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Moscow’s ‘special’ forces: An inside look at how Russia’s famed Spetsnaz really operate


Russian Spetsnaz troops military parade

Russian Spetsnaz troops in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in May 2021. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from Mark Galeotti’s book, “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine.”

Galeotti Putin's Wars book cover

Mark Galeotti’s “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine.” Osprey Publishing

Most countries’ special forces emphasize physical fitness, determination and aggression.

Russia’s Spetsnaz are certainly no exception, although apparently they are not necessarily quite as dedicated to overt displays of machismo as the VDV, for whom any open day seems incomplete without paratroopers breaking wooden beams with their heads or throwing a sharpened sapyorka — the Russians’ distinctive short-handled entrenching tool — while leaping through a ring of fire.

As one Spetsnaz veteran once told me, “precision and silence beats strength and courage, any day.” When he was asked why he seemed to be disparaging courage, he paused, and said that the Spetsnaz were more concerned with determination: “courage is the willingness to die trying to reach the objective; determination is the will to find a way to get there, without dying.”

Much is written and claimed about the Spetsnaz. Rather less is known for sure, despite what is now quite an industry in Russian-language books on them, from memoirs to survival skills guides. Apart from the fact that much is historical, and some purely fantastical, it often misses the point about quite who the Spetsnaz are and, more to the point, what they are meant to do.

The mythology around the Spetsnaz is thus as often misleading as it is extensive. In the West, much of this dates back to the writings of the Soviet defector Vladimir Rezun, who wrote a series of supposed exposés under the pseudonym “Viktor Suvorov.” When it came to the Spetsnaz, which he portrayed as an implacable and uniformly lethal threat to NATO, he was full of engaging detail: they tested their unarmed combat skills on convicted criminals, whom they would kill; they had boots with reversed tread so their footprints would appear to lead the wrong way; they used a knife with a powerful spring that would shoot its blade at an enemy. Much has since been debunked as either not quite right (they did, for example, sometimes use the NRS-2 “shooting scout knife” which didn’t launch its blade, but did incorporate a single- shot gun in the hilt) or downright wrong, but nonetheless, the image of the remorseless Soviet Terminators proved to have an awful appeal.

Special people, for special tasks

Russia spetsnaz

Members of the Russian military’s 16th Separate Special Purpose Brigade during an exercise in 2018. Yevgeny Polovodov/Russian Defense Ministry/

The evolution of Russia’s special forces has been shaped by an emphasis on mass war and the primacy of strategy coming from the top of the system over individual prowess by the men at the base. Their name is a contraction of Spetsialnoye Naznacheniya, “of special designation” or “of special purpose.” This is quite a significant detail: they are not “special forces” as such in the Western sense, which places the emphasis on the “specialness” of the operators themselves. Instead, what is distinctive is the special role which is assigned to these troops. After all, until recently, many or even most Spetsnaz have been conscripts, and while “more special” than regular soldiers, even paratroopers and the like, they can hardly be considered in the same elevated terms as the Western elite forces with which they were often misleadingly compared, such as Britain’s SAS or America’s Seals and Green Berets.

A further source of confusion is the way all sorts of other units are also formally or informally known as Spetsnaz, from the genuinely elite anti-terrorist commandos of the FSB’s Special Designation Centre (TsSN: Tsentr Spetsialnovo Naznacheniya) to the not-quite-so-formidable rapid response units of the Federal Forestry Agency. Of the more serious, the Foreign Intelligence Service’s Zaslon (“Screen”) is primarily tasked with protecting VIPs and diplomatic facilities in high-risk environments, but also with covert operations overseas. Then there are forces that overlap much more closely with the military Spetsnaz. The National Guard Interior Troops Spetsnaz include the Moscow-based 33rd Special Purpose Detachment “Peresvet” as well as a series of local Special Rapid Response Detachments (SOBR: Spetsialny Otryad Bystrovo Reagirovaniya) that largely provide armed response to the police, but were, like the Interior Troops, also deployed in Chechnya and Ukraine. In Syria, we know operators from the FSB’s TsSN were deployed because four men killed by a mine during an ambush near Latakia in February 2020 turned out to be from its Directorates S (its main counter-terrorist unit) and K (responsible for operations in the North Caucasus). They had been scouting a potential meeting area for Turkish and Syrian military leaders. Operators from the National Guard and Zaslon have also served in Syria, while in February 2020, the Ukrainian government released video footage of TsSN operators in the Donbas.

The main role of the Spetsnaz is as scouts and saboteurs, though, deployed for battlefield reconnaissance and also behind-the-lines operations against enemy chains of command and lines of supply and, in particular, NATO tactical nuclear weapons. After all, the modern Spetsnaz are really products of the Cold War, (re)created in 1957 within the GRU as battalion-strength units able to range behind NATO lines to locate and, ideally, destroy weapons such as the Matador intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Matador had a maximum range of 700 miles, but as new systems were introduced, the Spetsnaz mission grew, and so did the distance they were expected to penetrate into Europe. In 1962 the five battalions became six brigades, and in 1968 they began to acquire their own specialized training facilities.

As Moscow’s imperial ambitions became more expansive, it also needed forces able to project power globally and also surgically respond to troubles within the existing “empire.” Spetsnaz trained elite forces in Cuba, protected Soviet shipping from South African saboteurs in Angola and played crucial roles in the suppression of the rising against the puppet regime in Hungary in 1956 and the liberal “Prague Spring” in 1968. In Afghanistan in 1979, they not only led the initial coup de main that removed existing leader Hafizullah Amin and installed a new regime, but they then raided rebel supply caravans, hunted US-supplied Stinger SAMs, guarded visiting VIPs, and sometimes simply ended up pressed into service as infantry. Even so, being better than most of the Soviet army’s miserable and recalcitrant conscript forces did not make most of them truly special, special forces. It was precisely a need for such elite operators that forced the Soviets to start standing up ad hoc units drawn from KGB sabotage specialists (who formed Zenit, the unit that led the mission to assassinate Amin), and then increasingly create informal elements within the Spetsnaz comprising only professional NCOs and officers who could be tasked with especially difficult missions.

This was again the case in the 1990s, when the Spetsnaz were once more (mis)used as infantry in Chechnya. For some missions, scratch teams of professional soldiers were created for particular operations. Nonetheless, it was getting harder to recruit and retain good soldiers. While some units managed to retain a degree of their old esprit de corps, others responded to the years of low wages, broken promises and corrupt hierarchies with a slide into criminality and indiscipline, as journalist Dmitry Kholodov discovered to his cost when he investigated claims that they were moonlighting in the mafia (see Chapter 3). They bounced back relatively quickly under Putin, though, and have also benefited especially from the new drive to recruit kontraktniki. As of 2020, only some 20% were conscripts, and not only is this proportion continuing to decline, but those draftees are absolutely the pick of the crop, typically young athletes and graduates of school-age military skills training programmes (and fully half enlist as volunteers at the end of their compulsory term).

Tip of the spear

Russian spetsnaz special operations troops

Members of Russia’s 2nd Separate Special Purpose Brigade, a Spetsnaz GRU brigade, during an exercise. Konstantin Morozov/Russian Ministry of Defense/

The Spetsnaz traditionally filled a gap between regular military reconnaissance forces and the intelligence-gathering assets and units of the intelligence and security agencies. Their sabotage mission, though, has expanded in the modern world of “active measures” and “political warfare,” and they have acquired a much wider role as the Kremlin’s politico-military instrument of choice. The Kremlin sees in the Spetsnaz a flexible (and even sometimes deniable) weapon, which it can use as easily to fight guerrillas here as to support an insurgency there, the tip of the spear in its new adventures. They fought in Georgia; in Crimea, they led the operation; in the Donbas they provided crucial special capacities to the insurgents; in Syria, they likewise helped ensure Russian airpower hit its targets. In the scrappy, messy security environment of the 21st century, a hundred well-trained Spetsnaz can prove more usable and effective than a whole armoured brigade.

There are some 17,000 Spetsnaz and they thus fill a role similar to, if more covert than, those of the VDV and MP (and it is worth remembering that the paratroopers have their own Spetsnaz unit, the 45th Guards Independent Order of Kutuzov, Order of Alexander Nevsky Special Purpose Brigade). This is still not a force that as a whole could be considered “Tier One” special forces, and they are perhaps best understood as spearhead expeditionary light infantry, roughly analogous to the US 75th Ranger Regiment, the British 16th Air Assault Brigade or the French Foreign Legion, although admittedly a new Special Operations Forces Command (KSSO: Komandovaniye Sil Spetsialnalnykh Operatsii) was established in 2012, which must be considered comparable to other “best of the best.”

