As part of military reforms begun in 2008, Russia has overhauled its special purpose forces, or Spetsnaz to expand its capabilities and professionalization. It also created a new Special Operations Command known as the KSSO. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and military support of the Assad regime in Syria have afforded it the opportunity to put this new command to the test in combat. The Cipher Brief spoke to Michael Kofman, a CNA research scientist and Wilson Center fellow specializing in the Russian military, on how Russia has expanded and improved its special operations forces.
The Cipher Brief: How are Russian special operations organized within the military?
Michael Kofman: The best way to parse through a myriad of Russian special designation units is to break them into three categories: elite infantry primarily for reconnaissance in ground, airborne, and naval services (Spetsnaz GRU), special purpose units belonging to intelligence agencies (Alpha and Vympel), and the Special Operations Command (SSO or KSSO). The last one is of particular note as a recent development and arguably the most interesting of all, since it represents a Russian special forces capability that featured prominently in Crimea and Syria.
Spetsnaz GRU are sometimes shorthanded as Russian special operations forces, but this is a common misnomer. Spetsnaz are elite infantry intended to support conventional unit formations. These units consist of eight Spetsnaz brigades, one Spetsnaz regiment (25th), four naval infantry Spetz units, and the 45th VDV (Airborne) brigade with a total complement north of 9,000-10,500. Currently the Russian armed forces are integrating Spetsnaz units into brigades and divisions, adding a company to each reconnaissance battalion. These units are almost invariably under the purview of the main intelligence directorate for Russia’s General Staff, the GRU.
Meanwhile the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, fields two specialized units for counterterrorism and defending strategic infrastructure at home, named Alpha and Vympel respectively. Less mentioned is the FSB’s Directorate S, a special reconnaissance outfit founded on the basis of the FSB’s economic counter-intelligence unit, and likely larger than Alpha or Vympel.
The creation of a Special Operations Command (KSSO) was announced in March 2013, but the forerunner of this force was established in 1999. This is a tier one special forces unit intended for extraterritorial operations and independent action. Despite the name, it is not a duplicate of U.S. SOCOM and does not integrate other ‘special designation’ units in Russia under one command. It’s closest analogue in terms of design is likely the Delta Force or DEVGRU. KSSO is supposedly based around two centers, the first and largest is Senezh near the town of Solnechnogorsk. The second was opened later called Kubinka-2. Drawing from the locale of their founding training center and choice of headgear during the first combat tour in the North Caucasus during the Second Chechen War, the KSSO operators became known early on as “sunflowers.”
This unit fields perhaps a total of 2,000 personnel today, though the combat to support mix is unknown. Originally, it answered to the GRU, but was then placed directly under the General Staff’s command. Taken together, the reconnaissance units of Russia’s armed services, intelligence service outfits, and the KSSO, the Russian community of forces with distinct combat designations likely adds up to 12,500-15,000 strong.
TCB: What are some of the key capabilities they have, and what types of missions do they train for?
MK: The typical Spetsnaz units focus on traditional reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines in support of a conventional conflict. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Spetsnaz were used extensively during the two Chechen Wars for lack of other trained and equipped personnel. Meanwhile the KSSO is a relatively new addition to the Russian toolkit. The command’s core philosophy is training a cohesive team rather than individual fighters. There are five skills in which individual detachments specialize, but all train to establish basic competency, these include: parachuting, mountaineering, diving, urban warfare, and protection of senior military officials in combat zones. Another focus for Russia’s special forces is sniper training, here they invested heavily in both personnel and kit. This force also has its own aviation command assigned to it, organic combat support functions, and is expected to act independently of the rest of the military. Today, these include rotary wing aviation based in Torzhok and an air lift element on standby in Tver.
TCB: What special operations capabilities is Russia currently trying to develop?
MK: Russia had been eyeing the exploits of America’s Joint Special Operations Command, and like all good powers sought to emulate some of the successes demonstrated by the United States and other Western militaries, adapting those lessons to their needs. Russia’s Chief of General Staff, Valeriy Gerasimov, made clear that in setting up the KSSO, they studied the “training and application of special operations by the leading foreign powers.” In truth, the Russian military was well behind the curve of special forces developments when this unit was announced in 2013, but it has proven to be a quick learner. The military reforms launched in late 2008 up-ended much in the Russian armed forces, offering a unique opportunity to introduce new special forces capabilities and expand the role of existing special designation units within the regular armed forces.
Developing the force is not enough, as numerous enabling advances also had to take place within the Russian armed forces to employ a specialized unit of this kind. Command and control is quite important for extraterritorial operations. Delegating tasks with potentially strategic impact to a small combat group is not done without good confidence that other elements are in place to effectively command, move, or extract the force. Russia continues to work on refining tactics and doctrine for special forces operations, improving the unit’s ability to interface with the rest of the conventional military and take advantage of some of its more prominent capabilities, like long-range guided weapons.
TCB: Where have they been deployed recently and in what capacity?
MK: The KSSO’s first combat deployment was the rather memorable annexation of Crimea, particularly the initial seizure of the Crimean parliament. This operation spawned the moniker “polite people” by which Russian special forces have come to be referenced in popular culture. However, in Eastern Ukraine, there is little indication of KSSO at work. Here, operations were likely conducted by Russian Spetsnaz GRU units, with occasional accounts of soldiers from Spetsnaz brigades and the 45th VDV airborne regiment operating in the Donbass. These have sporadically engaged in direct action, but fighting appears to have been incidental to their recon and military assistance functions.
In September 2015, the KSSO moved on to Syria, where it has taken on an increasingly visible role in support of Russian combat operations. There, the KSSO has been involved in missions ranging from recovering the flight recorder of Russia’s downed Su-24M navigator back in November 2015, to reconnoitering targets for cruise missile strikes, disruption behind enemy lines through ambushes, high value targeted killing, and retaliation strikes against select groups of fighters. Four KSSO operators are known to have been killed, including two specializing in coordinating strikes with the air force, which gives some indication of their tasks. One the whole, it seems KSSO played a crucial role in the battle for Palmyra in Spring 2016 and was quite active in supporting the Syrian push for Aleppo last Fall.
TCB: What other countries do they train with? Who do they teach, and (if so) who do they learn from?
MK: It’s unlikely that the KSSO trains with anyone, but Russia’s elite infantry units commonly train with militaries of former Soviet republics in joint exercises. Russia hosts numerous such multinational exercises and games throughout the year to encourage military-to-military contacts, including countries like India, Mongolia, Pakistan and China, but there is little purpose to them in terms of developing interoperability. The more prominent forces being trained today are the Syrian Army and the separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia’s KSSO continues to integrate lessons from Western counterparts and increasingly its own, as it quickly establishes a legacy of combat operations. There is word now that Russian forces have deployed to an airbase in Western Egypt near the Libyan border, perhaps that will be the KSSO’s next experience.