Special Operations: Ukrainian Operators


July 19, 2021: Back in 2016 NATO and Ukraine agreed to have NATO personnel help train and expand Ukrainian special operations forces. At the same time Ukraine copied the American SOCOM (Special Operations Command) concept and combined all its special operations forces into a fifth branch of their military; UASOF (Ukraine Special Operations Forces). Tight military budgets have kept the size of UASOF at about 2,000 personnel, rather than the 4,000-man force originally planned. Despite the personnel shortage, UASOF have continually upgraded their skills to meet NATO standards and are now certified to serve as part of the NATO Response Force. This is one of the many conditions the Ukraine military must meet to be eligible to join NATO. To help with the budget problems the U.S. and other NATO nations have contributed vehicles, special boats and other equipment to get all three branches (land, naval and air) of UASOF equal to American and NATO standards. Ukraine is reforming and expanding its military and that will include another thousand personnel for UASOF.

All this NATO help was sorely needed because when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Ukraine inherited about 6,000 special operations troops. While trained for special operations, the Soviet era version was not as accomplished and experienced as Western “operators.” During the 1990s the Ukrainian force shrank to about 3,000. A common reason for Ukrainian special operations troops leaving was that many were Russian or pro-Russian and Russia made more of an effort to 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.

After 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 loyal to Russia. Since then, Ukraine has been rebuilding its special operations forces using troops loyal to Ukraine. Noting the success of the small number of Ukrainian special operations troops in 2014, NATO offered help to rebuild Ukrainian special operations forces.

The Soviet era special operations troops Ukraine did still have in 2014 came from highly respected Russian traditions. 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 1979-1989 Afghan War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's special ops suffered the same problems as the rest of 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 was on the receiving end of Russian special ops in 2014 when Russia grabbed the Crimea Peninsula. Most of the work was done by several hundred members of the GRU (Army Intelligence) 45th Spetsnaz Regiment. These operators were sent to the Crimea disguised as civilians to create a “popular uprising” that would enable Russia to justify annexing Crimea. Some of the uniformed men who then took control of Crimea were apparently pro-Russian locals hired by the GRU. The core of this “local militia” were men with obvious military training who had been using those skills recently. These were Russian 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 were also civilian contractors, which Russia was already exporting to many foreign nations, 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. During and after World War II the Russian military formed special operations units. These were not in competition for the KGB special operations units but meant to provide long range reconnaissance capability. In the 1960s, the Red Army began to organize "troops of special purpose" units. These were called "Spetsialnoye nazranie", or Spetsnaz for short. 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 had to form temporary units consisting entirely of officers. This changed during and after World War II.

The original Spetsnaz were organized more like the British SAS (the original “operators”) raiding teams. A Spetsnaz brigade of 1,300 men could field about a hundred 8-to-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 which volunteers they chose to be in the Spetsnaz and putting these 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 and reconnaissance techniques. Many conscripts had just learned a foreign language in high school and Spetsnaz was one place where they could learn to improve those skills. 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, which had a high washout rate. 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 Afghan irregulars they were fighting noted this and learned to clear out of the area if Spetsnaz were found to be operating nearby.

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 most are career soldiers. By 2014 about half were career men, versus 20-30 percent during the Soviet period. Eventually 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. That was successful with national police and reserve units but the Russian Spetsnaz strength is still not much more than half what it was before 1991.


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