The Spetsnaz are a special military unit that many in Russia might consider as being similar to the British SAS.
Western officials believe that Spetznaz has spearheaded the invasion of Ukraine, permeating across the border before the bombardments began in the early hours of Thursday morning.
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The Russian military had relied on their elite force in the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, as well as countless times during the days of the Soviet Union.
But what is the Spetsnaz force and what is the unit's background?
What Is In A Name?
Spetsnaz, Russia’s light infantry forces, have earned a reputation for their specialised skills. But what exactly do they specialise in and how have they gained their reputation?
The first clue is in the name itself – Spetznaz is a contraction of two Russian words spetsialnoye naznacheniya. This first word can be translated as “specific/special” and the second as “purpose/function.” Add them all together and we get - specific function for a special purpose.
The Spetsnaz have been carrying out “specific functions for a special purpose” across all continents for the past 70 years. To put it simply, Spetsnaz are well-trained intervention forces – the best of the Russian military and intelligence services.
There are five Russian special task forces that have made the word Spetsnaz famous and recognizable around the globe.
FSB Spetsnaz - formerly KGB
Navy Spetsnaz – distinguishable by their black berets, also known as ‘frogmen’
Airborne Forces Spetsnaz (VDV) – have a crazy-looking lone wolf as part of their unofficial insignia
GRU Spetsnaz – report directly to the Main Intelligence Service
KSSO - The relatively new Special Operations Forces Command, known in Russian as Komandovanie Sil Spetsialnykh Operatsii, established in 2013.
From their early unofficial beginnings, they have been the ‘tip of the sphere’ of Moscow’s military operations.
During the Cold War, the Spetsnaz could always be relied on to uphold the status quo in the soviet sphere of influence, leading the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and crushing the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
Their speed, agility and spontaneity made Spetsnaz invaluable in the 1979 Afghanistan War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they found themselves fighting bloody wars on “home turf”, ensuring that the autonomous republic of Chechnya stays part of Russia.
Most recently, they have reportedly been instrumental in the takeover of a part of Ukraine. The 2014 Crimea Crisis saw several hundred members of the Airborne Spetsnaz unit (VDV) dressed as civilians perpetrate the bloodless annexation.
Other possilbe foreign deployments in recent times include Syria and Donbass.
Discerning Fact From Fiction
Most specialised military units are shrouded in secrecy for the obvious reason of national security. Spetsnaz is no exception. This adds to the mythification of the elite force, making it harder to discern fact from fiction.
According to lecturer and writer Mark Galeotti, the myths are fuelled by “tales of covert assassinations and macho heroics, feeding the belief that they are simultaneously soldiers, spies, and saboteurs.
"Increasingly, the Spetsnaz are at the heart of a new Russian way of war that emphasises speed, surprise and deception over massive conventional force, and their skills make sure that they will maintain their special status into the future.”
Effective and highly skilled, the Spetsnaz have a reputation of being the best that the Russian military has to offer, making them the first point of call in counterterrorist and hostage operations.
Officially formed in 1950, the Spetsnaz was wrought by what was considered to be the best men from across the 15 Republics that made up the Soviet Union. The same ethos has been maintained throughout the decades and persists in today’s Russia.
During the Cold War, US propaganda fuelled the Spetsnaz myth. While back home, their existence was completely denied, even the military postal system knew them only by long numerical codes. When Spetsnaz soldiers died in battle, their headstones claimed that they were paratroopers, or nothing at all.
In 1975, a frenzied rumour spread across the United States that Spetsnaz-trained Cubans were operating in The Land Of The Free. Reports of Cuban defectors to the US were blown out of proportion.
However, they were based on facts - the 70s saw Naval Spetsnaz train local forces not only in Cuba. The Caspian Flotilla 137th Brigade’s “special purpose” was to train allied forces across Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Often compared to the British SAS, Israel’s Sayeret Matkal and US Delta Force, Spetsnaz is its own beast. What makes them different is that they are not “special forces” like the Western ones listed above – they are used for special purposes.
Those special purposes ranged from striking at enemy assets and intercepting communication to deploying to disaster zones at a moment's notice. For example, the Turkmenistan Military District’s 15th Brigade was deployed to maintain public order after 300 people lost their homes as a result of the devastating 1966 Tashkent earthquake. Tasked with dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, as well medical emergencies, Spetsnaz have been deployed to quarantine affected areas during a smallpox outbreak in Aralsk in 1971 and one of cholera in Astrakhan the previous year.
Today, as well as during Soviet times, compared to the cumbersome ordinary Russian army – Spetsnaz stands out as substantially better trained, disciplined and equipped, often getting first pick of the newest most specialised weapons. However, throughout most of its history, the Spetsnaz ranks have been filled by conscripts, arguably undermining their standard compared to the Western special forces that they are often equated to.
Although Yuri V. Andropov was the leader of the Soviet Union for only 15 months until his death in 1984, he played a significant role in the moulding of Spetsnaz into a politico-military force. He realised how useful they could be in 1956 when he was Soviet ambassador in Hungary, at a time when the Hungarians had had enough of Moscow’s influence. With the help of Spetsnaz, the Hungarians were swiftly forced into submission. The quashing of the revolution was titled Operation ‘Whirlwind’. The rebellious government was arrested by Spetsnaz from an orrSn (Otdelnaya razvedyvatelnaya rota spetsialnogo naznacheniya or Independent Special Purpose Reconnaissance Company in English) attached to the Central Group of Forces, while the Soviet army took strategic positions on both sides of the Danube river.
Despite the iconography on the communist flag, the Soviet leadership preferred the philosophy of using a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer to quell revolts. The power of airstrikes, artillery and tank-infantry combined with the efficiency of Spetsnaz ensured a crushing defeat of the uprising. Andropov was so impressed with the neatness of the mission carried out by Spetsnaz, that when he became head of the KGB, he created its own Spetsnaz force, which is still active to this day under the name FSB. The experience in Hungary later contributed to the new textbook of Spetsnaz tactics issued by the GRU in 1965. It would soon become useful during the invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Invasion of Czechoslovakia
“The Prague Spring” was a liberal movement in Czechoslovakia that unravelled from January to August 1968. The Soviet military predicted it would take four days to subdue the unrest, their calculation was off by seven months and 12 days. The resistance was civilian. People defied curfews, vandalised street signs, resisted violently and protested by lighting themselves on fire.
There was no military resistance. The military were immobilised by Spetsnaz before the protests even began.
The 8th Spetsnaz Brigade was deployed alongside KGB agents to lead operation “Danube”. On August 1968, two unscheduled Aeroflot flights landed in Prague carrying casually dressed KGB operatives. With the aid of Czech security officers working for Moscow, they took control of the airport, allowing the rest of the Spetsnaz contingent and elements of the 103rd Guards Airborne division to land.
The Spetsnaz quickly took control of key locations such as bridges, radio stations and the presidential palace. Letna Hill was secured for the VDV to mount their artillery from a high vantage point. As the rest of the Soviet troops lumbered across the border – strategic positions were already under Spetsnaz control before any meaningful Czech defence could be organised.
Afghanistan 1979 – 1989
During the nine-year Soviet-Afghan war, a total of 620,000 Soviet personnel were involved in the conflict. However, the war was truly fought by Mi-24 “Hind” helicopter gunships and Spetsnaz. The aerial firepower of the helicopters and the rapid flexible stealth of Spetsnaz proved to be the most effective weapon against the mujahedeen.
Prior to 1979, in true communist fashion, the Soviets strengthened the infostructure of Afghanistan, building roads, schools and hospitals. However, when soft power was no longer working, they let their true imperialist intentions shine.
In 1978, an internal coup that took both the West and the USSR by surprise placed Hafizullah Amin as president. He requested Soviet military assistant to quell popular unrest but refused to be controlled by the Soviets. Combined with rumours that he was going to turn to the US for help instead, was cause enough to eliminate him – in came Spetsnaz and what became known as the Muslim Battalion.
The ‘Muslim Battalion”
The battalion dialled deception to the max – the idea behind it was that the soldiers would have to pass for Afghans. So, the search for recruits would have to look elsewhere, other than European Russia. Luckily for the Soviets, the Union was immensely diverse, with six out of the 15 republics in Central Asia.
In 1979, Col Vasily Kolesnik was sent to Uzbekistan to form a special battalion from Spetsnaz with at least a year’s service, with solders from Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen ethnicity. They were given special training and told not to worry about the cost of fuel and ammunition, which was extremely unusual as this was the end of the 70s and the economy had been in chronic decline for a while. Money was tight but the mission was of great importance so pennies would not be pinched, or more accurately no kopeks kept unspent.
The mission was to capture the presidential palace and kill President Amin. The mission was complete in 20 minutes.
The ‘Muslim Battalion’ first arrived at the Afghan presidential palace under the impression that they were guarding it. Orders soon changed. Their true role was to provide access to the KGB teams – Zenith and Kaskad to assassinate the President, while the battalion was instructed to make sure that no Afghan left the building alive. Those orders were taken very seriously. In fact when Col Boyanov emerged to call for assistance, he was shot and killed by his own soldier’s “friendly fire”.
