Covert Warfare: How NATO’s Defense Contractors Assisted Ukraine in War

Nauman Sadiq
A Ukrainian captain said that British special forces had come to instruct a battalion in Obolon, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on the use of British-supplied anti-tank ­missiles. TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL

British special forces were training Ukrainian troops in Kyiv since early this month, Ukrainian commanders told The Times in mid-April. Captain Yuriy Myronenko, whose battalion is stationed in Obolon on the northern outskirts of Kyiv, told the news outlet that military trainers had come to instruct new and returning military recruits to use NLAWs, British-supplied anti-tank missiles that were delivered in February as the invasion was beginning.

Former British soldiers, marines and special forces commandos are also in Ukraine working as training contractors and volunteers, but the Ukrainian officers were adamant that their training this month was carried out by serving British soldiers.

“The elite SAS special forces units [a British army special forces unit] have been present in Ukraine since the start of the war, as have the American Deltas [a US special forces unit],” Georges Malbrunot, a reporter for French Le Figaro newspaper, citing a French intelligence source, tweeted on April 9. The reporter spilled the secret the same day when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his surprise visit to Kyiv. The British leader was reportedly surrounded by guards from the elite SAS force.

The veteran French journalist who returned from Ukraine after arriving with volunteer fighters told broadcaster CNews that Americans were directly “in charge” of the war on the ground. “I had the surprise, and so did they, to discover that to be able to enter the Ukrainian army, well it’s the Americans who are in charge,” said Malbrunot.

Adding that he and the volunteers “almost got arrested” by the Americans, who asserted they were in charge, the journalist then revealed that they were forced to sign a contract until the end of the war. “And who is in charge? It’s the Americans, I saw it with my own eyes,” said the French reporter, adding, “I thought I was with the international brigades, and I found myself facing the Pentagon.”

In addition to British SAS units and United States special forces and covert CIA operatives, approximately 6,824 “foreign mercenaries” from 63 countries came to Ukraine to fight for the Zelensky government, the Russian Defense Ministry revealed last week. Of these, 1,035 have been “eliminated,” while several thousand remain. Four hundred foreign fighters are holed up in Mariupol, where ultra-nationalist forces, including the neo-Nazi fighters, have refused to surrender.

The most numerous group of foreign fighters, numbering 1,717, arrived from Poland, while around 1,500 came from the US, Canada and Romania. Up to 300 people each came from the UK and Georgia, while 193 arrived from the Turkish-controlled areas of Syria.

These figures were announced on April 17 by Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov. According to the general, 1,035 “foreign mercenaries” had been killed by Russian forces and 912 fled Ukraine, leaving 4,877 active in the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Nikolaev and Mariupol.

The largest undercover force the world has ever known is the one created by the Pentagon over the past decade. Some 60,000 people now belong to this secret army, many working under masked identities and in low profile, all part of a broad program called “signature reduction,” and a substantial number of these defense contractors have been assisting Ukraine’s security forces and allied neo-Nazi militias for over eight years in the proxy war against Russia since the Maidan coup toppling Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

The force, more than ten times the size of the clandestine elements of the CIA, carries out domestic and foreign assignments, both in military uniforms and under civilian cover, Newsweek reported last May.

The unprecedented shift has placed an ever greater number of soldiers, civilians, and contractors working under false identities, partly as a natural result in the growth of secret special forces but also as an intentional response to the challenges of traveling and operating in an increasingly transparent world.

The covert warfare operations mounted by the Pentagon’s “secret army” in conflict zones across the world is not just a little-known sector of the American military, but also a completely unregulated practice. No one knows the program’s total size, and the explosion of signature reduction has never been examined for its impact on military policies and culture. Congress has never held a hearing on the subject. And yet the military developing this gigantic clandestine force challenges US laws, the Geneva Conventions, the code of military conduct and basic accountability.

