Along with the initials KGB, the word Spetsnaz ranks as one of the best-known Soviet terms to come out of the Cold War. Movies and novels portrayed Spetsnaz as highly trained, bloodthirsty killers who knew no bounds and ended up getting wiped out before the screen faded to black or the final page turned.

Truth sometimes imitated art, especially in the Soviet era, but beneath stigma and rumor laid a core of the best trained men the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation, could produce.

Spetsnaz, or Special Purpose Units, is a broad term that encompasses elite units in both military and police forces.

Once a closely guarded secret, the beginning of Spetsnaz came after the Second World War. 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.

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

An Army-based element consisted of a headquarters group, four parachute battalions, a communications company and logistics personnel. Their primary assignments were to carry out deep penetration missions hundreds of miles 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.

In typical Special Forces fashion, both Army and Navy were designed to operate in small detachments of about but not limited to eight men, with a much larger force capable of coming together on short notice.

One of the unique features of both GRU and Naval Spetsnaz was that each brigade contained an anti-VIP company of 70-80 men whose sole purpose was to assassinate military and political leaders. This capability was used more often than not against enemies of the Motherland.

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, while its Navy brethren wore sailor attire. This was standard practice to conceal identities and movement as well as numbers assigned in each service.

Spetsnaz numbers peaked during the 1980’s, 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 1970’s, more specialized Spetsnaz units were created within other parts of the Soviet government.

Group ‘Alpha’ was created in 1974 as a 30-man counter-terror unit that came under exclusive control of the KGB (now FSB). Today they number about 700 and train in areas including but not limited to storming ships, buildings, aircraft and buses.

About 1/3 of the personnel are also experienced mountain climbers, and another 1/3 are combat divers.

In 1981 the group ‘Vympel’ was created – again, under KGB control. Vympel are the highest trained of any Spetsnaz, with each man specializing in different areas, such as flying aircraft, medicine, driving various armored vehicles, martial arts experts, expert marksmen, and fluency in up to three languages.

Russian Special Forces | What Are Spetsnaz?

Read Next: Russian Special Forces | What Are Spetsnaz?

With an estimated strength of about 1,000, these men run operations similar to GRU Spetsnaz but in a more covert manner, 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 where they don similar outfits.

The MVD (Interior Ministry) was the last to create their own version of Spetsnaz, 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, and make up some 25 units. These men wear a red beret along with the dress and camo uniforms of the ministry.

Selection requirements vary between GRU and Navy Spetsnaz, but the Spetsnaz training endured by the 150 to 170 recruits in each class includes:

  • Extreme Mental/Physical Conditioning
  • Forced Marches
  • Weapons Handling
  • Marksmanship
  • Long-Range Marksmanship
  • Explosives Training
  • Demolition
  • Climbing (Alpine Rope Techniques.)
  • Rappelling
  • Airborne Training
  • Counter-Terrorism
  • Bullying and Beatings (by instructors and by peers.) This is commonplace throughout the course.
  • Hand-to-Hand Combat (Using implements like bayonet and the famous Spetsnaz shovel)
  • Diving
  • Underwater Combat
  • Emergency Medical Training

Less than 5% end up passing

Those who graduate gain access to the best weapons and equipment Russia can provide, along with the best training. As one Spetnaz operator said, “You make the man a weapon.”

Those wishing to join Alpha or Vympel units must already be Spetsnaz and undergo further specialized training. While classified, this training is known to consist of daily 9km 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.

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

The MVD training course dispenses with some of the military fields but is still intense, with a 100 meter sprint, 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% are known to be selected.

Spetsnaz in Afghanistan, 1988
Spetsnaz in Afghanistan, 1988

The use of Spetsnaz by the then Soviet Union included such notable actions as Operation Storm 333, where Alpha and a GRU unit led an assault against the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan to assassinate President Hafizullah Amin and his 200 guards. This action began the invasion of the 40th Army of the country. A flood of Spetsnaz teams then rotated on a regular basis, plying their trade in the 8½ year war.

Naval Spetsnaz has also conducted their own clandestine actions, and was said to have come ashore at different times on the barren beaches of Alaska and neighboring islands.

The suspicious death of an Alaskan National Guard member in the 1980’s was said to occur 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 about the incident, many Guard members were convinced the story was true.

In 1984, Vympel members were dispatched to Lebanon to aid in the recovery of Soviet diplomats kidnapped by Islamic terrorists. They got immediate results when they identified the leader of the terrorist group, killed and dismembered a family member, and sent him the parts threatening more to come. The diplomats were on their way back to the Soviet Union within hours.

When the Soviet Union dissolved and pangs of independence rang from such areas as Chechnya, Spetsnaz committed itself in the same manner as Afghanistan, rotating several units into the fighting that continues to this day. Chechnya has provided an environment for all types of Spetsnaz units to use their various specialties and gain valuable experience, in the same way the War on Terror has aided western Special Operations Forces.

Other Spetsnaz actions include the Moscow Theater siege, where a sleep agent was filtered through air conditioning vents, killing several terrorists but also many hostages. And the Beslan School siege, where Spetsnaz stormed a grade school seized by terrorists, resulting in a bloodbath of the gunmen and several hundred innocents.

Today Russia’s military power is a shadow of its former self, and its future is uncertain. But one thing appears certain: today’s 15,000 remaining Russian Spetsnaz can expect to be called on with regularity to combat threats against the Motherland, internal or external, as it struggles against itself to find a place in the world.

 This article previously published by SOFREP 08.05.2012 written by Mike Perry.