Two months later, the battalion was flown back to Uzbekistan, only to soon return when it became apartment that replacing Amin with a more compliant Babrak Karmal was not going to keep the rebels down. The war raged on for nine more years and was one of the major contributing factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to Soviet estimations, 14,453 Soviet forces were killed, out of which 750 were Spetsnaz. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was an intentional step by Gen. Sec. Gorbachev to help end the cold war. As a measure of good faith and a step towards reconciliation between the West and the soon to be disbanded Soviet Union, in 1988 Spetsnaz from the 14th Brigade took part in the joint training exercises with US forces in Alaska.
Spetsnaz and Western forces allegedly worked together again in 1995-96 in Bosnia and Herzegovina when Russia sent a unit to join the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) to keep the peace in the war-torn country. Personnel from the VDV’s 45th Independent Reconnaissance Regiment and 22nd Independent Airborne Regiment were sent to the Balkan country to join the US-led Multinational Division (North), many of them were rumoured to have been Spetsnaz. The mission was exemplary of cooperation between Moscow and the West, however, suspicions were still harboured that there were Spetsnaz spies in the ranks gathering intelligence on the Western forces.
What Do The Russians Think?
In Russia, as respected as Spetsnaz may have been, many used to see them as glorified bodyguards to the ruling elite. This reputation was solidified on the brink of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev and his diplomatic army of ambassadors and attaches made more frequent visits abroad to strengthen relations with the democratic world, a team of KGB’s Ninth Chief Directorate, known as the “Bodyguards Directorate” would follow. They were often joined by Spetsnaz for extra security.
This type of ‘work’ would often overshadow the peacekeeping operations that Spetsnaz was involved in during the last decade of the 20th century. For example, in 1990, Spetsnaz from the 22nd Brigade protected Armenians from nationalist protests in Soviet Azerbaijan. However, their main theatre of operation in the post-soviet realm was in Chechnya - their violent struggles, victories and adventures were highlighted to the Russian public through an action-packed TV show.
In 2002, a wildly popular miniseries titled Spetsnaz lit up television screens across Russia. The show centred around the heroic adventures of four Spetsnaz members, paving the path to stardom for the main cast. Land and assets are captured with guns, but hearts and minds are won through the silver screen. The series solidified Spetsnaz’s reputation as the most courageous soldiers who would defy all odds to wreak havoc behind enemy lines, vindicate the innocent, punish the enemy and keep the motherland safe.
The opening shot of the series is two operatives standing back to back with their guns cocked, looking super badass under red flashing lights. They go into a tunnel where one is disarmed from behind with one swift motion. We quickly find out that this is a training exercise, as the sergeant comes out to shake hands with the trainees, congratulating them for passing. The nameless recruits are then joined by their friends who start to tickle each other, no doubt to humanise the stealthy warriors in the eyes of the audience.
This is followed by scenes of more draconian training. The young operatives are seen memorising names of hundreds of ‘bad guys’ from a screen. Shot mostly in closeups on the recruit’s concentrating face, with beads of sweat dripping down the forehead to highlight the urgency of the task. The screen flashes 95% which is a fail, establishing from the beginning that anything below full marks is not good enough for Spetsnaz.
In the rest of the episode we see the recruits operating ‘in the field’ - posing as electricians while hiding a silencer gun and smashing through the windshield of a vehicle by riding on a zip wire. The mission they have been recruited for is described as ‘finding a needle in a haystack’, the ordinary army officer explains “that’s why we came to you”.
The TV miniseries tremendously raised the profile of Spetsnaz on a national level, painting them as the heroes who protect the country, even though their methods may not always be orthodox. For example, in the final scene of the first episode, they successfully orchestrate their mission to track down Chechen militants. Taking justice into their own hands rather than handing the ‘baddies’ over to the authorities, they lace their truck with explosives and watch it blow-up as it drives away.
The show came out in 2002, the same year that the military phase of the second Chechnya war ended. Similarly to the war in Afghanistan, the Russian military heavily relied on Spetsnaz in Chechnya. It was imperative that the public was supportive of the conflict and the popular TV show helped boost morale immensely. However, as important as a positive portrayal in pop culture may be to form a reputation, real-life events are key. In the same year as the series came out, Russia suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history.
Hostage Rescue Operations
On October 23, 2002, 40 Chechen militants headed by warlord Movsar Barayev took 912 hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, during a performance of the popular musical Nord-Ost. Borayev’s demands were the immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces from Chechnya with a deadline of one week, after which they would start killing the hostages.
After three days, FSB Spetsnaz surrounded and stormed the building. An unnamed sleeping gas was pumped into the hall which enabled the Spetsnaz to kill the terrorists and start carrying out the hostages. Despite the Spetsnaz best efforts, 130 hostages died – not at the hands of the gunmen – but due to the effects of the gas.
The safety of the operatives and that of the hostages was sacrificed in order to maintain secrecy. The authorities did not admit to using gas until eight hours after the operation commenced, leaving medics in the dark as to how to best treat the patients. The Spetsnaz also suffered from the effects of the gas. Until this day the Russian government refuses to disclose the name and chemical formula used.
There has been a proud tradition in Russia of women fighting for their country – close to a million volunteered during the Second World War. A famous example is Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet sniper credited with 309 confirmed kills, making her the most successful female sniper in history. In 1942, Pavlichenko toured the US petitioning the allied country to join the war effort against Nazi Germany, famously saying “how long are you prepared to hide behind my skirt?”.
Despite this, it wasn’t until November 1992 that women were officially allowed to enlist in the military.
Compared to the UK, the US and even China, women are underrepresented in the Russian armed forces. In 2020, 10.9 per cent of Regular British Forces were female, compared to 4.26 per cent in the Russian active-duty forces in the same year. For reference, women make up 16.5 per cent of the armed forces in the US and 9 per cent in China.
While many western countries have been moving towards opening up a wide range of roles (if not all) to women, Russia has held back. Russian women are barred from frontline combat roles and are restricted from service on submarines, tanks and aircraft, as well as mechanical and sentry duties.
In 2020, Yana Surgaeva sued the Defence Ministry and National Guard for discrimination. She wanted to be a sniper and was told by the military recruiters that "the approval of military service by women as a driver, mechanic, sniper or gunner is not permitted.” Both the supreme and constitutional court refused to hear Surgaeva’s case.
The restrictions and low rates of enlistment can be attributed to the country’s more traditional view of gender roles, as highlighted by a 2020 state organised poll on gender roles and the military. According to the poll, 63 per cent of respondents said they would not want a daughter to serve in the military. Whereas 62 per cent said they would like to see a son serve. The primary reason respondents did not think a daughter should serve as “the army is not a woman's business, the army is for men”. Contradictorily, according to the Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu, competition for military universities is higher for women than for men, with 27 women applying for every seat.
Historically women have served in the elite anti-terrorist ‘Alpha unit’ of the FSB Spetsnaz.
The female division was created in 1998 and one of the first women to join was Olga Spiridonovna. Since the division’s inception, the female employees have been at the forefront of first responders to terrorist attacks, playing an active role in rescue operations in the Dubrovka Theatre in 2002 and the Belsan school siege in 2004.
Spiridonova’s career in the Alpha unit spanned 10 years, she retired as a Colonel in 2008. According to the news site of the ‘Star’ television channel, Olga admitted that being a woman in Spetsnaz was often difficult: “The working relationship in a male-dominated environment was not easy. We constantly had to prove that we are not worse, but sometimes even better, and always prepared.”
Currently, there is no female Alpha division, as of 2019, there was one female employee working in the headquarters. Nonetheless, Olga believes that there are many advantages to having women in Spetsnaz.
21st Century Fighters
Training and Recruitment
Like with all specialised forces around the world, training is meant to be physically tough and mentally brutal, designed to weed out the weak and those who do not really want to be there. Mostly for the cameras, jumping through burning tyres and fighting off attack dogs is just another Spetsnaz attempt at PR. The reality of their training sees potential members physically put through their paces depending on which unit they intend to join. Some learn the basics of a language relevant to their unit's area of operation, but there is no expectation that fluency will be attained unless they are likely to progress into the GRU's intelligence operations.
Training for an average of eight hours a day, emphasis is placed on the development of rapid independent thinking coupled with intense physical conditioning.
In line with Russia’s conventional military, most Spetsnaz recruits have been conscripts – graphite turned into diamonds through rigorous specialised training. Putin's ascension to power at the turn of the century saw a drastic increase in military spending. This was a massive leg up for Spetsnaz, who since the end of the Chechen wars were being undermined through internal political power struggles. With the augmented budget they were able to upgrade their facilities and training, and most importantly recruit more career soldiers (kontraktniki). The latter is particularly significant, as it allowed Spetsnaz to rely less on conscripts.
