment.