- Amid its struggles in Ukraine, Russia’s military has relied heavily on its most highly trained troops.
- The fighting has taken a outsize toll on those troops, including Russia’s famed Spetsnaz special operators.
- Moscow may rely on those operators even more as it renews its campaign with a focus on eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces have struggled in Ukraine, failing to achieve any of their primary objectives after two months of fighting.
Moscow has reduced its ambitions, focusing on eastern Ukraine. It appears to be renewing its offensive, but its performance has already affected assessments of its military prowess, calling into question its status as a “near peer” force.
Among the Russian units affected are the famed Spetsnaz. During and after the Cold War, these special operators achieved legendary status in the West. Recent successes in Crimea and Syria seemed to add to their credentials.
Alongside the rest of the Russian military, however, their reputation is being tarnished in Ukraine.
The city of Irpin, only miles from Kyiv, was a base Russian special-operations forces until Ukrainian forces ousted the Russians in late March. The brutal fight for the port city of Mariupol — the kind of strategic target where Moscow has concentrated its most capable forces — appears to have taken an outsize toll on Russia’s special operators.
Spetsnaz: Russia’s special operators
Moscow established the Spetsnaz, its first special-operations unit, in the 1950s to conduct strategic missions.
Spetsnaz initially had a strategic role, but now every special-operations unit in the Russian military, law enforcement, and emergency and security services are called Spetsnaz.
In general, military Spetsnaz units are a light infantry airborne force that can act as shock troops. A few elite Spetsnaz units, such as Alpha and Vympel Groups, have strategic missions, such as counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and the security of nuclear installations.
There has been limited reporting on what Russian special-operations units have done in Ukraine or how they’ve performed, but their missions there may include special reconnaissance, direct-action operations, and unconventional warfare.
One of the few advantages that Russia’s military has leveraged against Ukraine is its long-range weapons. Russia has launched more than 1,500 ballistic and cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets.
Russian special operators could infiltrate close to those targets and use specialized equipment to help guide the munition. Moscow’s utter disregard for collateral damage means it may not be using such targeting assistance, but that skill set could still be used if the Kremlin wants to take out the Ukrainian leadership with a strategic strike.
Russian special-operations forces might also be conducting direct-action operations, such as raids and ambushes, in pursuit of tactical-level goals, such as capturing a city block.
Generally, it would be folly to use special operators for conventional operations, as their potential casualties would squander the time and expense used to train them to a high level, but the lack of progress may prompt Russian commanders to do so, especially in urban settings where the close-quarters-combat training of Russian commandos might make the difference between winning and losing.
Russia may also use its special-operations forces for unconventional warfare and asymmetric operations. Russian forces have been supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine for years, and that effort may expand as Moscow redirects its military campaign toward that region.
Russian special operators may also target Ukrainian strategic targets, such as airfields or fuel and arms depots. There have already been reports of Russian naval commandos attacking a Ukrainian military intelligence ship.
Learning from the enemy
When it comes to special-operations forces, the Russian military has had ample opportunity to learn from the US.
For the past 20 years, US special operators have been at the tip of the spear. Their ability to conduct high-reward missions with less military or political risk than larger conventional units has made them a go-to option for American policymakers.
Russia’s military began a major reorganization in 2008, part of which was the formation of a dedicated special-operations command organization. Created in 2009, the Russian Special Operations Forces Command is a strategic-level special-operations organization tasked with the hardest, most important missions.
“The Russians aren’t stupid. They would have seen how successful we’ve been employing SOF [special-operations forces] downrange during the GWOT [Global War on Terror] and have taken their notes. That’s what we would do,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.
What Russian forces have learned in terms of military doctrine isn’t apparent, but open-source information showed “how our operations have influenced their equipment and training,” said the retired operator, speaking anonymously because they still work with their unit.
“It’s funny because sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between an American and Russian operator because they tend to both wear MultiCam [camouflage], high-cut helmets, and carry similar assault loadouts. It’s only from the weapons that you can really tell the difference,” the former operator added.
Moscow drew on the creation of the US’s Joint Special Operations Command, which is a component of US Special Operations Command, as a model for its new command.
Although smaller than Russia’s new command, JSOC contains the US military’s special missions units, the most elite special-operations organizations that comprise the US national mission strike force.
Moscow wanted to replicate the effectiveness of the JSOC, bringing together its top special-operations units to facilitate better command and control. Even Spetsnaz units from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, were transferred to the new organization, though they were reassigned to the GRU in 2013.
“People in SOF tend to be cut from the same cloth. The training, mission sets, and funding might be different — and in some cases worlds apart — but the people at the highest levels tend to be very similar,” the retired operator 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.