Elite Ukrainian army snipers tell Kyiv Post about their war job in an exclusive interview. It’s far better not to be seen and let someone else do the shooting, they said.
August 3, 2023
The climactic battle of any sniper movie worth its salt – the mano-a-mano duel of deadly marksmen trading impossibly precise rifle shots – in the real war in Ukraine, “basically, never takes place,” three active-duty Ukrainian army snipers told Kyiv Post.
“And if it does, it means at least one of the snipers made a very serious mistake,” said Volodymyr “Bond” Petrenko* during a recent interview in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. “The last thing a sniper wants to do in this war is expose his position.”“I would say that for every ten missions we go out on, we maybe actually take a shot once,” said Volodymyr “Atom” Harbovsky*. “We get all kinds of missions and we work with all kinds of units. Taking out an enemy soldier is pretty much never the priority… it’s more an opportunity one takes advantage of, if it is presented.
”Petrenko, Harbovsky and Maksym “Number Eight” Federchuk* have, for more than a year, fought and survived at the bleeding edge of modern military sniping. By many measures, they are (along with their Russian counterparts) the world’s most combat-experienced and competent snipers.
No military sniper serving in any NATO national army, or anywhere else for that matter, has experienced anything even close to the deadly, blood-and-dirt tactical lessons taught professional shooters on the battlefields of Ukraine, for now, 17 months and counting.
“The keys to our work are preparation and patience,” Federchuk said. “To do your job you need to stay alive, and to do that in this war you have to understand how much danger there is out there.”
At the outset of the Russian invasion, the three men – all Kyiv area residents – were civilians. Petrenko ran a retail business, Harbovsky was an auto parts trader, and Federchuk owned a shop selling firearms and camping gear.
They were, like many residents of the Ukrainian capital, reasonably successful in business and able to amass some disposable income, and in each of their cases that led to the hobby of long-range shooting.
By the late 2010s they were traveling abroad as Ukrainian participants to international long-range marksmanship meets where civilian and military teams, armed with the best firearms they can afford, try to best each other hitting targets up to two kilometers away.
At that range a shooter must grapple not just with basics like muzzle velocity, wind, and projectile weight; but arcane long-distance factors like spin drift, ballistic coefficients, atmospheric density, angle to the target, and even the rotation of the Earth. It wasn’t cheap but they did it for years.
When the Russians invaded in late February 2022, each man, a skilled marksman but still very much a civilian, picked up his rifle(s) and, like thousands of other Kyivites made his way to the front, north of the capital, to fight the Russian army. By the time the Russians fell back, in early April, demand was high across the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) for proper snipers.
The Ukrainian army central command, forced to mobilize military capacity wherever it could be found, recruited particularly proficient shooters to create a sniper corps, putting them through about two months of tests and classes (including lie detectors, camouflage, physical fitness, vehicle identification, communications systems, hand-to-hand combat, and first aid), and eventually assigning them to sniper “platoons” (specific numbers vary), controlled by AFU’s special forces command.
“Sort of, it was like being cast as an actor for a film,” Petrenko said. “They were really picky about what they wanted.”“They (the AFU) vetted us for everything, they even gave us lie detector tests,” Harbovsky said. “But the funny thing was, they never checked how well we could shoot… I guess they trusted us on that.”
By summer 2022, the three shooting enthusiasts had passed the courses and tests and not just in the AFU but in a picked unit with access to the best sniper-suitable kit the Ukrainian military owned: NATO-standard rifles, thermal sights, encrypted communications equipment and drones.
Federchuk singled out the Canada-manufactured Cadex Defence CDX-33 TAC rifle, in .338 Lapua Magnum [8.6x70mm] caliber, as a weapon available early in the war and particularly favored among Ukrainian shooters. US-made and Finnish sniper rifles such as the Barrett MRAD and Sako TRG, also mostly in .338 but some in .308 [7.62x51mm NATO], have excellent reputations in the AFU as well, Federchuk said.
