Whу are armed Americans operating in the trenches of Eastern Ukraine?
Staccato bursts of gunfire. Silence, darkness, beeping, flash, explosion. Dramatic music. Indistinct yelling. Volleys of artillery in the shadows. Jet fumes. Special forces operating in the dead of night. All put on display in the social media accounts of Forward Observations Group (FOG), which appear to be an uncontrollable oasis of military porn.
“I’m beginning to think you aren’t in Paris?” read a screenshot of a text message the Group shared recently via Instagram stories, where they also happen to be broadcasting their current journey throughout eastern Ukraine.
The conflict, often described as ‘frozen’, between government forces and separatists in the region, known as the Donbass, flared up in 2014, after violent street protests led to the Ukrainian government being overthrown. Kiev sent troops to parts of the Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which refused to recognize the new regime. The conflict had stalled by March 2015; however, sporadic fighting there has been occurring ever since.
In recent months, Western leaders have been speculating that Moscow, which has been accused of controlling the separatists, is planning an all-out offensive against its neighbor. The allegations are based on the purported buildup of Russian troops close to the border. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the accusations.
The US and UK began delivering ‘lethal aid’ to Ukraine last week in an effort to thwart supposed Russian aggression. Almost 100 tons of “lethal aid,” including ammunition intended for “the front line defenders of Ukraine,” were delivered on January 22, the US Embassy in Kiev said.
Given the circumstances, a string of photos from Donbass showing the group of Americans in combat gear holding firearms could not have gone unnoticed. Forward Observations, which apparently consists mostly of former American servicemen, came into the spotlight after Russian military-related social media communities started discussing their e-bravado over being in the conflict zone.
Men with stars and stripes shared pictures of themselves, faces blurred, as they arrived in Severodonetsk. This is where the 53rd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces is deployed. It apparently includes ex-fighters from the currently nonexistent infamous volunteer Aidar Battalion, which was staffed by right-wing individuals often described as ‘neo-Nazi’ by the media.
“…the replenishment of Ukrainian trenches with American suicide bombers. But the funniest thing is, the Americans themselves are filming all this along with Ukrainian soldiers, and then they themselves are uploading it to the internet. It’s either one or the other. Either the Americans treat their presence at Ukrainian positions as a visit to the zoo, or they work for the GRU,” Joker DNR Telegram channel, which is referred to as a ‘Ukrainian military insider’ by the media, wrote.
Others were quick to label the soldiers ‘mercenaries’. The media also picked up on the claims, with the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, commenting on the matter by saying that Western ‘mercenaries’ are ‘present’ in the war-torn Donbass region, although the intelligence is very ‘cautious’ and nothing has been declared ‘official’. However, sharing location data up to exact geo coordinates for everyone to see might be a little too out of character for private military contractors.
What is Forward Observations Group?
The website of Forward Observations Group provides zero information on who they are or what they do. At the time of writing, the only data the website contained was a description of a ‘trauma pouch’, available for purchase at $85.
Although determined by some Google search results as a ‘defense company’ that provides ‘security consulting and tactical training’, when asked by RT about their self-identification, Forward Observations responded by saying, “We sell merchandise and have published 3 coffee table books.” Which they have.
That information alone makes it seem like they could well be preparing the Ukrainian armed forces for a fashion week in Kiev, or providing them with training on how to be top-notch Instagram influencers. Derrick Bales, the group’s founder, made headlines last year exactly under that label. ‘Ex-US Soldier Turned Influencer Criticized for Ukraine War Trip With Neo-Nazi’, VICE World News reported at the time. One of the pictures Bales posted then was captioned “up to some s**t in Ukraine,” and another picture featured the US citizen brandishing an assault rifle.
His subscribers lashed out at him after noticing that some of the photos tagged Vadim Lapaev, alias ‘Balak’, who US-government funded Bellingcat in 2018 described as a radical neo-Nazi who’d served with the ultranationalist Azov Battalion. Speaking to VICE, however, Bales insisted that he’d never taken part in combat while in Ukraine.
