Special Operations: Russia Expands Its Playbook


December 31, 2016: Russia has acknowledged that its newest special operations unit, the KSO (Special Operations Command) has been operating in Syria. KSO was being discussed in Russia since 2013 but little was revealed officially. KSO appeared to be an elite Russian special operations unit more like the British SAS or the American Delta Force than the less selective special operations personnel Russia had favored in the past. It also became known that KSO has fewer than a thousand personnel, most of them operators (commandos) and all are volunteer professional soldiers who not only operate like their Western counterparts but have been seen using some of the same equipment. This includes special rifle sights, military rifles and high-end protective gear. Most of this stuff is available commercially, although often only to government agencies (to keep it away from criminals).

Like their Western counterparts Russian special operations troops are trained to do a variety of missions. These include reconnaissance (often deep into enemy territory), provide security for very valuable people or equipment and carry out “direct action” (raids).Russian spetsnaz (the less selective predecessor of KSO) did this in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the Caucasus since the late 1990s but not in Syria. That’s because Russia wants to avoid casualties in Syria as these are very unpopular in Russia. Spectacular victories, on the other hand, are still popular and Russia had figured out how the West had used more highly skilled operators (like SAS and Delta) as a backbone or spearhead for other special operators in special situations, like Afghanistan in 2001 and for the effort to kill bin Laden and many other senior Islamic terrorist leaders and, more importantly, capture useful secrets most of these men had with them. It turned out that KSO was a key element in making the quick takeover of Crimea work. KSO is still a threat to Ukraine but it was apparently intel and advice from KSO operatives that prevented Russia from getting into even more trouble in eastern Ukraine (Donbas).

Russian special operations troops have been in Syria officially since October 2015 and unofficially up to a year earlier. Russia did not say much about what their operators were doing in Syria, which is standard for special operations forces. Initially the special operations forces were there to train their Syrian counterparts and help hunt down and kill ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leaders. Any successes there were not publicized, which is, again, pretty standard for secretive commando operations. It was more difficult to hide the role Russian special operators played in helping improve the security around senior government officials in Damascus. That operation was also a success despite many efforts by rebels to get at the Assad family and their key allies.

Until KSO came along Russian commandos are generally similar to their foreign counterparts with one major exception. Russian spetsnaz (as Russia called military special operations) units contain a lot of conscripts, which is in sharp contrast to Western commandos who are all volunteer careerists. But the Russian spetsnaz conscripts were carefully selected and are volunteers for spetsnaz duty. While these conscript Spetsnaz are closer (in capabilities) to American Rangers, the KSO are world class.

The spetsnaz considers these conscripts as potential long-term operators and the short service of these men was considered an extended tryout. The veteran spetsnaz learned to make the most of the constant influx of conscript operators. There was a price to pay for that high turnover. Spetsnaz in Chechnya suffered about ten percent casualties for each tour. In Chechnya there were only a few hundred spetsnaz there at a time and when they were there about 80 percent of Chechen casualties were caused by spetsnaz. The spetsnaz were in Chechnya and Ukraine mainly to collect information on the rebels, locating their camps and travel routes. Artillery or bombers are called in to do the actual attacks. When the spetsnaz do run into rebel units, they inflicted far more casualties than they took. But the spetsnaz casualties are higher than with their foreign counterparts in large part because of the many conscripts. Often a third or more of the men in a spetsnaz unit in Chechnya and Ukraine were conscripts. It appears that no spetsnaz conscripts were sent to Syria, where the spetsnaz apparently included some of their Syrian counterparts (especially if they spoke Russian) in spetsnaz units. It later turned out that this was part of the cover for the presence of KSO in Syria.

The original Spetsnaz were organized more like a massive use of SAS (British commandos, the originals) raiding teams. A Spetsnaz brigade of 1,300 men could field about 100 8-10 man teams. A Spetsnaz company had 135 men further divided into 15 independent teams. Since the 1990s the lower level (company and below) organization appears to have remained unchanged. There are many different Spetsnaz organizations in Russia. The army has most of them but the navy, national police, Foreign Ministry and intelligence services all have Spetsnaz detachments that specialize in doing what their organization requires. Thus there are Spetsnaz who can carry out amphibious operations or protect embassies and diplomats overseas. There is even a special Spetsnaz detachment of super-snipers who can also be used to find and kill exceptionally effective enemy snipers.

FSO drew its personnel from all the special operations units in Russia with the assurance that they would be the best of the best and get pay, equipment, weapons and government support commensurate with that. Apparently that worked and Syria was the final exam.

There are still differences between Western and Russian special operations forces. Unlike the U.S., where the commandos have their own military command (SOCOM or Special Operations Command) in Russia the spetsnaz work more closely with the various intelligence agencies. GRU apparently had a 2014 plan for taking over Crimea in a way that would cause the least amount of diplomatic and military damage and the spetsnaz units GRU controlled were the key operators able to make it happen. KSO also got involved but GRU took the lead. KSO was the new player and performed well. A year later KSO showed up in Syria where KSO was the lead special operations unit there.

Crimea and Syria were also different types of special operations situations. Ukraine had 25,000 army, air force and navy personnel in Crimea but the GRU spetsnaz plan included persuading many of them to either just not fight to accept a generous offer to join the Russian armed forces. The 11,000 Russian troops normally stationed in Crimea are mostly support personnel for the naval bases of the Black Sea Fleet. The exception was 2,000 marines. These were reinforced by another 7,000 troops, mostly infantry and special operations forces flown in or arrived by ship by early March. These were followed by 15,000 more ferried across the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait that separates Crimea from southern Russia. By late March Russia had over 30,000 troops in Crimea, including over a thousand spetsnaz.

All this was right out of the old Soviet playbook, used by the communists to avoid the expense and mess of directly taking control of a newly conquered territory but instead using locals to be figureheads who answered to Russia. This is what happened in East Europe after World War II. That all fell apart between 1989 (when the East European nations Russian taken control of after World War II broke away) and 1991 (when the Soviet Union itself fell apart and most of the unhappy non-Russians forced to be part of the empire got their freedom). Russia is trying to use the old techniques to get their empire back. That’s not working out so well, although there have been some minor successes like Crimea. Creating KSO is part of an effort to upgrade and improve this historically successful technique.

The Crimea operation was something of a comeback for the spetsnaz who, after the sloppy Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 were told that they were being downsized. This was especially bad news for the GRU spetsnaz who were feeling that they were not getting the respect and good treatment they deserved. This was made worse by the fact that the FSB spetsnaz units had better fringe benefits and pay. On top of that, the GRU spetsnaz spent more time in hell holes like Chechnya. Despite that, after Georgia some were getting layoff notices.

Down in the Caucasus, a lot of the actual fighting was between non-Chechens (al Qaeda types) and Russian commandos (GRU Spetsnaz.) Some 80 percent of the Chechen casualties are inflicted by the spetsnaz teams, who were the only troops that regularly patrolled the mountains where the Chechen rebels and their foreign allies hid out. Most of the dead and captured rebels were not Chechens. They were foreigners, many of them Arabs. This had largely quieted down by 2009, but the GRU spetsnaz were still doing six month tours down there and not feeling appreciated. They were becoming very good at what they were trained to do.

Because of the success in Crimea the planned (since 2009) cuts to GRU Spetsnaz were rescinded. Apparently the fact that the first spetsnaz units were the ones working for GRU and their long history of successful operations (many still top secret) did count for something. Now the GRU spetsnaz have more successes build on, mainly because of KSO. That explains why many of the best GRU spetsnaz joined FSO. They did so for the usual reason; to go from being good at what you do to being with the best.

This did not reflect poorly on the GRU spetsnaz. The successful Crimea operation will go down as one of GRU’s biggest successes. The GRU Spetsnaz were the first (in 1957) of the spetsnaz units created and have now demonstrated that they not only can fight Islamic terrorists, but also carry out complex political operations as well. In fact GRU considers counter-terrorism ops, especially within Russia to be another form of “complex political operation.”

But for operations like the American and Western special operations operators have been handling for decades, and especially since 2001, Russia now has FSO.


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