Conscription in Russia is for male citizens aged 18–27. The draft is compulsory and lasts 12 months.
Some Spetsnaz units in the past have been 50 per cent composed of draftees and therefore suffered a biannual “churn” with new conscripts entering on one-year terms in May and November. Only the most capable conscripts pass the selection process for Spetsnaz. However, relying on them to fill the ranks was not an effective way to spend time and resources, as the conscript was not contractually obligated to stay in the military after their compulsory service is over. In 2019 the Russian Ministery of Defence announced that there will be a stronger push to only recruit kontraktniki.
The drastic scaling up of defence expenditure culminated in Russia’s first large-scale military operation in the 21st century – the 2008 Georgian War. The conflict lasted less than a week, consolidating Spetsnaz’s position in the new Russian military apparatus, as well as highlighting some of the many shortcomings of the Russian army.
What Are They Fighting With?
It is no secret that Spetsnaz has fist pick of the best weapons and equipment that the Russian military has on offer – but how impressive are they really?
Rumour had it that Spetsnaz packed a ballistic knife able to fire its blade into an enemy’s chest. This was part of western propaganda that added to the red scare and was untrue. However, from 1986 Spetsnaz were occasionally issued the NRS-2 survival knife, that could fire a 7.62mm pistol round at 25 meters. It could also cut wires.
However, as units of the regular military, they essentially use the same weapons as the rest of the Army. They do however get certain privileges where they get to customise their weapons and are allowed greater freedom to pick their own gear.
Here are some of the weapons that they use:
Dragunov sniper rifle
Spetsnaz snipers are highly trained and play a key role in operations. They use the modernised SVDS sniper rifle with folding-stock.
SV-98 bolt-action rifle
This 2003 version bolt-action rifle typically mounts a 1P69 3-10x42 variable-magnification optic which gives a range of 1000m. This weapon can also be fitted with a sound suppressor, however, that limits mobility.
VSS Vintorez sniper rifle
This silent assault rifle is a Spetsnaz favourite where stealth is key. An OG weapon from the 80s is still widely used today.
AS Val assault carabine
This silent 9mm assault rifle fires subsonic rounds meaning that the bullet travels below the speed of sound, making it a perfect silenced killer.
A shortened variant of the AS-Val that can be fitted with a suppressor. It literally translates as ‘tornado.’
The standard issue 5.45mm AK-74 is used by both Spetsnaz and the regular troops. The AK-74 family of assault rifles are the modernised version of the AK-47. They are lighter and more accurate than the original AK-47, however now they are becoming outdated. The variations still in service are AK-74M, AK-74Ns and AKS-74U.
This is a modernised AK-74 in service since 1991.
AK-12 / AK-15 rifles
The newest selective-fire rifles that Spetsnaz has their hands one. These came into service in January 2018, with a new version released in 2020.
Pecheneg machine gun
In service since 2001, this machine gun fires a 7.62x54mm round and is the Spetsnaz main squad weapon.
PB 6P9 pistol
Also known as the Makarov gun – this dated weapon is still widely used by Russian police and security forces. The vintage relic can be issued on Spetsnaz special missions.
GSh-18 semi-automatic pistol
This is a standard sidearm for all branches of the Russian Armed Forces and Spetsnaz are not an exception. According to Business Insider, it has an 18 round magazine and bullets that can pierce body armour.
What Does The Future Hold?
In modern times, Spetsnaz has been expanding – as exemplified through the new KSSO branch established in 2013, modelled on the British SAS.
They have solidified their reputation as Kremlin’s politico-military weapon of choice.
The future of military conflict tends to lie in small scale insurgencies and military interventions. Spetsnaz is an idea instrument for such actions – flexible, fast and if necessary easy to deny that they were ever there.
The advantage of specialised forces over the more traditional military formations is their speed and adaptability. When Spetsnaz came into their own during the Cold War, their primary function was the targeting of NATO tactical nuclear weapons. Today, having honed their craft in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, modern Spetsnaz are more likely to focus their attention on what the Russian’s call near-abroad. Although, it has been speculated that they had ventured onto British soil in 2018 with devastating consequences.
The Russian military and emergency services will keep relying on them because as put by one former Spetsnaz operative: “The generals may sometimes get exasperated with us because we are not pawns on their chessboard, waiting to be moved; but they also know that when there is a fight, there is no one like the Spetsnaz”.
For more, read Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces’ by Mark Galeotti
VDV Spetsnaz image courtesy of Vitali Kuzmin Military Blog copyright.