His forearms bulged with the effort of holding onto the straining leash of a slobbering dog. The creature’s muffled grunts could be felt as much as heard – like the growls of a souped-up truck.
Which was fitting, given that his owner’s call sign is Brabus – after the German firm specializing in bulking out luxury vehicles with engineering testosterone.
“Come,” Brabus grunted as he was towed back into a roadside building for our clandestine meeting with some of his special operations team.
They’re part of a shadowy tapestry of units falling under various Ukrainian intelligence organizations. They operate in the crepuscular landscapes in the war against Russian occupation on and beyond the front lines.
Other groups run by Ukrainian intelligence include the Russian Volunteer Force and Freedom for Russia Legion, formed of Russian citizens fighting to rid their homelands of President Vladimir Putin, which are currently carrying out raids inside Russia from Ukraine.
But Brabus and his group are entirely homegrown. Former soldiers with specialist skills, they coalesced around an ex-officer from the Ukrainian forces in the first days of Russia’s invasion last year
“At the beginning of the war there was a big role for small groups who could fight covertly against the Russians. Because Kyiv region, Chernihiv region, Sumy region are forested areas. So, the role of small groups was important and grew fast,” said Brabus’ boss from inside a camouflage balaclava.
In those early days and weeks, small bands of men in pickups, armed with anti-tank rockets like NATO-supplied NLAW and Javelins, ambushed, trapped, and picked off invading Russian columns down main arteries running in from the north.
Bold, fast-moving and insanely brave, they preyed on Russia’s military Leviathan – eventually, north of Kyiv and Sumy, stopping the invasion in its tracks.
While they were scratched together into “reconnaissance units” back then, some have since been absorbed into the formal army structures.
But all have clung to the freewheeling, partisan-style of warfare with higher risks but greater autonomy.