The signature reduction effort engages some 130 private companies to administer the new clandestine world. Dozens of little known and secret government organizations support the program, doling out classified contracts and overseeing publicly unacknowledged operations. Altogether the companies pull in over $900 million annually to service the clandestine force.

Special operations forces constitute over half the entire signature reduction force, the shadow warriors who pursue terrorists in war zones from Pakistan to West Africa but also increasingly work in unacknowledged hot spots, including behind enemy lines in places like North Korea, Ukraine and Iran. Military intelligence specialists—collectors, counter-intelligence agents, even linguists—make up the second largest element: thousands deployed at any one time with some degree of “cover” to protect their true identities.

Since the harrowing Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad in 2007, the Blackwater private military contractor, renamed as Academi in 2011 and becoming a subsidiary of Constellis Group following a merger with Triple Canopy in 2014, has built quite a business empire for itself. In 2013, Academi subsidiary International Development Solutions received an approximately $92 million contract for State Department security guards.

After selling Blackwater to a group of investors in 2010, Erik Prince, a former US Navy Seals officer and the swashbuckling founder of Blackwater, has founded another security company Frontier Services Group, registered at Hong Kong Stock Exchange, that advises and provides aviation and logistical solutions to Chinese oligarchs for the security of their lucrative business projects in Africa.

Furthermore, besides advising and assisting the UAE’s petro-monarchy in strengthening the police state, Erik Prince also reportedly provided weapons and modified aircraft to eastern Libya’s warlord and former CIA asset Khalifa Haftar, backed by Egypt and UAE, in his thwarted military campaign against the Tripoli government lasting from April 2019 to June 2020.

Using the good offices of his sister Betsy Devos, who worked as Trump’s secretary of education, Erik Prince even made an offer to Trump for outsourcing of the Afghanistan war to private military contractors advising and assisting Afghan security forces following the withdrawal of US troops. But Trump reached a peace agreement with the Taliban in Feb. 2020 and then lost the re-election bid before he could consider the bizarre proposal.

Although the Pentagon’s military contractors have known to be training and advising several brigades of neo-Nazis backed by Ukraine’s security forces in the Donbas region since 2014, Erik Prince, alongside top executives of leading private security firms providing military contractors to the US Department of Defense, personally visited Kyiv in early February following the Russian troop build-up and met with security officials of the Zelensky government, according to informed sources.

Before embarking on the clandestine Kyiv visit, Erik Prince consulted with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Director National Intelligence Avril Haines, with whom his relationship goes a long way back to early nineties after she purchased a bar in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, which had been seized in a drug raid. She turned the location into an exotic bookstore and café, offering “erotica readings,” among other licentious pastimes.

In his meetings with the high-ups in the US national security agencies, Erik Prince reportedly obtained a “gentleman’s promise,” though without any documentary assurances due to secretive nature of the Faustian pact, that he and his associates would not be held legally liable for the dirty work they do in Ukraine’s proxy war.

In fact, private military contractors in close co-ordination and consultation with covert operators from the CIA, special forces and Western intelligence agencies are not only training Ukraine’s largely conscript security forces and allied neo-Nazi militias in the use of over 60,000 anti-tank weapons and 25,000 anti-aircraft weapons collectively provided as military assistance to Ukraine by NATO countries but are also directing the whole defense strategy of Ukraine by taking active part in combat operations in some of the most hard fought battles against Russia’s security forces at Mariupol, Kharkiv and Donbas region in east Ukraine.

In a bombshell scoop, The Times reported on March 4 that defense contractors were recruiting former military veterans for covert operations in Ukraine for a whopping $2,000 a day: “The job is not without risk but, at almost $60,000 a month, the pay is good. Applicants must have at least five years of military experience in Eastern Europe, be skilled in reconnaissance, be able to conduct rescue operations with little to no support and know their way around Soviet-era weaponry.”

Russian media alleged last month that the United States security agencies had launched a large-scale recruitment program to send private military contractors to Ukraine, including professionally trained mercenaries of Academi, formerly Blackwater, Cubic and Dyn Corporation.