A Western geopolitics Telegram news channel with close ties to the military community and security specialists, /CIG/ Telegram | Counter Intelligence Global, has doubled down on the ‘Instagram influencers’ label, adding that the Group has “a niche marketing and advertising strategy centered around war.” CIG’s source familiar with the matter has further described them as ‘vet bros’ “living their dream.”
The group seems to also be connected to GBRS, for whom they have produced some promotional materials, available on YouTube. The GBRS Group identifies itself as a “veteran-owned, tier 1 training and services organization relentlessly committed to passing on critical skills and real-world experiences to end-users in military, federal, state and local special operations units.” They mainly provide tactical training, such as firearms manipulation, reduced signature operations, physical security assessment, and more.
“FOG is primarily hypebeast idiots who exist to extract money from larpers [live action role play, mock term for people who buy military gear or play airsoft with little to no real ties to the military – editor’s note] who buy patches and s**t. FOG contributors themselves are a mix of retired SF [SOF, special operations forces – editor’s note], larpers and cops,” another security specialist source said.
At RT’s request, an anonymous source from the security consulting group described FOG as “a very loose group” which shares “more or less fan content,” while “the guys who are actually involved come and go and kind of do their own things.”
Another source in the paramilitary community confirmed that FOG consists of Army rangers, SOFs, CAGs (Combat Applications Group, Airborne, Delta force) and SEALs. “They [bring] all kind of larp together in a few areas in the US, a lot of their meets happen in Vegas. They have a lot of industry connections as well as connections to those active in the military,” he said.
The books published by the group support the image. They include military photography, mainly SOF-related, as well as guest-written combat diaries, advice for operators, essays, interviews, and preaching on how to live life.“Sometimes I daydream about dying a Warrior’s death. A glorious death. In combat, going down in a blaze of gunfire and glory. Fighting with my Brother’s,” an author mentioned as Snake Plissken in one of the books wrote.
“Be like us. Focus that intensity on being the hardest motherf**ker on the face of the planet. Don’t take no for an answer, don’t second guess your decisions, and always come-in first place. If you want the glitz and glamour, be prepared for the war that comes with it. Properly prepare yourself, and you’ll enjoy the most rewarding experience a U.S. Citizen could ask for,” the Group writes. Some parts of the books bring up controversial topics, such as females in the special forces or mental health issues, which is usually considered to be off limits in the community.
One of the books also includes an anonymous interview about US special forces operations in Syria. It mentions an “interaction” with “the Russians.” “They [the Russians – editor’s note] “accidentally” launched the Russian equivalent of a Tomahawk missile over our patrol. Came way too close to us... At least it would’ve been quick.”
What are FOG doing in Ukraine?
Apart from documenting every step of their journey and occasional commentary on the level of Ukrane’s military training, the Group has also announced its plans to reveal Russia’s ‘covert’ actions in the region.
“We’ve traveled to the most forward positions of the front lines, walked the trenches ourselves at one point only 300m from Russian-backed separatists. We got to speak to soldiers and commanders from a multitude of units, conducting a myriad of different missions in the defense of Ukraine,” FOG said as it announced an upcoming YouTube video upload, discussing the possible scenario of an alleged Russian invasion.
“Their presence in Ukraine is primarily to look cool and push their brand on the backs of Ukranians dying,” a source told CIG, elaborating on the Group’s activities in the region. “Your average FOG dude might give light tips to infantry in Ukraine but nowhere the amount they need”.
“The guys in Ukraine are sort of like tourists, their version of when an Instagram model goes to some island for a few days, “Yes, it is fun”, but it’s mainly to take pictures and sell their image,” another paramilitary source confirmed at RT’s request.
More foreigners in the conflict zone
During a meeting in Moscow last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that US private military companies are preparing a “provocation using unknown chemical components,” with their troops being stationed in the Donetsk region.
