Russian Spetsnaz troops military parade
Spetsnaz troops march through Red Square in a Victory Day military parade, May 9, 2021.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
  • Russia's ongoing offensive in Ukraine has raised concerns about how its Spetsnaz forces may be used.
  • "Spetsnaz" has come to describe all specialized units in Russia's military, law enforcement, and emergency services.
  • Despite differing missions and abilities, Spetsnaz forces have taken on a kind of mythical status in the West.

In the military buildup prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there was speculation about how the Kremlin might use the Spetsnaz, the country's special-operations forces.

In late January, the UK's defense secretary told lawmakers that people "linked to the Russian state in ways that are not conventional" were already in Ukraine.

The US and Western militaries have relied more on special operators as the "tip of the spear" over the past 20 years. While Russia's elite forces also play that role, Moscow has geared them toward "political warfare" operations, which means they may take on a wide set of missions before and during a conflict.

Russia's special operators

Russian army airborne special operations spetsnaz soldier
A Russian army airborne special-operations soldier parachutes from a helicopter during an exercise, June 7, 2019.Valery MatytsinTASS via Getty Images

Spetsnaz's forebears date to World War I, but it wasn't until after World War II that Spetsnaz units were officially formed. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin signed off on them in the 1950s and Defense Minister Georgy Zhukov advanced their development later that decade.

Spetsnaz is an abbreviation of the Russian phrase for "special purpose forces." However, the term Spetsnaz has come to describe all specialized units in the Russian military, law enforcement, and emergency services.

In a sense, Spetsnaz has the same meaning as "special operations" and is used broadly, much in the same way the term "special-operations forces" is applied to a range of US units inside and outside the Defense Department.

Spetsnaz units' primary mission sets include direct action, strategic reconnaissance, and unconventional warfare — much like the Green Berets of US Army Special Forces, which was established around the same time.

Spetsnaz in general are most comparable to the US Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, a light infantry force, though some units are akin to Tier 1 units, like the US Army's Delta Force, according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs.

Russia Interior Ministry spetsnaz police
Policemen at an anti-terrorism training at Russian Interior Ministry Spetsnaz camp in Tver, Russia, October, 22, 2011.Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

All Spetsnaz units go through airborne school and learn static-line parachuting, but only a few Spetsnaz units are military free-fall qualified, meaning that they can conduct jumps from tens of thousands of feet.

But the original and most elite Spetsnaz units fall under the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, or the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence service.

Nowadays, only the GRU and FSB Spetsnaz units maintain the strategic mission sets. For example, the two best-known Spetsnaz units, Alpha and Vympel Groups, are tasked with counterterrorism and security at strategic installations, such as nuclear facilities, respectively.

Other Spetsnaz units have a more tactical mission and are trained and equipped to support conventional forces directly.

In a war, a GRU or FSB Spetsnaz unit would be tasked with a strategic-level mission, such as taking out Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisors, while a "regular" Spetsnaz unit would be tasked with a tactical-level mission, such as capturing an airfield or spearheading a push into Kyiv.

In recent years, GRU operators have been in the limelight for using brutal, Hollywood-style tactics abroad, including a brazen assassination attempt in the UK that left one bystander dead.

Myths and reality

Russia Spetsnaz Dagestan
Russian Interior Ministry Spetsnaz and a Dagestan volunteer search for Islamic militants in a southern Dagestani village, September 23, 1999.AP Photo/Eduard Dzhafarov

Since the Cold War, the Spetsnaz have reached almost mythical status in the West, a perception stoked by flashy public displays.

"In training videos circulated online we saw Spetsnaz breaking bricks with their hands and jumping through flames. This helped build a certain myth of toughness and invincibility around them," a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.

But the Russian military's overall performance in Ukraine in the days since its invasion has tarnished that standing.

"Now I think we're seeing that myth being debunked big time," the former Delta operator said. "Respect for an opponent is important, and I'm not trying to humiliate or underestimate them. But their actions, or at least what we have seen or know so far in Ukraine, aren't great."

Spetsnaz Russia Moscow Yeltsin
Spetsnaz commandos loyal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin take cover in downtown Moscow as they fight off a coup attempt, October 4, 1993.HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images

Underestimating an opponent, particularly a special-operations unit, can backfire. Despite Russia's setbacks the Ukraine, Spetsnaz units are playing or will play a significant role.

Russian military commanders might opt to use Spetsnaz units as shock troops to open the way for large conventional formations. They could also employ Spetsnaz units behind Ukrainian lines to sow chaos.

"During the conventional part of the conflict, I see Spetsnaz focusing on strategic targets — airports, the Ukrainian leadership, power plants, etc.," the retired Delta operator said.

"We have to remember that these are elite troops specially selected, trained, and equipped. You don't want to waste them in infantry attacks or against targets of no strategic significance. In the end, you have so much of a certain capability, and you wouldn't want to lose or blunt it against a target of disproportionate significance," he added.

Spetsnaz units have also had a central role in past Russian counterinsurgency or low-intensity operations, Galeotti wrote in 2020. They could do so again if the war in Ukraine shifts to unconventional warfare.

Russia spetsnaz US Special Forces in Bosnia
Russian and US Special Forces members stand on and beside armored vehicles in Bosnia, 1996.Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

The former Delta operator cautioned against "mirror-imaging" how Russia would use its special-operations forces based on how the US had done so. "Russia is a proud nation with a great martial tradition. How they employ their top tier troops is most likely informed by that tradition."

For obvious reasons, US special-operations units have had limited exposure to their Russian Spetsnaz counterparts.

In 2001, however, soldiers from the US Army's 10th Special Forces Group — which has in recent years trained Ukrainian forces — worked with Spetsnaz troops for the first time, teaming up to conduct almost daily patrols in Kosovo, according to Mark Giaconia, a Green Beret who took part in the mission.

Spetsnaz troops were "very similar to us, kind of big macho guys with kind of a special status in their military," Giaconia told Sofrep in 2018, describing the camaraderie that they developed.

"Ultimately they were a lot like us. They were the elite of their military. They were competent in tactics. They were great to work with," Giacona said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

Read the original article on Business Insider