Precisely for this reason, they have been a bone of contention in the kind of inter-service rivalry that has been a particular problem for the Russians. After the 2008 Georgian War, the GRU was politically weak, having been blamed (largely unfairly) for the lacklustre Russian performance. Thus in 2011, the army made a successful takeover bid, and on 24 October 2010 — the very day when the Spetsnaz were celebrating their 60th anniversary — Ground Forces Deputy Chief of Staff for Reconnaissance Col. Vladimir Mardusin announced that the Spetsnaz were being transferred from being a strategic asset of the GRU (or GU as it had become) and instead would be subordinated to the Military Districts. The idea was that the GU should concentrate on spying and the Spetsnaz would be battlefield assets. However, the spooks were not going to take this lying down, and when the ailing former GU head was succeeded at the start of 2011 by the much more vigorous and politically savvy Lt. Gen. Igor Sergun, they began lobbying for the old status quo. Meanwhile, the GU fought a bureaucratic rear-guard action, nominally transferring the Spetsnaz to the Ground Forces but in practice delaying the move on all kinds of practical and procedural grounds. The appointment of Shoigu and Gerasimov proved decisive, as both saw the need for these forces as strategic-level assets able to be used in political-military operations. In 2013, they were formally returned to the GU (if they had ever really left).

Putin’s Spetsnaz

Russian spetsnaz special operations troops

Members of Russia’s 14th Separate Special Purpose Brigade during an exercise in February 2017. Russian Ministry of Defense/

The Spetsnaz comprise seven regular brigades of various sizes, in total constituting perhaps 19 battalion-size units called Independent Special Designation Detachments (OOSN: Otdelny Otryad Spetsialnovo Naznacheniya), each with around 500 personnel. The relatively small 22nd Brigade has just two OOSN, the 173rd and the 411th, for example, while the large 14th Brigade — which is responsible for the whole Eastern VO — has fully four, the 282nd, 294th, 306th and 314th. Each OOSN is divided into a command and staff company and three company-strength units of some 140 personnel, each in turn divided into four 14-man units, a command team, and extensive support elements including medical and technical personnel. The four Independent Spetsnaz Naval Reconnaissance Points (OMRPSN: Otdelny Morskoy Razvedyvatelny Punkt Spetsialnovo Naznacheniya), the marine equivalent of the brigades, require greater technical support because they deploy in anything from light boats to underwater sleds and are instead built around three, slightly larger companies (again, with four 14-man teams of operators), the first optimized for land missions, the second for coastal reconnaissance, the third “combat divers” especially configured for mining enemy vessels and installations underwater.

These brigades are responsible to the GU’s Fifth, or Operational Reconnaissance Directorate, although in the field they are subordinated to operational commanders. Beyond that, there are three other separate Spetsnaz elements. One, the 100th Independent Brigade, is often used as a testbed for new ideas and equipment. Two others were created in 2011–12 as part of the security preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics in southwestern Russia: the 25th Independent Regiment, especially trained and equipped for operations in the turbulent North Caucasus, and the 346th Brigade, a truly elite force closer to an OOSN in size, which ended up becoming the main operational element of a new special forces command.


Special Operations Forces Command (KSSO)
      346th Brigade (Kubinka-2)

Army Spetsnaz2nd Brigade (Pskov)3rd Guards Brigade (Tolyatti)10th Brigade (Molkino)14th Brigade (Ussuriisk)16th Brigade (Moscow)22nd Guards Brigade (Stepnoi)24th Brigade (Irkutsk)100th Brigade (Mozdok)

25th Independent Regiment (Stavropol)

45th Guards Independent Special Designation Brigade (Kubinka-2)

Navy42nd Naval Reconnaissance Special Designation Point (Vladivostok; Pacific Fleet) 420th Naval Reconnaissance Special Designation Point (Severomorsk; Northern Fleet) 431st Naval Reconnaissance Special Designation Point (Sevastopol; Black Sea Fleet)

561st Naval Reconnaissance Special Designation Point (Kaliningrad; Baltic Fleet)

Recruits are generally expected to be at least 160 centimetres tall, and weigh around 75–80 kilograms, fit and healthy with good eyesight, hearing and balance. However, the main criteria are tested through a series of gruelling ordeals, including a 30-kilometre forced march carrying a 30-kilogram load. Naval Spetsnaz, who face particular demands, must also prove that they can swim through a narrow space simulating a torpedo tube, as well as demonstrate their nerves by diving underwater, removing their mask such that water fills the helmet, then replacing the mask and bleeding out the water from the helmet through a special valve before returning to the surface. So stressful is this that potential recruits get two tries before failing.

While they may not be as obsessed with physical prowess as the VDV, the Spetsnaz nonetheless maintain an arduous fitness regime, with the usual route marches in full kit and exercise sessions leavened with regular hand-to-hand combat sessions. In particular, they train in Sambo, a distinctive Russian martial art whose name is a contraction of Samozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, “self-defence without weapons,” but which in its combat form has developed into something akin to a mixed martial art, in which the fighters can use not just hands and feet but weapons or indeed anything that comes to hand. Of course, they also train with an extensive range of weapons, including at least some familiarity with those used by potential enemies, such as the American M-16 rifle family.

As well as getting first access to new weapons and kit, the Spetsnaz also have increased freedom both to customize their equipment and outfit and also to experiment with new ideas and vehicles. They are typically deployed in regular army-issue APCs and IFVs, although they are also increasingly using UAZ Patriot jeeps and other light vehicles. For example, they have been enthusiastic adopters of quadbikes and buggies, and an unconfirmed but persistent rumour is that they are seeking individual combat platforms described by one source as an “all-terrain Segway.”

Spetsnaz are not all parachute-trained, though about one-third are, and every OOSN has at least one fully airdroppable company. They do all receive training in operating from helicopters, though, including rappelling from hovering ones on ropes. As Naval Spetsnaz are expected not only to carry out the same missions as their land-based comrades, including spotting for naval artillery bombardments and scouting or sabotaging enemy coastal installations, but also to conduct landing and naval mining operations, they also receive additional training for such missions.

The special operations command

Russian spetsnaz special operations troops

Members of Russian’s 22nd Separate Guards Special Purpose Brigade during an exercise in November 2017. Russian Ministry of Defense/

As the Spetsnaz became more professionalized, and also as the demands likely to be put on them became increasingly specialized, moves were finally made to establish a proper special forces command as part of the Serdyukov/Makarov “New Look” programme. The GRU had long had a training base called Senezh (named for the nearby lake, although often simply known by its military post box number, V/ch or Unit 92154) at Solnechnogorsk, north-west of Moscow. In 2009, it was decided that this was going to become the base for a new special forces unit which — as this was a time when the agency was in the doghouse — would no longer be subordinated to the GRU, but directly to the General Staff. The first commander charged with setting up the unit was Maj. Gen. Igor Medoyev, who was soon replaced by Lt. Gen. Alexander Miroshnichenko. Tellingly, both of them were veterans of the rival FSB’s Alfa anti-terrorist commando force.

The idea was that Senezh would become the base of a new Special Operations Forces Command (KSSO: Komanda Sil Spetsialnovo Naznacheniya) built around an OOSN outside the regular brigade structure and dedicated air assets. Its missions would range from counter-terrorist operations in peacetime — especially with an eye to the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — to sabotage and assassination in war. When Shoigu and Gerasimov assumed control of the military, there were some concerns as to whether the KSSO project would continue, or whether the role of FSB veterans meant that the force would be transferred to them. They need not have worried. In March 2013, Gerasimov made a point of using a meeting with foreign military attaches to signal an acceleration of the project meant to build on the best practices of other nations.

By the end of the year, the KSSO had been stood up, on the basis of the 346th Brigade, deliberately kept under-strength (just one and a half OOSNs, in effect) to allow it to be manned purely with the very best of the Spetsnaz‘s contract soldiers. Senezh became more of an operational command centre, and the KSSO acquired additional training facilities at Kubinka-2, west of Moscow, where the VDV’s 45th Brigade is also based. The KSSO has priority claim to a squadron of Il-76 heavy-lift transport aircraft, and also a mixed helicopter attack and transport squadron at Torzhok airbase, many of whose pilots are actually instructors at the 344th Army Aviation Combat Training Centre when not flying missions for the KSSO.

Their first operational use was in Crimea, and since then they have appeared in the Donbas, Syria and Ukraine. They have also expanded from their original strength of around 500 to 2,000–2,500, although this includes trainers and support personnel, and maybe 1,000 are actual operators. The command unit (Unit 99450) is based at Senezh, then there are three operational detachments (Units 01355, 43292, 92154) largely operating out of Kubinka-2 and a further naval one based at Sevastopol (Unit 00317) under the auspices of the 561st Emergency Rescue Centre. Each comprises 200–300 operators. The KSSO is still a strategic asset under the direct subordination of the General Staff rather than the GU, but it nonetheless shares with the regular Spetsnaz an orientation towards both battlefield operations and military-political “active measures.” Some KSSO operators, for example, have transferred to the GU’s Unit 29155, its dedicated assassination and subversion force. This connection — which mirrors the way the other intelligence agencies have their own special force units, the Special Designation Centre for the FSB and the rather smaller Zaslon (“Screen”) unit for the SVR — emphasizes their role as also a covert subversion and sabotage force. Although analogies can be misleading, this would suggest they are in some ways comparable to the US Army’s Intelligence Support Activity, the CIA Special Operations Group or the British Special Air Service’s E Squadron. The KSSO is undoubtedly intended for a key role in the shadowy “grey zone” wars of the future.

Mark Galeotti is a scholar of Russian security affairs with a career spanning academia, government service, and business. He heads the Mayak Intelligence consultancy and is an Honorary Professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies as well as holding fellowships with RUSI.

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