As Russia’s war in Ukraine nears the three-month mark, Moscow has failed to achieve any of its primary objectives. Russian forces have suffered humiliating defeats and taken high casualties and are now focusing their efforts on a much smaller part of eastern Ukraine.
Since Russia’s invasion began on February 24, the US and other countries have sent billions in military, economic, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Foreigners have also raced to Ukraine to help the Ukrainian military. One of the most notable of these efforts is that of the Mozart Group, which is composed mainly of special-operations veterans and is led by Andy Milburn, who retired in 2019 after 31 years in the US Marine Corps.
Milburn was a Marine Raider who served as the deputy commander of US Special Operations Command Central and was the first Marine to lead a special-operations task force in the fight against the ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Mozart Group members are already on the ground in Ukraine and the group is looking for additional members and funds to support its operations there. Mozart Group is in Ukraine for two main reasons: to increase the Ukrainian military’s capability and sustainable capacity in a manner consistent with US foreign policy and to protect vulnerable civilians.
It’s important to highlight that Mozart Group members aren’t directly involved in the fighting — they’ve seen action, but only in self-defense — and their actions in Ukraine fully comply with the US Neutrality Act, which prohibits Americans from joining foreign militaries or launching their own wars against countries the US isn’t at war with.
In a written interview, Milburn told Insider what he’s seen in Ukraine, how his group is training Ukrainians, and how the war there compares to his experiences in the US military.
When you arrived in Ukraine, what kind of skills and capabilities were the Ukrainian forces you encountered in need of?
They needed basic skills, from weapons-handling to zeroing their weapons and marksmanship to squad movement.
Although many had seen combat already, it was very much a “come-as-you-are party,” with the Territorial Defense and even [Ukrainian special-operations force] units rushing personnel to the fight with little to no training.
Medical training has always been critically important. They have a medic-to-soldier ration and their basic medical skills are below those of their British and US counterparts.
As the fighting has gone on, has there been a change in the Ukrainians’ needs and/or the training you’ve been able to provide them?
There has been no real change in their needs because attrition levels mean that they are constantly dealing with a significant number of new soldiers. Also the skills that we teach are perishable — and you don’t always get to practice them on the line.
We have added breadth and depth to our training, however, since we now have a little more time and have brought in specialists to teach drones and [anti-tank guided missiles].
In areas where Ukrainians have fended off the Russian offensive, what do you think has allowed them to be successful?
Morale and resolve have been key components of success — but the terrain has been an important factor in enabling Ukrainian forces to hold their ground.
In the north and urban regions, the Russian proclivity to remain on the roads has played against them. Outside the cities in the north, the ground is either thickly wooded or swampy, and this has allowed the defenders to infiltrate easily through Russian lines to strike armored columns from the flank.
What’s your assessment of the Russian military’s performance so far? Is there anything it did well, and to what would you attribute its struggles?
Russian units here have proven to be singularly unimpressive. Almost without exception, they are poorly trained, ill-disciplined, and lack cohesion. Their tactics belong to a bygone era — little understanding of combined arms and no infantry integration with their armored attacks.
Their equipment is also poor — the T-72 [tanks] and BRDM [armored personnel carriers] are prone to erupt into flames upon impact from any high-explosive missile — and many of them appear to be wearing Soviet-era uniforms.
After the Russian Army’s poor showing 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 is able to escape military service, leaving what one Ukrainian who lived in Russian for 20 years called the dregs of society to fill the ranks of its army.
How does the fighting in Ukraine compare to the combat you experienced in the US military? In your mind, is the US military prepared for the kind of war being fought in Ukraine?
It really doesn’t compare. In the US military there is a tendency to overplay combat experience — and of course that term in itself is relative.
I would argue that few in the US military have experienced the intensity of combat experienced by our Ukrainian counterparts. Perhaps the exception for me was the battle of Fallujah, but that is more because of my own childlike distaste for dark, closed spaces harboring people with ill-intent [that] frightened me more than anything that happened in the open.
Shouldering an anti-tank weapon against a column of T-72s knowing that you are well within range of the enemy’s weapons or sitting in the basement of a half-demolished house while Russian artillery pounds the ground above you waiting for the first Russian foot soldier to come down the steps so that you can kill him are experiences that few of us in the West have shared.
And yet, the Ukrainians are mostly humble enough to realize that experiences like that don’t by themselves make proficient soldiers. Many of the Ukrainian infantry thrown into the defense of Kyiv had to learn on the job.
I spoke to one student who struggled to work the safety catch on his AK-47 (a pesky defect with that particular weapon), until his platoon commander simply handed him a bag of grenades and told him to use those instead. “So much easier!” exclaimed the novice soldier with a relief that was not intended to be ironic.
The US military is ill-prepared for other reasons too — and these are cultural. The Ukrainian soldier understands the prominence of the “kill chain” in modern warfare, the need to establish sensing and shooting stand-off with your adversary, in a way that his US counterpart does not.
What, if anything, about the war do you think has been overlooked or misconstrued in Western reporting on it?
I think that the US needs to embrace the probability of Ukrainian victory — and stop shuffle-stepping its support because of an exaggerated fear of escalation.
US policy in this sense is incoherent — we are either providing lethal aid or not. That is the red line, not whether we have US contractors in country to oversee the distribution of logistics according to priorities or whether we provide the Ukrainians with long-range strike drones, as the Turks have done.
Is the Mozart Group making a difference downrange?
It’s really hard for me to say with certainty that we are — how does one prove such a thing? I can say that our efforts, although limited in scope, are having an intangible effect. Our Ukrainian partners appear to be delighted and possibly 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 Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
May 17, 2022