Editor’s Note: This article has an information cut-off date of 9 March 2022.
On the morning of 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. The opening strikes were made with air-delivered and surface-to-surface guided and unguided munitions, with the ground invasion commencing immediately after the first attacks. The invasion was focused on the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Mariupol. In the following days, as Russian forces advanced into these cities, reports began circulating on social media of “Russian saboteurs” captured and killed by Ukrainian forces. One of the first reports appears to have been a sighting on 25 February, with Ukrainian sources describing saboteurs dressed in Ukrainian uniforms operating in Kyiv, who were killed by the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces (Війська Територіальної Оборони; Viiska Terytorialnoi Oborony).
On the same day, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service (Державна Служба України з Надзвичайних Ситуацій; Derzhavna Sluzhba Ukrayiny z Nadzvychaynykh Sytuatsiy; DSNS) reported that two alleged saboteurs had been arrested in Kyiv (Kyiv Oblast, northern Ukraine), sharing a photo that appears to depict the front of a DSNS building. When captured, the saboteurs were in possession of Ukrainian uniforms, ballistic plate carriers, and other Ukrainian-style military equipment, as well as two self-loading rifles chambered for 5.45 × 39 mm: an AKS-74 and an AKS-74U (see Figures 1 & 2).
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Figure 3 A ZU-23-2 23 mm twin-barrelled anti-aircraft gun mounted on an Ural-4320 truck reportedly seized by Ukrainian armed forces from saboteurs in Kyiv on 25 February 2022 (source: Sergei Supinsky/Getty).
Also on 25 February, Ukrainian armed forces reportedly killed several saboteurs in Kyiv. The Ukrainian military seized a ZU-23-2 twin-barrelled anti-aircraft gun, chambered for the 23 × 152B mm cartridge, that had been mounted on an Ural-4320 6 × 6 truck (see Figure 3)
The following day, on 26 February, an unverified Twitter account associated with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence reported that Ukrainian forces had arrested a group of alleged saboteurs in Kharkiv (Kharkiv Oblast, in eastern Ukraine). From them, Ukrainian forces seized an AK-74M self-loading rifle (see Figure 4), two precision rifles likely chambered for .308 Winchester (Figure 5), and a DJI Mavic-series UAV (Figure 6). Both the AK-74M and the precision rifles featured many aftermarket parts. The AK-74M was fitted with aftermarket furniture, a front grip, a top cover with a picatinny rail (to which an EOTech-style sight was fitted), and an extended magazine well. The AK-74M is not in Ukraine’s inventory, but is standard issue in the Russian Armed Forces, supporting the claim that the arrested individuals were indeed Russian saboteurs. Additionally, the precision rifle seen on the left in Figure 5 is fitted with what appears to be an American Nightforce-brand telescopic sight, whilst the rifle on the right of Figure 5 is fitted with what appears to be a Harris bipod. It should be noted, however, that Chinese and other cheaper copies of Western firearms accessories have previously been documented in service with Russian special operations forces.
In addition to the small arms and the UAV, small-calibre ammunition was also seized (see Figures 5 & 6). This included one box of American Hornady ELD (Extremely Low Drag) Match cartridges (likely .308 Winchester), a box of Lithunian Giraitės Ginkluotės Gamykla (GGG) of 147 gr (9.55 g) FMJ .308 Winchester cartridges, two boxes of Czech Sellier & Bellot .308 Winchester cartridges, and one as-yet-unidentified box of ammunition. Notably, the identified ammunition was all of the type available on the civilian market, and none of it was manufactured in Russia. Additionally, the seizure of significant quantities of .308 Winchester cartridges indicates that the precision rifles recovered from the saboteurs were likely chambered for this round.
On 27 February 2022, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs (Міністерство Внутрішніх Справ України; Ministerstvo Vnutrishnikh Sprav Ukrayiny; MVS) reported that, during a joint operation by the State Border Guard Service (Державна Прикордонна Служба України; Derzhavna Prykordonna Sluzhba Ukrayiny; DPSU) and police units in Odessa (Odessa Oblast, southwestern Ukraine), an alleged saboteur was arrested and his vehicle was seized. Other alleged saboteurs escaped arrest. Numerous arms and munitions were seized from the saboteurs, including a PM (‘Makarov’) self-loading pistol (see Figure 7), a Malyuk self-loading rifle, an RPG-22 shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launcher, two T-62M anti-tank mines, and various boxes originally intended to carry munitions (see Figures 8 & 9). The Malyuk is a Ukrainian-designed bullpup rifle based on the AK and other weapons, which is not believed to have been exported. Thus, it is unclear how these Russian saboteurs acquired the rifle. Several of the munitions boxes appear to be older-style British military containers. Two have discernible markings, which indicate that one once contained L22A1 demolition charges, and another once contained non-electric detonators. The contents of these boxes at the time of seizure is unknown.
On 1 March 2022, Ukrainian security forces arrested 30 alleged Russian saboteurs in Kyiv. They seized a total of 22 AK-74-type self-loading rifles, along with numerous magazines and bayonets (see Figure 10).
On 2 March 2022, the National Police of Ukraine (Національна Поліція України; Natsional’na Politsiya Ukrainy) arrested an alleged Russian saboteur in Kyiv. The saboteur had in his possession a teddy bear, which was found to contain sixteen 7.62 × 39 mm cartridges (see Figure 11).
On 4 March 2022, the National Police arrested an alleged Russian saboteur in Kyiv. An F1 hand grenade and a UZRG hand grenade fuze (which can fit the F1) were seized from him (see Figures 12 & 13).
On 9 March 2022, the National Police arrested an alleged Russian saboteur in the city of Zaporizhzhia (Zaporizhzhia Oblast). During the arrest, they seized a PM self-loading pistol, an AKMS self-loading rifle, several magazines, and weapon accessories (see Figure 14, top). Notably, most of the magazines were AK-74 magazines (5.45 × 39 mm) and only one magazine was compatible with the AKMS (7.62 × 39mm). This may suggest additional weapons were not recovered during the arrest. Below the magazines is what appears to be a suppressor. Also seized was a commercial UAV and a remote-controlled helicopter (Figure 14, bottom). The latter was designed as a children toy, but may have been intended for use as a reconnaissance device.
Special thanks to N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Charlie Randall.
ARES (Armament Research Services). n.d. Conflict Materiel (CONMAT) Database. Confidential. Perth: ARES.
Kharchenko, Sergii. 2022. ‘Military vehicle with russian saboteurs shot by Ukrainian forces …’. Getty Images. 25 February. <https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/military-vehicle-with-russian-saboteurs-shot-by-ukrainian-news-photo/1238744654>.
Landry, Carole. 2022. ‘Day 1 of Russia’s invasion’. The New York Times. Digital edition: 24 February. <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/briefing/day-1-of-russias-invasion.html>.
Ukrinform. ‘Володимир Зеленський заявив, що у Київ зайшли диверсійні групи ворога’ [‘Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that enemy sabotage groups had entered Kyiv’]. Digital edition: 25 February. <https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-ato/3412130-zelenskij-zvernuvsa-do-ukrainciv.html>.
[Various social media posts and press releases from the National Police of Ukraine, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine].
Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:
AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities