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Ukrainian snipers hunting top enemy commanders are exploiting one of the Russian military's biggest vulnerabilities

A view from the viewfinder of a Ukrainian sniper rifle at a shooting range amid Russia and Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 09, 2023.
A view from the viewfinder of a Ukrainian sniper rifle at a shooting range amid Russia and Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 09, 2023.Ignacio Marin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Ukrainian snipers told The Wall Street Journal they are hunting down high-profile Russian targets.

  • They reportedly include senior officers and commanders.

  • The approach exploits a vulnerability in the Russian command-and-control structure for its military.

Ukrainian snipers hunting high-profile Russian targets like senior Russian officers are exploiting a longstanding vulnerability in the Russian armed forces.

A handful of Ukrainian snipers, members of a front-line unit that calls itself the "Devils and Angels," recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal about their mission, revealing that they are tasked with taking out senior commanders, key members of crews for artillery and other weapons, and other top targets.

Russian officers can be easily identified, even by their boots, the Journal reported, and as one military expert told the paper, killing a unit leader in the Russian army can "discombobulate" that unit and throw any attack plan into "disarray."

Russia's top-down, officer-centric command structure is one that not only draws senior officers to vulnerable positions along the front lines but also leaves Russian forces less flexible at the tactical level, and when that structure is crumpled by external interference, such as a bullet fired by a sniper, it can confuse and paralyze the decision-making process.

The Ukrainian armed forces previously relied on the same model but has adapted under Western guidance, making it a less rigid force. The Pentagon and senior US military officials have repeatedly highlighted the negative impact of the Russian approach on its operations in Ukraine while praising the evolution of Ukraine's military as a fighting force.

To be sure, a well placed sniper's bullet can also cause disarray in US ranks but it's likely to be more temporary as subordinate officers and non-commissioned officers take charge, as they are trained to do.

A Department of Defense press report from February noted that before Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, "the Ukrainian military was still very 'officer-centric' and not responsive or agile. If the officer went down, the unit had no idea what to do."

Slavian, a former Russian special forces sergeant who now fights for Ukraine after living in the country for a decade with his Ukrainian wife, gestures towards Russian positions around 150 metres away on October 27, 2022 in Zaporizhzhia oblast, Ukraine.
Slavian, a former Russian special forces sergeant who now fights for Ukraine after living in the country for a decade with his Ukrainian wife, gestures towards Russian positions around 150 metres away on October 27, 2022 in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Ukraine.Carl Court/Getty Images

But now, Ukraine has a well-trained noncommissioned officer corps that can be trusted to make decisions in the moment while Russia continues to rely heavily on senior officers for both strategic and tactical decisions, rather than entrusting the latter to NCOs or junior enlisted officers.

"Compare that to what the Russians are doing," the report explained. "The Russians still use conscription. They stint on training. The Russian military is still officer centric. They use tactics that haven't changed since World War II."

That report noted the comments of a US senior enlisted advisor who argued Ukraine has a "decisive advantage" in this regard and that it is "the human dynamic that is actually tipping the scales on victory."

US Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  said in May congressional testimony that "the Russians are practicing a top-down, very, very top-heavy directive in nature–sort of, settled orders coming from the top," adding that this is "not necessarily the best thing to do in a dynamic battlefield."

Over the course of the war, Russia has lost a number of senior Russian commanders and generals who directed operations from the front line. In a high-profile loss just days into the war, for example, Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky, a former commander of Russia's 7th Airborne Division, was killed by a sniper.

Other senior Russian commanders and officers have been killed near the front lines in Ukraine in missile strikes and by unspecified enemy fire.

A Ukrainian sniper with the 28th Brigade holds the barrel of his firearm as he moves to a fighting position facing Russian troops from a frontline trench on March 05, 2023 outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian sniper with the 28th Brigade holds the barrel of his firearm as he moves to a fighting position facing Russian troops from a front-line trench on March 05, 2023 outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine.John Moore/Getty Images

Although they have a common enemy, not all Ukrainian sniper teams are engaged in the same mission. While the unit the Journal spoke with reportedly hunts down high-value targets, others purportedly carry out different tasks.

For instance, an elite sniper unit with the SBU, Ukraine's security services, recently told CNN it's mission is "sniper terror."

A member of that unit said they shoot any enemy soldier they see, indicating the aim is to inflict psychological damage on the Russians. This mission, he said, "demoralizes them and kills their will." Other units have been doing the same elsewhere. Russian snipers, likewise, carry out similar missions and are considered quite formidable.

Not all sniper activity is long-range kill shots though. Other activities like reconnaissance fall within the traditional sniper mission set and can also take priority. Snipers who recently talked to the Kyiv Post, for instance, said they prefer to relay battlefield information to an artillery or mortar unit rather than risk exposing their position by taking a shot.

Read the original article on Business Insider