The Bear and the Eagle: Russian and American Special Operators

By Clay Moore

The first few months of the American invasion of Taliban-held Afghanistan in October 2001 marked the emergence of an effective amalgam of technological intelligence, special-forces-led local militias, and precision airpower.  The results were decisive and powerful.  Within three months, the Afghan army had been largely decimated and the Taliban regime thoroughly removed from power in Kabul.  Thirteen years later, pro-western protesters and nationalists aided in the ouster of Ukrainian president Yanukovich, leading to a costly civil war and the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula.  Russian special operations forces have utilized a strategy of deniability, covert financial and political support for separatists, and even overt, operational-level actions to not only alter European borders, but also to cultivate a serious challenge to the post-cold war European order.

This article seeks to examine the similarities and differences between the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and the Russian intervention in Ukraine in February 2013.  In this product, it will be argued that the decisions made in the operational level of the US invasion of Afghanistan are not only more adaptable to a wider variety of combat environments, but also garner more effective results than Russian special operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  It is important to point out the differences of the perceived ultimate goals of the two combat actions as well as to highlight the similarities in tactics and the relationship between intelligence and combat operators.  Accordingly, the major differences that surround the combat environments, both political and geographic, will be discussed.

In order to properly compare the two combat actions, both the operational and overall strategic goals must be clearly explored.  In response to the intelligence that Osama Bin Laden was a guest Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime in Afghanistan, American intelligence operatives and special operations forces began coordinating with the Northern Alliance opposition fighters to re-invigorate their fight against the Taliban.  The strategic goals were simple for the United States, capture/kill Bin Laden and accordingly remove the Taliban regime, as well as deny Afghanistan as a breeding ground for future terrorist training camps.  In response to the fall from power of the Party of Regions and subsequent instability in Ukraine, Russian goals existed in a more complicated political environment than U.S. goals at the time, and accordingly characterized more nuance and subjectivity.  Russian goals were to monitor the political situation in Ukraine up to the ouster, seize Crimea to secure Sevastopol for the Black Sea Fleet, protect/assist pro-Russia separatists in the Party of Regions-aligned districts, and to maintain what semblance of leverage and control that was possible over the new government of Ukraine.

The diversity of goals between the two campaigns hides a series of similarities that are noteworthy.  The Afghan model that came out of the U.S. invasion consisted of several parts according to Andres, Wills and Griffith.  First, enemy communications are disrupted using U.S. airpower.  The special operations forces teams then coordinate with indigenous forces to goad the enemy to gather in large formations, where precision airpower is brought to bear in order to eliminate vast swaths of the enemy.  Notwithstanding the ability to bring millions of dollars of air power down on one’s opponents, the relatively few-in-number U.S. operators relied upon local forces to utilize their numbers to serve as the bulwark to hold the enemy in advantageous locations for the steel rain.  This reliance continued all the way up to the November attack on the mountain fortress of Tora Bora, where the limitations of this strategy surfaced.  Local forces, swept up in the rapid advance and seizure of Jalalabad, were not as eager as their American allies to attack the notorious fortifications at Tora Bora.  Many fighters were ignorant or apathetic about the American’s objectives regarding the destruction of al Qaeda leadership and forces.  Reports indicated that they were much more interested in carving up individual fiefdoms and positioning their forces to take advantage of the power vacuum of the new Afghanistan. (For a great read on American Special Forces in Afghanistan, see “Winning with Allies” in the journal International Security by Richard Andres et al)

Operating in Crimea and East Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the ouster, Russian proxies and intelligence operatives were largely limited to coordinating the return eastward of not only Yanukovich himself, but members of his security services as well.  As already-strong pro-Russia sentiment amongst the populace of the east continued to grow in appeal, due in large part to a Russian media campaign highlighting a hastily-passed Rada vote which lowered the status of the Russian language, local paramilitary groups sprung up and began taking over government buildings throughout various cities and villages of the regions.  As time progressed, these paramilitary groups, many of which were made up entirely of Russian citizens and led by individuals linked to Russian security services, solidified their hold over various fiefdoms in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Crimea – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Through direct Russian operators in the region, or through local talent, discontent and separatism continued to flourish into a full-blown civil war that continues to this day.  The reliance on local criminal syndicates, former Yanukovich loyalists and economically-discontented youths by Russian special operations forces did posit various problems as well.  In June 2014, Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who rose to prominence amongst the separatist groups, was challenged by leaders of the Vostok Battalion, a quasi-official militant group with ties to Russian security services, for not accommodating requests for more authority by local militant groups.   This shows how conducting special operations with loose hands using local proxies can present issues of combating lines of authority, coordination, command and control.

The question of morale and motivation can be examined when viewing local-special operation forces relationships.  Much of the motivation for the local Afghan warlords who worked with U.S. forces was based entirely on American cash and the potential for an advantageous position over their contemporaries after the Taliban was deposed.  Russian forces faced a situation of managing locals who exhibited similar desires, albeit in a reactive way, after the deposing of Yanukovich.  Eastern Ukraine is largely a Russia-friendly environment to manage locals in, as the region has natural eastern leanings with many individuals having economic and familial ties to Russia.  Additionally, the political structure in the region facilitated cooperation with Moscow due to oligarch loyalties and decades of cross-border collaboration.  Despite these advantages, Russian forces had to manage political infighting and turf-building before and after the official establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The close working relationship between intelligence and special operations forces was invaluable for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  Special operations forces needed the area knowledge and language ability, as well as the signals intelligence of battlefield activity, in order to ensure that all the pieces came together and the bombs fell on the correct targets. (For more on the tactical side, check out David Tucker’s and Chris Lamb’s book, United States Special Operations Forces)   Largely, they succeeded in integrating the pieces of intelligence with concrete military action.  In Ukraine, more so on the Crimean peninsula, Russian special operations forces relied on a thoroughly-infiltrated Ukrainian security apparatus for information about not only human and physical military targets, but civilian political targets as well.  In late February 2014, armed gunmen, bearing no insignia, (now known to be Russian special forces operators) seized the main entrance to Sevastopol.  Over the following days, similar forces captured the Sevastopol international airport, towns and transit routes; as well as surrounded Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula.  The speed and efficiency of the operation further proves the friendly environment Russian forces were maneuvering in, as well as speaks to the tight command and control structure that allowed coordination with intelligence sources to rapidly impact operational actions.

There are a few more differences that need to be elaborated on when comparing the two operations.  The objectives and operating areas of U.S. and Russian forces were very different.  U.S. operational objectives largely focused on eliminating Taliban forces and working towards Kabul to enable friendly local forces to gain control over the country.  The southern portion of the country was a largely hostile environment to operate in for both northern alliance fighters as well as for U.S. forces due to Pashtun tribal affiliations.  Russian operators faced a more nuanced battlefield that was much more amiable and accommodating towards Russian forces’ objectives which largely focused on reactively defending regional interests in Russia’s near abroad.  With the exception of Crimea, which was a more clear-cut operation, Russian forces largely relied upon existing proxies and established connections to “manage” the early separatist movement.  This difference is noteworthy because it establishes the arguably simpler objectives that U.S. special operations forces had to face, but in an incredibly hostile and complex environment that was located in a significantly alien part of the world.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, a large difference is the political environment in which the two operations took place in.  Following the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan was viewed by the vast majority of the world as a relatively just military action.  Contrast this to the ongoing situation in Ukraine where Russian involvement is continuing to be denied despite reports of volunteer soldiers and a media blackout over repatriated remains.  Moscow determined that the plausible deniability aspect of Russian involvement in Ukraine was a priority early on in the conflict, and largely fell in line with the Soviet military encyclopedia’s definition of Maskirovka, which calls for a tactical to strategic-level campaign of deception over all aspects of a given military action’s methods and purpose. (For an excellent and thorough view of Maskirovka as a tool for political deception, see William Hutchinson’s The Influence of Maskirovka on Contemporary Western Deception Theory and Practice)    It remains to be seen how the ramifications of this strategy in Ukraine will impact the future of Russian military operations.

The U.S. special operations forces’ framework of utilizing local allies to accomplish limited goals exhibits more adaptability and functionality in a variety of potential environments than Russian limited actions in Ukraine.  American goals in the invasion of Afghanistan were relatively clear-cut and exhibited a pro-active response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Russia’s model in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea does serve its purpose with effect; however it’s unlikely to be as effective anywhere outside of the Russian near-abroad.  It relies on a mishmash of local sentiments (perceived or fabricated) and dedicated proxies to camouflage a planned operation.  For expeditionary purposes, the U.S. Afghan-invasion model presents the superior and more adaptable approach to 21st century warfare; utilizing direct objectives and clear political cover.


Clay's picClay Moore is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  He focuses on Russian and Eastern European economics and security.  Questions?  Comments?  Opportunities?  Feel free to email him at


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