The word Spetsnaz conjures up some of the worst stereotypes of Russians than anyone could imagine. But like anything else, the truth is far from what Hollywood or fiction authors would have you believe. 

Spetsnaz isn’t one elite unit but consists of several different ones in both military and police forces. Some of Russia’s best-trained troops come from Spetsnaz, or Special Purpose Units.

Spetsnaz units were created after World War II. The GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces) underwent a reorganization in which independent special-purpose reconnaissance companies were formed in 1949. These grew to battalions in 1957 and then to brigades averaging between 1,000 to 1,300 men in 1962. Spetsnaz are said to currently number 15,000.

There were two separate Spetsnaz-type brigades created for general warfare, Army and Naval.

Spetsnaz operators of the FSB in training operations.

Missions and Function

Initially, a Spetsnaz Army unit consisted of a headquarters group, four parachute battalions, a communications company, and logistics personnel. Their primary missions were to carry out deep penetration operations deep behind enemy lines against high-value targets, such as American mobile tactical nuclear missiles based in Western Europe during the Cold War. Secondary missions included raids, prisoner snatches, sabotage, assassinations, and guerilla warfare.

Naval Spetsnaz, which trained for maritime warfare, consisted of a headquarters group, three battalions of combat swimmers, and a parachute battalion. Midget submarines were also assigned to the brigade.

Both army and navy units were designed to operate in small eight-man detachments. Yet, they were also trained to work together as a much larger force on short notice depending on the mission.

Targeted Assassinations

Both Army GRU and Naval Spetsnaz contained a brigade-level anti-VIP company of about 80 men whose primary mission was to assassinate military and political leaders. This capability has been used on several occasions.

Spetsnaz units concealed themselves among regular units by donning identical uniforms, with GRU teams sporting the blue beret of the VDV (airborne) as well as its camouflage and dress uniforms. This was standard practice to conceal identities and movement as well as numbers assigned in each service.

Spetsnaz numbers peaked during the 1980s, when more than 30,000 men in 20 Army and Naval Brigades served along with dozens of independent companies, mainly in the Warsaw Pact states. With the emergence of terror as a weapon in the early 1970s, more specialized Spetsnaz units were created within other parts of the Soviet government.

Group Alpha

Group “Alpha” was created in 1974 as a 30-man counter-terrorism (CT) unit that was operationally controlled by the KGB (now FSB). Group Alpha now numbers about 700 troops. Like Western CT forces, its men train in storming ships, buildings, aircraft, and buses.

Group Vympel

In 1981 the group “Vympel” was created. It was operationally controlled by the KGB. Vympel troops are the best trained of any Spetsnaz unit, with each man specializing in different areas, such as piloting, medicine, driving various armored vehicles, martial arts, expert marksmen, and language fluency.

With an estimated strength of about 1,000, these men run covert operations, in addition to providing a Quick Reaction Force stationed to protect nuclear power plants in Russia.

Unlike GRU Spetsnaz, both Alpha and Vympel units sport maroon berets and often wear black combat uniforms, unless serving with other units when they don similar outfits.

The MVD (Russian Interior Ministry) created a Spetsnaz unit drawn from rapid response, drug enforcement, and prison guard teams. These Spetsnaz act as a kind of SWAT team, specializing in domestic counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and border security. They make up some 25 units. These men wear a red beret along with the dress and camo uniforms of the ministry.

Spetsnaz candidates cross a water obstacle during their Selection and Assessment phase.

Spetsnaz Selection, Assessment, and Training

Selection requirements vary between GRU and Navy Spetsnaz.

Spetsnaz training is comprised of the following:

  • Extreme mental/physical conditioning
  • Forced marches
  • Weapons training
  • Marksmanship
  • Long-range marksmanship
  • Explosives training/demolition
  • Mountain climbing (alpine rope techniques)
  • Rappelling
  • Airborne training
  • Counter-terrorism
  • Hand-to-hand combat (using implements like a bayonet and the famous Spetsnaz shovel)
  • Diving
  • Underwater combat
  • Emergency medical training

Each class has about 150-170 candidates and the attrition rate hovers around 90-95 percent. Yet, those who do graduate gain access to the best weapons and equipment Russia can provide, along with the best training. One common Spetsnaz saying is, “You make the man a weapon.”

Volunteers for Alpha or Vympel units must already be Spetsnaz-qualified and undergo further specialized training. While classified, this training is known to consist of daily nine-km morning runs, followed up by 65 to 70 km forced marches with combat loads approaching 40kg (88lbs) in freezing weather with little to no water.

Two months of basic training and three to four years of advanced training are needed before being allowed to join either group.

The MVD training course dispenses with some of the military fields but is still intense. It includes 100-meter sprints, 12 km cross-country running in full combat uniform, urban assault exercises with wall climbing, acrobatic exercises, and a 12-minute free-style sparring match with three separate opponents. Courses are held twice a year and less than 10 percent of candidates are known to pass.

Soviet Spetsnaz operators during the initial invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979.

Notable Spetsnaz Operations

Spetsnaz in Vietnam

Some 3,300 Soviet “military experts” were sent to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Most were Ukrainians manning anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missile batteries, and there were also persistent rumors of Soviet pilots flying North Vietnamese Air Force Migs as well as Spetsnaz units operating in Laos. John Stryker Meyer was with Special Operations Group ST Idaho and had two encounters with what they believed were Spetsnaz units operating in Laos in 1968.

Invasion of Afghanistan

Under Operation Storm-333, on December 27, 1979, Alpha and a GRU unit stormed the Tajbeg Palace in Afghanistan killing Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, his son, and over 300 of his personal guards in 40 minutes. The operation involved approximately 660 Soviet operators dressed in Afghan uniforms, including 50 KGB and GRU officers from the Alpha Group and Zenith Group.

The Soviet forces occupied major governmental, military, and media buildings in Kabul, including their primary target – the Tajbeg Palace. The Soviets then installed Babrak Karmal as Amin’s successor.

During the war, Spetsnaz units were respected by the Mujahadeen for their prowess at attacking resupply convoys coming from Pakistan. They were much better trained than the average Soviet conscripts. 

Beirut Hostage Mission

One of the more intriguing missions conducted by Spetsnaz occurred in Lebanon. While some claim that this operation didn’t take place, it has been confirmed by an intelligence source although some of the details may differ. 

In October 1985, four Soviet diplomats in Beirut were kidnapped by a terrorist group, the Islamic Liberation Organization (a radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). This was in retaliation for the Soviet support of Syrian involvement in the Lebanese civil war.

Moscow alerted specialist operators from the KGB’s Group Alpha who were dispatched to Beirut. However, by the time the Alpha group arrived, one of the hostages had already been killed. KGB operatives, using locally recruited sources, were able to identify each of the kidnappers. 

Once these terrorists had been identified, the Alpha team moved into the Lebanese villages where the terrorists were from and began to take their relatives as hostages. In a tit-for-tat response, Alpha group operators dismembered some of their own hostages, with their body parts sent to the terrorists. The warning was clear: more would follow unless the remaining hostages were released immediately. 

The show of force/reverse terrorism worked and for 20 years no Soviet or Russian officials were taken captive, until the June 2006 abduction and murder of four Russian embassy staff in Iraq.

Chechen Hospital Siege

Between June 14-19, 1995, a group of 80 to 200 Chechen terrorists, led by Shamil Basayev, attacked the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk, where they stormed the main police station and the city hall. In heavy fighting, the Chechens regrouped in the city hospital, where they took between 1,500 and 1,800 hostages, most of them civilians (including about 150 children and a number of women with newborn infants).

After three days of siege, the Russian authorities ordered personnel from the Federal Security Service’s Alpha Group, alongside MVD and other troops, to take down the hospital. It was a bloodbath. In the intense fighting, many of the hostages were killed by crossfire. A temporary ceasefire was agreed and 227 hostages were released. Alpha freed 61 others.

Russia accused the Chechen terrorists of using hostages as human shields. Two subsequent attacks on the hospital failed. 

A total of 166 hostages were killed and 541 injured in the bloody Spetsnaz attack on the hospital. A total of 25 Russians (11 police officers, 14 soldiers) were killed. Spetsnaz killed 11 of the terrorists. However, Russian memory is long and they later tracked down and killed 40 of the surviving terrorists including masterminds Aslambek Abdulkhadzhiev in 2002 and Shamil Basayev in 2006.

Spetsnaz snipers in a training exercise.

Moscow Theater Hostage Operation

On October 23, 2002, about 50 armed Chechen terrorists led by Movsar Barayev and claiming allegiance to the Islamist separatist movement in Chechnya seized the crowded Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. They took 850 hostages and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the Second Chechen War.

An assault on the theater was considered too risky due to the construction of the theater itself. Russian operators would have to take down a 100-foot corridor and then navigate a steep staircase just to reach the hall. 

The terrorists also had placed explosive charges inside the theater. The most powerful of the explosives, placed in the center of the auditorium, could bring down the ceiling. Russian operators estimated that the explosion would cause casualties in excess of 80 percent of the hostages.

On the third day of the siege, the terrorists executed two hostages. A joint operation consisting of Spetsnaz operators from the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alpha and Vympel supported by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) SOBR unit, made a controversial decision. They decided to pump an undisclosed chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system to incapacitate the terrorists and then raid the theater. That decision would prove deadly.

During the subsequent takedown of the theater, all of the terrorists were killed with no casualties among Spetsnaz. All but two of the terrorists were killed by the gas. However, due to poor medical preparation, 130 hostages, including nine foreigners, died. The hostages were rendered unconscious from the gas. As the operators moved the hostages outside the theater, they didn’t follow proper protocol and laid them on their backs causing them to choke to death.

Beslan School Massacre

On September 1, 2004, a group of armed Islamist terrorists, mostly Ingush and Chechen, occupied School Number One (SNO) in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia taking over a thousand hostages. The hostage-takers were sent by the Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev, who demanded recognition of the independence of Chechnya at the United Nations and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya.

After a three-day siege, the terrorists began to detonate explosives inside the building causing counter-terrorism units to execute an assault on the building using heavy weapons. Casualties were horrendous: 334 hostages, including 184 children were killed. Spetsnaz casualties consisted of 10 killed, including all three commanders of the assault group, Colonel Oleg Ilyin, Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Razumovsky of Vega, and Major Alexander Perov of Alpha, and 30 operators seriously wounded. Most of the fatalities occurred when Spetsnaz operators tried to shield the children from gunfire. 

Spetsnaz operators conduct a grouping exercise during HALO training

Ukraine Invasion

Despite claims by Putin’s government that Russian troops weren’t involved in the fighting in Ukraine, the Spetsnaz unit of the VDV RF (the “little green men”) took part in the 2014 Crimean crisis. Several hundred members of the 45th Detached Guards Spetsnaz Regiment and the 22nd Spetsnaz brigade were sent in, disguised as civilians. They seized the airport, several military bases in Crimea, and the parliament in Simferopol.

Syrian Civil War

Spetsnaz operators have been active in Syria even before the official September 2015 Russian intervention. Army Spetsnaz units secured the Hmeimim airbase at Latakia and Tartus naval facility and provided reconnaissance in the targeting of airstrikes. 

The Small Wars Journal reported that Russians also deployed Spetsnaz from GRU. At the peak of the deployment, there was a battalion of 230-250 men, probably drawn from several units, including Naval Spetsnaz from the 431st Naval Reconnaissance Brigade. There was also a team of operators from the newly formed Special Operations Command (KSSO) mainly snipers (or rather counter-snipers) and reconnaissance troops.

Death of National Guard Soldier in Alaska

Naval Spetsnaz has also conducted their own clandestine actions. They have been rumored to have conducted operations in parts of remote Alaska and neighboring islands.

The suspicious death of an Alaskan National Guardsman in the 1980s was said to have occurred when he stumbled upon a Spetsnaz unit dispatched from a mini-sub on Little Diomede Island. A piece of Soviet-made equipment was found near his body, and though there has never been confirmation or denial from the U.S. government.

Joint Spetsnaz-U.S. Green Beret Mission 

As covered by SOFREP, during the fighting in Kosovo and the Balkans in 2001, Russian Spetsnaz and U.S. Green Berets conducted a joint operation against a group called the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveda, and Bujanovac (UCPMB). 

Yet, these types of joint operations seem to be a thing of the past as relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorate.