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.
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.
Soviet GRU Spetz were oriented toward subversion and disinformation operations in enemy countries such as the U.S., as well as strategic recon, and were trained for sabotage if the need arose. But to my knowledge and research, there is no Spetz unit, under the former Soviet system or the current Russian system, that is or was trained for unconventional warfare in the way that Special Forces is. This is due to different cultures, priorities, and world views.
The Spetz explosion, when everyone wanted their own Spetz unit, happened in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was both a matter of status and of pragmatism. Special troops and tactics were necessary in a world where terrorism and separatists were also expanding their numbers and activities. At the same time, United States special operations units were experiencing their own contraction and expansion. Two SF reserve groups were deactivated, but one active-duty SF group was reactivated, brought back on-line, and SOCOM, the Special Operations Command, was getting its funding increased in ways not imagined twenty years prior.
Glasnost, the Russian policy of “openness” initiated in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, disclosed many Soviet secrets, some of which concerned Spetsnaz units. It was then that the Russian public, and the world, started hearing and reading about the superhuman feats and abilities of Spetsnaz, from the highly probable to the highly ridiculous and questionable. Several tell-all books about the Spetz were published by former Spetz and intelligence officers, such as “Spetsnaz: The Story Behind the Soviet SAS,” written by former GRU agent Viktor Suvorov.
Perestroika and the post-Soviet era meant much decay, and therefore reformation, for the Spetz and the entire Russian military. It was during that military reformation that the Spetz expanded, and the term “Spetsnaz” ceased being just a unit name and started to become a colloquial term for all special operations, which, in Russian, is actually “spetsoperatsiya.”
In the United States military, “Special Forces” refers to a distinct unit—the U.S. Army Special Forces, sometimes referred to as the Green Berets. They’re part of SOCOM, which controls (in theory) the entire U.S special operations community. But in Britain, and most other Western militaries, “special forces” means the more broad “special operations,” to include British SAS and German GSG-9. Similarly, today “Spetsnaz” is used to broadly indicate special operations in countries outside of Russia that have Spetz forces. Got that? There’s a quiz at the end of this article. Be ready.
(Author’s note: It is bantered about now and again that Special Forces needs a new and more distinct name. Snake Eaters Anonymous Legion [SEAL] is often suggested. But that acronym is highly problematic.)
There are a myriad of Russian Spetz units and elements. There is military Spetz—army and navy units—controlled by the GRU. These include army Spetz, naval Spetz, their SEALs, and the Guards Spetz—their specialized airborne troops, of which there are four entire divisions and eight brigades, and seem to most equate to U.S. Army Rangers. Think of that. Four divisions and eight brigades of Rangers. Hoo-freaking-ah. The 16th Spetz Guards Brigade saw combat in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia, the Northern Caucasus, and Kosovo. They have serious rep. But their operations resemble more those of the Rangers than Special Forces missions.
The FSB, which took over the role of the KGB, controls numerous Spetz units, such as the Alpha and Vymple Spetz. Regional FSB commanders also have their own Spetz units. There is also the Barrier Spetz, which is dedicated to foreign operations even though the FSB is supposed to be focused only on domestic security—on Russian and federation soil. But Barrier Spetz is a much smaller unit than GRU Spetz. The FSB still has control of former KGB Spetz units, such as Omega and Zenith, which have not been deactivated for various reasons. The FSB controls all border troops, of which there are many. The FSB most closely mirrors the U.S. FBI since they have responsibility for domestic security, and all of their Spetz units are supposed to be dedicated to domestic operations.
The SVR has the Zaslon Spetz. SVR is the Russian foreign intelligence service and most resembles our CIA. They and the GRU share certain missions and profiles.
The MVD, or Ministry of Internal Affairs, has their own Spetz units, such as OMON, OBRON, and SOBR, and Rus, Vityaz, and Berkut. These are kind of like our FBI SWAT and special tactics teams.
The Ministry of Justice has its own Spetz units, too, such as Saturn. These seem to be most like our U.S. Marshals and their special elements, all of which are under the Department of Justice.
The term Spetsnaz has expanded into and been adopted in several former Soviet satellite states, such as Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, for their own special operations forces.
Like in our special operations community, there is much crossover between Spetz units, with guys going from one to another, such as from military Spetz to FSB or MVD Spetz, or from FSB to regional police Spetz, etc.
Most Spetz units are organized into military unit structures, from platoons up to brigades and even divisions. GRU Spetz are organized not in platoons, like most other Spetz units, but in teams, like SF. All Spetz are crossed-trained in demolitions and heavy and light weapons, small-unit tactics, and radio communications, just like all U.S. special operations units. But GRU Spetz are also highly trained in intelligence and unconventional warfare (UW), like SF, but more focused on operations in urban areas, whereas SF trains and prepares for urban as well as very rural and remote, dealing with rugged areas and people.
Overall, the GRU Spetz most closely resembles U.S. SF in terms of training and mission. And they seem to carry the most influence when it comes to reputation and diversity of missions and skills.
Skills specialization is a unique aspect of U.S. Army SF, in that each man on an ODA (A-team) has a unique military specialty (medic, communications, demolitions, etc.) and also numerous sub-specialties. From what I could find, only the GRU Spetz has that same sort of organization and breakdown of skills. Most Spetz units are more like Ranger companies or SEAL teams in this respect, prepared and focused only for direct action and rescue operations, not for long-term UW operations. So it seems that only GRU Spetz follows in the tradition of the Osnaz detachments of WWII.
Nicknames can also tell much about a man or a unit. GRU Spetz are often called “the polite men in green” and the “borscht boys of the baklava.” Special Forces are often called “the quiet professionals,” “snake eaters,” and “heroes of the oppressed.” Each SF group also has its own nom de guerre.
Language skills are a big part of both SF and GRU Spetz training. In the 1960s, all GRU Spetz operators learned one of the following languages: English, French, Mandarin, Arabic, or Farsi. After Afghanistan, they expanded their language requirements.
All members of a GRU Spetz team are fully informed of their situation and mission so that any member of the team can execute independently to complete the mission without orders or guidance. This is intended especially for UW situations, and the same is done in U.S. SF. In a DA situation, any operators cut off or alone would simply withdraw or go into evasion and escape mode.
One big difference between the two groups is that GRU Spetz are rumored to have specialized, top-secret teams composed entirely of officers, with no NCOs. This does not occur in Special Forces or anywhere in the U.S. military. This is one example of how different Russian military culture is to U.S. military culture. There are numerous others.
In 1987, the U.S. estimated all military Spetz total strength, to include GRU Spetz, at between 29,495 and 37,435 men. That same total was estimated to be around 25,000 in 1997. Those numbers imply changes not only in budgets and funding, but also in selection and quality of trainees and troops.
Differences between Spetsnaz and U.S. SOF
In spite of all the similarities between Spetsnaz and U.S. special operations, there are some big differences. Some Spetz units do seem to go in for theatrics. An example of this is all the videos of “pain-management” training showing trainees, and even team guys, hitting each other with 2x4s and generally kicking the shit out of each other for what seems to be negligible training value. I am told that these displays are not part of standardized Spetz training protocols, but more the result of bored and immature NCOs.
Spetz, and the Russians in general, are known not to negotiate with terrorists, and are well known for brutal responses to terrorism. They are also well known for getting hostages killed. The U.S. in general is more concerned with avoiding unnecessary deaths, ROEs, and striving to be “the good guys.” The Russians have a history of not caring about perceptions of good guys and bad guys, focusing only on results. This culture goes back to the Soviet era.
The KGB’s Alpha Group was sent to Beirut, Lebanon in October, 1985, in response to the kidnapping of four Soviet diplomats by a militant arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. This kidnapping was retaliation for Soviet support of the Syrians, who were active in Lebanon at the time. When Alpha Group arrived, one of the hostages had already been executed. Alpha Group tracked down and took hostage the families of all terrorist hostage-takers. They then began dismembering those family members and sending body parts to the terrorists. It worked. The remaining Soviet hostages were released and no Russian diplomats were molested in the Middle East for over two decades.
In 2008, the American Carnegie Endowment’s Foreign Policy magazine named Russia “the worst place to be a terrorist.” This is due to the attitude and culture within the Russian military and internal security forces not to play around with terrorists or criminals or anyone else needing killing. This has also led to their bleak reputation and track record for getting hostages killed.
In the Moscow Theater hostage crisis of October, 2002, 850 hostages were taken by Chechan separatists. Elements of Alpha, Vega (both under the FSB), and SOBR (MVD) Spetz units were called and on-station. After a two-and-a-half day stand-off, the Spetz units pumped an “undisclosed” gas into the building and went in, guns blazing. All 40 terrorists were killed, either by the gas or by Spetz bullets. But 130 hostages also died due to adverse reactions to the gas.
In the Beslan school siege of September, 2004, various Spetz units were called in. Again, Alpha and Vega, of the FSB, were on-station, as were several other Spetz units. On the third day of the siege, Spetz units stormed the building with heavy weapons support. All the terrorists were killed, as well as 186 children. It was also reported that 20 Spetz operators were killed—including three commanders, two colonels, and a major—and 30 wounded. Numerous witnesses reported that many of the Spetz killed and wounded died trying to shield children.
Since the mid 2000s, Spetz methods have changed somewhat, employing direct action methods to surgically take out most of the leadership of various terrorist organizations within Russia and in neighboring countries.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia went off without any terrorist incidents. This is most certainly due in part to Spetz efforts and actions inside and outside of Russia. It is fair to say that the same was the case with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The security forces at those games contained numerous U.S. Special Forces and special operations units and teams, who acted, supposedly, in an advisor status only. But rumors within the SOF community then and since suggest a much more active role.
U.S. SOF units and “top-tier” Spetz units, according to various sources, have been drawn into missions other than their original and intended missions, being employed as light infantry, anti-terrorist forces, and even as personal protection (bodyguards). During the GWOT, SF focused so much on DA missions, such as night raids on HVT targets, that much discussion and soul-searching ensued regarding the slippage of UW skills. Rumors and indications are that the same has happened in Russia, mostly due to internal security issues and concerns, and changes in Russian military culture and priorities.
Weapons, equipment, battlefield awareness, and logistics are constantly developing and improving, and all militaries and commanders constantly seek to stay abreast of these changes, but none more so than special operations, and especially U.S. Special Forces and GRU Spetz, given their unique skills and missions. The challenge for commanders is to maintain their units’ primal, pipe-hitting and door-kicking direct action and small-unit tactics, while at the same time maximizing new technologies and maintaining rapport-building skills—drinking tea and winning hearts and minds in foreign cultures.
So, the GRU Spetz is the closest thing that the Russians have to U.S. Army Special Forces. Most Spetz forces do primarily direct-action operations, assassinations (especially of HVTs), hostage rescues, and other special tasks and missions that require special troops and skills. Given that, and the fact that these days all Russian special ops are called “Spetsnaz,” I think that anyone in SOCOM can fairly refer to themselves as “Amerikanskiy Spetsnaz.” But, don’t tell that to the 10th Group guys. They’ll take it and run with it.