When I was in my late twenties, I met a Russian who turned out to be a veteran of the Soviet Spetsnaz. I was still, at the time, in Special Forces, in 12th SF Group—a reserve SF group that has since been deactivated—after having been in two active-duty SF groups. The Russian, who I will call Ivan (he would not appreciate me using his real name), and I became good friends. Part of that closeness was due to our sharing certain stories of our SF and Spetsnaz experiences, and I can tell you that I was astounded at how similar our experiences were. Since then, I have maintained an interest in Spetsnaz, which I often refer to as the “Spetz.”

Since that time with Ivan, I have often sought to equate U.S. Army Special Forces (which I will henceforth refer to as “SF”) with the Spetz, in terms of training, mission, and culture. There are obvious and expected similarities and differences between the two units. Both are highly respected and feared. Training for both starts out with infantry basics and military parachuting. Everything commando and SOF has always started with a parachute. Most Spetz units try to get their people trained in HALO, SCUBA, sniping, demolitions, all that happy horse shit, but also in newer skills, such as tactical entry and breaching, tactical target exploitation, and skill sets that leverage recent leaps in communications and drone technologies that have revolutionized monitoring and surveillance.

Spetsnaz is the Russian abbreviation for Войска специального назначения, which translates to the English alphabet as Voyska specialnogo naznacheniya, and in English means “Special Purpose Forces.” It has come to be known as a general term for special operations forces in Russia, and for many former Soviet satellite states. The term was first used by the Soviet GRU to refer to its special military units, GRU Spetsnaz, and has come to be used to describe all special-purpose units, even the Special Search and Rescue units of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. In contrast, “U.S. Army Special Forces” translates as, and is generally know to refer to, “the baddest motherfuckers on the planet.” But, I digress.

Both units share a similar history. United States Special Forces, and the entire U.S. special operations community, were essentially born in World War II. The conditions were established in WWI, but the first true U.S. SOF units were formed and forged in WWII, in response to the changing nature of modern warfare. The first SF group, the 10th U.S. Army Special Forces Group (Airborne), was activated in 1952.

Spetsnaz history

Soviet Spetz was the same. Osnaz detachments of the NKVD in WWII jumped in behind German lines to work with Soviet partisans, just as OSS detachments (predecessors of SF ODAs) did in that same war. In 1950, Zhukov established the first 46 Spetsnaz companies, with 120 men in each company, all of them intended and trained for offensive missions involving strategic recon, subversion, and sabotage in enemy countries. GRU Spetz is now one of only two elements officially oriented toward that mission. All other Spetz are oriented toward domestic or conventional warfare or direct-action missions.

U.S. Special Forces after WWII, through the 1950s to the 1980s, was focused on spreading democracy and stemming the evil red tide of communism. At the same time, GRU Spetz was doing the same on the other side of the equation—trying to spread communism and stemming the evil green tide of capitalism.

During that time, a primary mission of GRU Spetz was strategic, or deep, reconnaissance, finding NATO missiles and command centers, targeting and attacking those in war, as well as conducting diversionary attacks to sew chaos and confusion during war. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Oh yeah, it’s also an SF mission, especially for that of 10th SF Group, during the same timeframe. Our teams spent a lot of time snooping around, doing strategic reconnaissance all over Europe, even in Soviet Bloc countries, and preparing for “stay-behind operations” in the event of Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

SF and GRU Spetz have long been known to infiltrate into a country or area dressed either as civilians or wearing the uniforms of other militaries. This practice is still used today. Special operators of either unit, SF or Spetz, are often allowed to grow their hair long and to grow facial hair so that they do not stand out too obviously as military personnel. However, these “relaxed grooming standards” sometimes have the opposite effect.