Ukrainian snipers have long stopped using Soviet/Russian-manufacture SVD sniper rifles, which have been replaced by up-to-date Western rifles, he said.
Ukrainian snipers are fully allowed to use personal weapons from civilian life, Harbovsky said, so most do, almost always hand-loading their own cartridges because that “increases accuracy by 50 percent.” Ukrainian snipers use .308 rifles for short- and mid-range shot missions and .338 Magnum rifles for long-range shot missions, he said.
The heavier, .50 caliber rifle isn’t used so often because it’s heavy, and at the ranges an AFU sniper would be likely to take a shot – 600 to 1200 meters – the target will be a man and a .50 rifle is both heavy and overkill, Harbovsky said. Due to the broad availability of armor-piercing rounds those weapons are preferred against vehicles and light fortifications.
Ukrainian snipers deploy to the field with a “whole golf bag” of different rifles, sights, and support kit, which they mix and match as the mission dictates, Harbovsky said.
The movie-famous ghillie suit, a full-body outfit with ropes and faux foliage hanging off it, is rarely used in the AFU, interviewees said. Ghillie suits are heavy and commonly an AFU sniper must cross kilometers of varying terrain to get to his shooting positions.
Besides the weight and bulk for the wearer, if the ghillie suit helps hide a man sitting still blending into a forest, wearing it makes him a big, fat high-priority target if a drone spots him crossing a road or an open field, they said.
Another ghillie suit problem is that Ukraine’s wet climate and sticky mud often saturate the suit’s ropes and fake leaves, doubling its weight and ruining its ability to make a man look like a bush, interviewees said.
But the real shortcoming, they said, is that a man in a ghillie suit is perfectly visible to thermal optics on the ground or in the air. Petrenko singled out US-manufactured Crye Precision camouflage pads known among Ukrainian snipers as a useful piece of gear light enough, and easy enough to rig with a sheet of anti-thermal material, to be serviceable for concealment from night vision devices, particularly aboard drones.
The skies above modern battlefields teem with buzzing drones a sniper can hear or more rarely see, and even more that are invisible but can pick out a man’s boot sticking out from underneath a Crye pad, from half-kilometer altitude.
In the movies, a sniper’s lead up to the shot is always silent and often backed with suspenseful music. In the Russo-Ukrainian War, a sniper in the field spends more than a little of his time wondering who was flying that drone that just zoomed over his hide and whether it spotted him; and listening to mortar or artillery strikes and wondering if they will come closer, Harbovsky said.
Most commonly, thus far in the war, sniper teams of one to four men get assigned to combat brigades holding defensive positions. Depending on the brigade’s ongoing current mission, the snipers decide where to set up and how they might best help. Firing positions are manned in 12 to 24 hour shifts. Almost all the work is observation. The snipers interviewed by Kyiv Post said their longest field assignment was almost three months, in the Bakhmut sector. Two weeks is standard R&R.
If a Russian soldier is spotted, an AFU sniper’s preferred tactic is the same as any other infantryman on the battlefield: Get a precise map grid and then call in indirect [artillery or mortar fire]. Bring in a drone to help. If possible, avoid shooting your rifle, which would risk exposing your position.
If you must take the shot, be ready, the Russians won’t wait to figure out where exactly you are, they will plaster your general area with an automatic grenade launcher or mortars, as fast as they can.
Based on the three interviewee accounts, service in the AFU as a sniper in the Russo-Ukrainian War is probably one of the most dangerous military professions in the world today. According to them, in an average sniper unit, over a year of fighting, about nine of ten got hit by shrapnel or shell fragments, and one of two was either killed, or so badly injured he can no longer fight.
All three interviewees told Kyiv Post they have been wounded in combat. Federchuk said that AFU medics offer practically no psychological support to snipers. But once, when he was in hospital for a fragmentation injury, a psychologist came and talked with him for two hours regarding how he felt about hunting Russian soldiers.