Russia’s Defense Ministry’s spokesman Igor Konashenkov warned that foreign mercenaries in Ukraine would not be considered prisoners of war if detained in line with international humanitarian law, rather they could expect criminal prosecution at best.

Speaking to CNN’s Dana Bash on April 3, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “NATO allies have supported Ukraine for many, many years,” adding that military aid has been “stepped up over the last weeks since the invasion.” The official clarified that “NATO allies like the United States, but also the United Kingdom and Canada and some others, have trained Ukrainian troops for years.”

According to Stoltenberg’s estimates, “tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops” had received such training, and were now “at the front fighting against invading Russian forces.” The secretary general went on to credit the Brussels-based alliance with the fact that the “Ukrainian armed forces are much bigger, much better equipped, much better trained and much better led now than ever before.”

In addition to a longstanding CIA program aimed at cultivating an anti-Russian insurgency in Ukraine, Canada’s Department of National Defense revealed on January 26, two days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that the Canadian Armed Forces trained “nearly 33,000 Ukrainian military and security personnel in a range of tactical and advanced military skills.” While The United Kingdom, via Operation Orbital, trained 22,000 Ukrainian fighters, as noted by NATO’s informed secretary general.

In an explosive scoop, Zach Dorfman reported for the Yahoo News on March 16: “As part of the Ukraine-based training program, CIA paramilitaries taught their Ukrainian counterparts sniper techniques; how to operate U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles and other equipment; how to evade digital tracking the Russians used to pinpoint the location of Ukrainian troops, which had left them vulnerable to attacks by artillery; how to use covert communications tools; and how to remain undetected in the war zone while also drawing out Russian and insurgent forces from their positions, among other skills, according to former officials.

“When CIA paramilitaries first traveled to eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s initial 2014 incursion, their brief was twofold. First, they were ordered to determine how the agency could best help train Ukrainian special operations personnel fight the Russian military forces, and their separatist allies, waging a grinding war against Ukrainian troops in the Donbas region. But the second part of the mission was to test the mettle of the Ukrainians themselves, according to former officials.”

Besides the CIA’s clandestine program for training Ukraine’s largely conscript military and allied neo-Nazi militias in east Ukraine and the US Special Forces program for training Ukraine’s security forces at Yavoriv Combat Training Center in the western part of the country bordering Poland that was hit by a barrage of 30 cruise missiles killing at least 35 militants on March 13, Dorfman claims in a separate January report that the CIA also ran a covert program for training Ukraine’s special forces at an undisclosed facility in the southern United States.

“The CIA is overseeing a secret intensive training program in the U.S. for elite Ukrainian special operations forces and other intelligence personnel”, according to five former intelligence and national security officials familiar with the initiative. The program, which started in 2015, is based at an undisclosed facility in the Southern U.S., according to some of those officials.

“While the covert program, run by paramilitaries working for the CIA’s Ground Branch — now officially known as Ground Department — was established by the Obama administration after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and expanded under the Trump administration, the Biden administration has further augmented it.”

By 2015, as part of this expanded anti-Russia effort, CIA Ground Branch paramilitaries also “started traveling to the front in eastern Ukraine” to advise and assist Ukraine’s security forces and allied neo-Nazi militias there. The multiweek, US-based CIA program included “training in firearms, camouflage techniques, land navigation, tactics like cover and move, intelligence and other areas.”

One person familiar with the program put it more bluntly. “The United States is training an insurgency,” said a former CIA official, adding that the program has taught the Ukrainians how “to kill Russians.” Going back decades, the CIA had provided limited training to Ukrainian intelligence units to try and shore up a US-allied Kyiv and undermine Russian influence, but cooperation ramped up after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 following the Maidan coup toppling Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a former CIA executive confided to Dorfman.


Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitics’ analyst who has a particular interest in the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy politics, and Petro-imperialism.