Special Operations: NATO Helps Rebuild Ukrainian Spetsnaz


March 1, 2016: NATO and Ukraine have officially agreed to have NATO personnel help train and expand Ukrainian special operations forces. This is sorely needed because when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Ukraine inherited about 6,000 special operations troops. During the 1990s this force shrank to about 3,000. A common reason for special operations troops leaving was that many were Russian or pro-Russian and Russia made more of an effort recruit special operations troops who had ended up in the armed forces of one of the new 14 nations created from the wreckage of the old Russian Empire. When a Ukrainian popular revolt in 2014 put an anti-Russian government in power even more Ukrainian special operations troops left, or were discharged, because they were more loyal to Russia. Since then Ukraine has been rebuilding its special operations forces using troops who are loyal to Ukraine. Thus the need for NATO help.

The Soviet era special operations troops Ukraine does still have come from highly respected Russian tradition. 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.

Ukraine were on the receiving end of Russian special ops in 2014 Russia grabbed the Crimea Peninsula. Most of the work was done by several hundred members of the GRU 45th Spersnaz Regiment. These operators were sent to the Crimea disguised as civilians to create a “popular uprising” that would enable Russia to annex Crimea. Some of the uniformed men who then took control of Crimea were apparently pro-Russian locals hired by the Russians. The core of this “local militia” was men with obvious military training and who have been using those skills recently. These were the spetsnaz and they were obviously in charge. Nearly 60 percent of Crimeans are ethnic Russians and GRU appears to have been recruiting, or prospecting there for years. Some of these locals admitted that money changed hands and they were glad to be part of the effort that returned control of Crimea to Mother Russia. When you use armed amateurs you have to expect this sort of unauthorized contact with the media but these comments did not sidetrack the takeover plan. The armed men were obviously briefed and most would not talk to reporters or even let journalists get close. But a few of these fellows, apparently local recruits, just could not resist a reporter with a camera crew looking for a few snappy comments for the evening news. Some of the anonymous armed men may be civilian contractors (which Russia exports to some parts of the world) and some were just pro-Russian veterans willing to take a gun and endure a bit of risk.

There are actually several different special operations, or Spetsnaz organizations and most are of recent origin. After World War II it took the Soviet Union a while to note the success of U.S. and American commandos and attempt to emulate their success. In the 1960s, the Red Army began to organize "troops of special purpose" ("Spetsialnoye nazranie", or Spetsnaz for short) units. The Soviet Union had always had some form of commandos but they were special units of the secret police (KGB). For special operations the army would form temporary units consisting entirely of officers.

The original Spetsnaz were organized more like a massive use of SAS raiding teams. A Spetsnaz brigade of 1,300 men could field about a hundred 8-10 man teams. A Spetsnaz company had 135 men further divided into 15 independent teams. The actual organization of these brigades was four parachute battalions, an assassin company, a headquarters, and support troops (mainly communications). A naval Spetsnaz brigade had two battalions of "combat swimmers" (comparable to U.S. SEALs), a parachute battalion, a midget submarine company, and other units the army Spetsnaz brigades had. There were also many independent Spetsnaz companies assigned to armies or smaller units.

In wartime each team would be given an objective to destroy deep inside enemy territory. Or, if not to destroy something, to go deep and find out what was happening in the enemy rear. Put simply, the job of the Spetsnaz was reconnaissance and sabotage. The Spetsnaz teams would get to the target by parachute, ship, submarine, or as "tourists" before the war began. At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union had about 30,000 Spetsnaz in service.

There was one flaw with this system: most of the Spetsnaz troopers have long been conscripts, in the army for two years. The Russians made this work by being selective in who they chose to be in the Spetsnaz and putting the recruits through a rigorous, and violent, training program. You could think of the Soviet era Spetsnaz as paratroopers with additional training in demolitions, infiltration techniques, foreign language training (which many Russian conscripts had just received in high school) and reconnaissance techniques. Perhaps most importantly, the Spetsnaz recruits were taught to think for themselves. This was a rare directive in the Soviet (or Russian) armed forces. But for commandos to be effective they had to think independently, and the Soviets realized this when they set up the Spetsnaz and the Spetsnaz training program.

During the Soviet period the Spetsnaz were seen as an elite organization and a career enhancing thing to have on one's resume. The army had more volunteers than it needed and would take the top graduates from the training program. A favorite method was to send volunteers to the six month NCO course. This course had a high washout rate but those who made it through were competent leaders and just the kind of people the Spetsnaz were looking for. Even after the Soviet Union fell the Spetsnaz were still seen as elite. It did not go unnoticed that Spetsnaz veterans were always in demand as well paid bodyguards and security experts.

The Soviets knew they were getting a lot of eager, motivated, and not thoroughly trained Spetsnaz troopers. But they had so many of them that it was felt enough of them would do enough damage to make it all worthwhile. We'll never know if the original plan would have worked, but the Spetsnaz were effective during the 1980s Afghanistan war. The main reason wasn't the superior Spetsnaz combat skills but their initiative and ability to think for themselves. The Afghans they were fighting noted this and learned to clear out of the area if Spetsnaz were found to be operating there.

The Spetsnaz recognized the need for career troops for some jobs. The assassin company in each Spetsnaz brigade was staffed with 70-80 career soldiers, whose job was to find, identify, and kill key enemy political and military leaders.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 the Spetsnaz didn't disappear. The new nations formed from parts of the Soviet Union inherited any Spetsnaz units stationed in their territory. Many of these non-Russian Spetsnaz still exist, although most are not of the same quality as they were when the Soviet Union still existed. Although there are fewer Spetsnaz today there are still about 10,000 of them in Russian service. And more of them are career soldiers (more than half, versus 20-30 percent during the Soviet period). Soon all Spetsnaz will be volunteers because conscription is fading away in Russia. Many of the current Spetsnaz are specialists, with specific skills needed for underwater operations (like U.S. SEALs) and anti-terrorist operations (like the U.S. Delta Force). The post-Soviet Union Russian government maintained the strength of their commandos because they knew they would need some skilled and dependable troops for emergencies.

The Spetsnaz selection and training methods were used to create commando units in the FSB (the successor of the KGB), military intelligence (GRU), the Interior Ministry (the national police), and various other paramilitary organizations. By 2012 most (about two-thirds) of the 15,000 Spetsnaz troops were in the ten army Spetsnaz Brigades. Since 2012 Russia has been working to expand its Spetsnaz force further.


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