“We have identified the presence of over 120 members of U.S. mercenary groups in the cities of Avdiivka and Krasny Liman to commit provocations… Tanks filled with unidentified chemical components were delivered to the cities… to commit provocations,” Shoigu said, as quoted by TASS news agency. Moscow did not provide any evidence to back these claims.
Multiple sources within Western private military companies have insisted that there are no American mercenaries in the Ukraine, because the Ukrainians “just can’t pay.” “To get even a small team of a big American company out here for a year would unironically cost more than Ukrainian’s whole defense budget,” a private military contractor told RT. The Ukrainian yearly defense budget is $6 billion. “In a contract that has less than a hundred low speed people on it, the contract is worth $15 billion a year.”
“It’s a losing thing for anyone involved, no one wants to touch this war with a thousand foot pole for a myriad of financial and legal reasons,” another added.
According to him, people who are often mistaken for mercenaries are usually unpaid volunteers with little to no relevant experience. “Mercs [mercenaries – editor’s note] could have won this war for Ukraine years ago,” he said.
According to sources from the paramilitary, most Western mercenaries, due to the legal issues and economic disparity, would need hundreds of millions of dollars to even consider fighting there. “For individuals without a group it’s basically impossible, which is a big issue, groups get hit with felonies and single men can’t do the work, if you don’t have a group you just bounce around between groups until you end up without work and untouchable,” a private military contractor said.
On top of that, another source claimed that “Ukrainians also think they’re better than the West and don’t need us.” “The Ukrainians told us they didn't want or need any training because after 6 months of fighting Russia they knew more than we ever could, and maintained it to their grave,” he said, describing his experience of working with ukrainian forces as a foreigner.
Volunteers, according to military consultants, should be considered soldiers, not only foreigners. Most volunteers are not allowed to teach. Ukraine for quite some time has been holding on to the reputation of “a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign fighters from all over the world,” as described by the Soufan Center non-profit.
The reason for this is rooted in the controversy surrounding the Ukrainian Azov Regiment (formerly known as the Azov Battalion), which is based in Mariupol and integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine. It has attracted many foreign volunteers who sympathized with its ultra-right ideas.
“Azov lost tens of millions in US aid and got raped by the Ukrainian government primarily because they associated with like a half dozen Western nazis who provided nothing of value. It was a huge loss, and any group that has let in westerners has experienced it,” a security consultant told RT.
At the same time, the Ukrainians had gone abroad to take military courses. In 2018, it emerged that the European Security Academy (ESA), a company that offers advanced training programs for security forces, law enforcement, and the military, has since 2016 provided comprehensive training designed to master combat skills for Azov.
The media revealed that a large group from Ukraine, made up at least in part of Azov veterans, as well as likely active members of the movement and other far-right activists, underwent a training course reminiscent of special forces training at an ESA training center in Poland. “I know a few people who went to that school, it’s really popular with wannabes trying to get into security without training or experience in the EU” a paramilitary source told RT.
“Have Azov dudes and other Ukrainians gone abroad to take s**tty courses? Definitely. Has a real contracting company come here to train them like real soldiers, for example, what we did in the Middle East? No,” another said.
The US is infamous for carrying out pro-insurgency paramilitary operations as covert operations with the goal of plausible deniability led by their Central Intelligence Agency, as seen in the Middle East. In January, Yahoo News published a piece claiming that the CIA is overseeing a secret intensive training program in the US for Ukrainian SOFs.
The program allegedly started in 2015. It has involved “very specific training on skills that would enhance” the Ukrainians’ “ability to push back against the Russians,” the former senior intelligence official told Yahoo News. On top of that, a source familiar with the program said, “the United States is training an insurgency,” adding that the program has taught Ukrainians how “to kill Russians.”
However, Tammy Thorp, a CIA spokesperson, said, “suggestions that we have trained an armed insurgency in Ukraine are simply false.”
By Sasha Nagiba, RT editor