Ukraine's challenge: How Russia uses Spetsnaz as 'tip of the spear'

Updated: Feb 05, 2022, 04:58 PM(IST)

According to the European Centre for Security Studies, "the Spetsnaz are not just a combat asset but also are a weapon of active measures and political warfare."

Russian Special Forces

NATO informed on Friday that Russia is deploying  30,000 combat troops in the Russia-Belarus joint military drills including Spetsnaz special operations forces.

The special forces unit dates back to World War-I when special units were formed in Russia. These Spetsnaz units carry out missions during both wartime and peacetime, in emergencies nationwide and beyond, according to TASS.

In 2017, Russia had released a video of its elite unit simulating a drilling rig rescue operation in the Crimea region to meet the "current challenges and threats, first from Ukraine, including sabotage activities and terrorist attacks in Crimea".

The manoeuvres involved combat swimmers and paratroopers as well as armoured vehicles, amphibious boats, drones and advanced reconnaissance equipment. A Russian lawmaker at the time Ruslan Balbek said the "Russian Special Forces prove they are ready to respond to all kinds of threats"


14th Spetsnaz Brigade in Belarus

Reports said Russian President Vladimir Putin had sent thousands of "Spetsnaz" special forces to Kazakhstan as protests hit the country after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave "shoot-to-kill" orders

Latest reports claim Russia's has at least 5,000 Spetsnaz soldiers as part of thousands of Belarus and Russian troops at the border ready to carry out sabotage operations.

Reports claimed the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade is headed to Belarus worrying Western governments who have vowed their own reinforcements.

The Biden administration has decided to send a "small number" of 5,000 US troops to Poland and Romania to bolster Europe's eastern front as Russian troops mass along Ukraine's border.


Afghanistan war: Killing Afghan President Hafizullah

The dreaded special operations unit had played its part during Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Reports say Spetsnaz crack troops are now preparing to undertake operations against Ukraine.

Spetsnaz literally means "special assignment". It was formed in 1915 during World War-I as a sabotage and reconnaissance unit to disrupt the German army many of whom were Cossacks including Ukrainians, Buryats, Latvians and Russians. They were considered an elite fighting unit capable of carrying out special operations behind enemy lines.

They famously operated during the Afghanistan war from 1979 to 1987 and reportedly helped in the overthrow and killing Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, his son as they stormed the Tajbeg Palace.


'Tip of the spear'

According to the European Centre for Security Studies, "the Spetsnaz are not just a combat asset but also are a weapon of active measures and political warfare, able to operate in the murky intersection of conflict, politics, intelligence, and propaganda."

They were deployed in the Donbas since 2014 in the separatist-controlled area in eastern Ukraine which is a mining and industrial hub that is economically vital for Ukraine.

The unit continues to be the “tip of the spear”. It also has a Naval unit attached to Vladivostok, Pacific Fleet, Northern Fleet, Sevastopol, Black Sea Fleet and the Parusnoe, Kaliningrad, Baltic Fleet.


Spetsnaz in Syrian conflict

Not surprisingly, according to the International Centre for defence and security quoting Norwegian security officials said, Russian Spetsnaz unit were found operating inside Norwegian territory in 2019

A think-tank IFRI said since Putin came to power, the different special operation forces and "special purpose forces" have multiplied with the Russian security complex.

The Spetsnaz have been in the Syrian conflict with 230 to 250 deployed at their peak.


Crimea annexation

Fighting between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists erupted following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 in the Donbass region. The region is at the heart of a cultural battle between Kyiv and Moscow since it is populated mainly by Russian speakers who the Kremlin says must be protected from Ukrainian nationalists.

Moscow's critics in Ukraine say the region's demographic make-up was altered by the famine and the movement of hundreds of thousands of Russian workers there after World War II. The Spetsnaz is believed to be especially active in this region.


Spetsnaz took part in Soviet invasions of Hungary

According to a US Congress report, the GRU commands Russia’s Spetsnaz (special forces) brigades, which conduct battlefield reconnaissance, raiding, and sabotage missions, in addition to training and overseeing local proxies or mercenary units.

Spetsnaz units played key roles in the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. In wars against Russia’s breakaway region of Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, the GRU and Spetsnaz units participated in direct combat and managed local allied Chechen forces.

They are organized into seven regular Independent Special Designation Brigades, a naval Spetsnaz unit for each of Russia’s fleets, a brigade used for testing new weapons and equipment, and an independent regiment in occupied Crimea. Despite efforts to professionalize the force, units are still composed of some conscripts, the US report said.


Spetsnaz as trainers

The GRU and Spetsnaz have gained significant experience creating and managing local allied proxy forces. Often these proxy forces are composed of organized criminals, warlords, or former rebels.

Most often, Spetsnaz operators act as overseers and trainers, helping to create new units directly subordinated to the GRU, the US report added.


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