Special Operations: Russia Rebuilds Its Commando Force


June 6, 2012: Russia is trying to rebuild its special operations forces after disbanding three of twelve Spetsnaz brigades (the 67th in Berdsk, 12th in Asbest, and 3rd in Samara) three years ago. The cuts three years ago were part of an army wide reorganization and reduction of personnel strength. There were also recruiting problems, especially the inability to recruit and retain enough career Spetsnaz troops. But now one of the disbanded brigades (the 67th) is being rebuilt in Siberia. The government is concerned about growing Islamic radicalism in central Russia and the five Central Asian nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union but became independent in 1991. Russia has military and security agreements with these five Moslem nations and wants another Sptsnaz brigade available in case there is a spike in Islamic terrorism.  The Russian generals have come to learn that when you need something done, nothing works better than a brigade of special operations commandos.

Despite the 2009, cutbacks, Russia's ground forces, especially the country's numerous special operations units, have apparently benefited greatly from the major reforms being instituted in the armed forces in the last eight years. Airborne Forces (paratroopers) and special operations forces (Spetsnaz) have historically been a major source of pride to Russians, going back to the '70s and '80s, when 30,000 Spetsnaz and airborne troops constituted the most effective troops available during the Afghan War (1979-1989). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's special ops suffered the same problems as the rest of the Russia, namely corruption, low morale, low funding, and a major decline in the quality of training. Special operations soldiers were often accused of doing contract killings and other "special tasks" for the Russian mob during the chaotic '90s. There are only about 12,000 of these elite troops left.

The lowest point for the state of the Russian special operations forces was 1999-2004, during the height of the Second Chechen War. Spetsnaz and Airborne troops suffered major reversals and defeats at the hands of Chechen rebels, with an entire company of supposedly "elite" paratroopers being wiped out during one battle. The most embarrassing moment for Russia's elite was the 2002, Moscow theater siege and the 2004, Beslan school siege. During the former, Spetsnaz troops, instead of executing a well-planned attack on the hostage-takers, bungled the rescue, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of hostages along with all the hostage takers. During the Beslan incident, Russian special operations forces conducted a conventional-style assault on the building, in some cases recklessly using RPO-A rocket launchers with incendiary warheads, tanks, and RPG-7V1s to blast their way into the school. Both incidents not only damaged Russia's reputation abroad, as it was seen as callously disregarding the lives of its own citizens, but also the reputation of the country's best soldiers.

After the Beslan incident Spetsnaz apparently decided to get its act together and it's shown in recent years. But by 2009, Russian special operations forces had expanded to a size that could not be sustained without lowering quality. The Russian military reforms did result in major improvements in the equipment and training of Russian elite forces, primarily paratroopers and special operations forces. But there was not enough money to pay what was needed to retain many elite troops. That is now changing.

For the foreseeable future the Russians know that their elites are the most effective, reliable troops they have and can't afford to have them spread thinly across the military in different formations. Instead, the Russians appear to be concentrating their most effective forces into specific units in order to have a lot of them ready to go and already integrated when they go into action. The same goes for the regular army, as it slowly but surely improves in quality.

The Spetsnaz brigades contain about 1,600 troops, at full strength, and the 67th brigade only had about a thousand troops when it was disbanded in 2009. Now it is being revived with 400 troops transferred from another Spetsnaz brigade. It will take several years, perhaps as many as five, to get the revived 67th brigade up to full strength.


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