Countries around the world have rushed to help Ukraine since the Russian attack began on February 24.
Veterans of the armies of these countries have also traveled to Ukraine to help train Ukrainian forces.
Andy Milburn, a 31-year veteran of the US Marine Corps, is in Ukraine to lead one of those training efforts.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine nears the three-month mark, Moscow has failed to achieve any of its main goals. Russian forces have suffered humiliating defeats and suffered many casualties and are now focusing their efforts on a much smaller part of eastern Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion began on February 24, the United States and other countries have sent billions in military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Foreigners also rushed to Ukraine to help the Ukrainian army. One of the most notable of these efforts is that of the band Mozart, made up mostly of special ops veterans and led by Andy Milburn, who retired in 2019 after 31 years in the US Marine Corps.
Milburn was a Marine Raider who served as Deputy Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Central and was the first Marine to lead a special operations task force in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Mozart Group members are already on the ground in Ukraine and the group is seeking additional members and funding to support its operations there. Mozart Group is in Ukraine for two main reasons: to increase the capacity of the Ukrainian military and its sustainable capability in a manner consistent with US foreign policy and to protect vulnerable civilians.
It is important to stress that the members of the Mozart group are not directly involved in the fighting – they saw the action, but only in self-defense – and their actions in Ukraine fully comply with US neutrality law. , which prohibits Americans from joining foreign armies. or start their own wars against countries with which the United States is not at war.
In a written interview, Milburn told Insider what he saw in Ukraine, how his group trains Ukrainians, and how the war there compares to his experiences in the U.S. military.
When you arrived in Ukraine, what kind of skills and capabilities did the Ukrainian forces you met need?
They needed basic skills, from weapon handling to zeroing their guns and marksmanship to squad movement.
Although many have seen combat, it was more of a “come as you are” party, with Territorial Defense and even [Ukrainian special-operations force] units rushing personnel into combat with little or no training.
Medical training has always been of crucial importance. They have a medic-to-soldier ration and their basic medical skills are lower than their British and American counterparts.
As the fighting progressed, were there any changes in the needs of the Ukrainians and/or the training that you were able to provide them?
There has been no real change in their requirements as attrition levels mean they are constantly dealing with a significant number of new soldiers. Plus, the skills we teach are perishable – and you can’t always practice them on the line.
However, we have broadened and deepened our training, since we now have a little more time and have brought in specialists to teach drones and [anti-tank guided missiles].
In the areas where the Ukrainians repelled the Russian offensive, what do you think enabled them to succeed?
Morale and determination were key to success, but terrain was an important factor in enabling Ukrainian forces to hold their ground.
In the north and in urban areas, Russians’ propensity to stay on the roads worked against them. Outside the northern towns, the ground is either densely forested or swampy, which allowed the defenders to easily infiltrate through the Russian lines to hit the armored columns from the flank.
What is your assessment of the performance of the Russian army so far? Was there anything he did well, and what would you attribute his difficulties to?
The Russian units here proved singularly unimpressive. Almost without exception, they are poorly trained, undisciplined and lack cohesion. Their tactics are from a bygone era – little understanding of combined arms and no infantry integration with their armored attacks.
Their equipment is also mediocre – the T-72 [tanks] and BRDM [armored personnel carriers] are susceptible to igniting on impact from any high-explosive missile – and many of them appear to be wearing Soviet-era uniforms.
After the poor performance of the Russian military in Georgia in 2008, Putin announced a series of supposedly sweeping reforms – but these, I am told, succumbed to corruption.
Anyone with education, influence or money can escape military service, leaving what one Ukrainian who lived in Russia for 20 years called the scum of society to fill the ranks of his army.
How does the fighting in Ukraine compare to the fighting you experienced in the US military? In your mind, is the US military prepared for the kind of war being fought in Ukraine?
It’s really not comparable. In the US military there is a tendency to exaggerate combat experience – and of course that term itself is relative.
I would say that few American servicemen have experienced the intensity of combat experienced by our Ukrainian counterparts. Perhaps the exception for me was the Battle of Fallujah, but that’s more because of my own childish distaste for dark, enclosed spaces harboring ill-intentioned people. [that] scared me more than anything that happened in broad daylight.
Shouldering an anti-tank weapon against a column of T-72s knowing you’re well within range of enemy weapons or sitting in the basement of a half-demolished house while Russian artillery pound the ground above you waiting for the first Russian infantryman to come down the steps so that we can kill him are experiences that few of us in the West have shared.
And yet, most Ukrainians are humble enough to realize that such experiences alone do not make competent soldiers. Many Ukrainian infantrymen thrown into the defense of kyiv had to learn on the job.
I spoke to a student who was having trouble getting the safety lock on his AK-47 to work (an annoying flaw with this particular weapon), until his platoon commander simply handed him a bag of grenades and tell him to use them instead. “So much easier!” exclaimed the novice soldier with a relief that was not meant to be ironic.
The US military is ill-prepared for other reasons as well – and those are cultural. The Ukrainian soldier understands the importance of the “kill chain” in modern warfare, the need to establish a sense and fire stalemate with your adversary, in a way that his American counterpart does not.
What, if anything, do you think about the war has been overlooked or misinterpreted in Western reporting on it?
I think the United States needs to embrace the likelihood of a Ukrainian victory – and stop altering its support due to an exaggerated fear of escalation.
US policy along these lines is inconsistent – whether or not we provide lethal aid. It’s the red line, not whether we have US contractors in the country to oversee the distribution of logistics based on priorities or whether we supply the Ukrainians with long-range strike drones, as the Turks.
Does the Mozart Group make a difference downstream?
It’s really hard for me to say for sure that we are — how do you prove such a thing? I can say that our efforts, although limited in scope, have an intangible effect. Our Ukrainian partners seem delighted and perhaps comforted to have us here, even though we do not represent the US government.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
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