Russian Special Operations Forces: Image Versus Substance
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated members of the country’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) on their professional day, February 27 (inaugurated in 2015), underscoring this service’s instrumentality in the “eradication of terrorists in Syria and securing peace in Crimea and Sevastopol during the historical referendum [sic]” (TASS, February 27). Russia took its first concrete steps toward creating a stand-alone SOF in 2009 (on the basis of the Special Purpose Center “Senezh”); but as a coherent structure, this entity only appeared in March 2013, while the first tactical exercises involving the SOF were conducted in the Elbrus mountains in April 2013 (Mil.ru, April 29, 2013). The Russian SOF does not fall under any of the pre-existing branches/ arms of Russian armed forces or the non-military special services. And unlike other types of Russian special forces, or Spetsnaz (such as Alpha Group or Vympel), the Special Operations Forces are “not small special groups of highly qualified professionals, but large army-type structures comprised of professionals of the highest quality.” As a separate force (directly subordinated to the General Stuff), the SOF requires no “nod of approval from other armed forces branches” (RIA Novosti, February 27, 2018)—a perpetual problem various Spetsnaz units have had to deal with in Soviet/Russian regional conflicts.
Official Russian documents define methods employed by the SOF as “reconnaissance, sabotage, subversive, counter-terrorist, counter-sabotage, counter-intelligence, guerrilla, anti-partisan and other actions” (Mil.ru, accessed March 17, 2019). Another characteristic of utmost importance is the SOF’s ability (task, if necessary) to collaborate with local military formations. Namely, in Syria, the SOF closely interacts with Hezbollah and the Syrian military—an “element that was desperately needed, but non-existent, during the Afghan war and in Chechnya” (Russkoe Agentstvo Novostey, February 28, 2019).
To date, the main (known) operative theaters/missions involving Russian SOF participation include (TASS, February 27):
- Crimea. Nicknamed “polite people,” members of the SOF arrived to the peninsula on February 27, 2014. Operating alongside the marines, airborne formations, motorized rifle troops and private military contractors, they managed to paralyze locally stationed Ukrainian armed forces and assume full control over Crimea’s strategic infrastructure/objects;
- Anti-pirate activities (the Horn of Africa);
- Counter-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus;
- Rescue missions in Latakia province in Syria (the Su-24 and the Mi-8 missions);
- Counter-terrorist/anti-insurgency operations in Syria, where the SOF (aside from direct military engagements) conducted “covert operations in the deep rear of the adversary’s forces, intelligence gathering and reconnaissance missions,” as openly admitted by Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, in March 2016 (Lenta.ru March 14, 2017).
As noted by Aleksey Golubev, a member of the Russian counter-insurgency operation in the North Caucasus, the SOF constitutes the best-prepared elite force Russia currently has; without it, Russian success in Syria would not have been possible (Russian.rt.com, February 27, 2019).
This said, a closer look at Russian SOF operations/activities highlights some aspects demanding closer scrutiny.
- The relative importance of its role: As claimed by Russian sources (and frequently reiterated by Western outlets), the SOF played the key role in the capture of Aleppo in 2016 (Tvzvezda.ru, March 1, 2017) and Palmira in 2017 (Militarycolumnist.ru, February 11, 2017). Added to the success in Crimea, this has created a truly formidable image for the Russian SOF. Indeed, Russia’s SOF did play a crucial role in certain operations, but it would be overstating the case to ascribe these successes to the activities of this structure alone. In effect, in Syria, the contribution of Russian private military contractors (PMC) was instrumental. Open sources provide ample evidence of Russian PMCs performing offensive military operations in some of the most dangerous battlefield areas. A former member of the PMC Wagner Group, who did not wish to reveal his identity, stated that, in Syria, the most arduous and risky tasks on the frontlines were performed by Russian private contractors (see EDM, November 29, 2018). His is merely one of many such accounts.
- The unbeatable image and alleged superiority compared to the Special Forces of the United States: As argued by Russian military analyst Alexey Leonkov, “Americans are very eager to praise their Spetsnaz [Special Forces]. Of course, the Pentagon’s special units have everything at their disposal, but those whom they usually confront are weak and poorly trained… Hostilities in Somalia with participation of the US Spetsnaz demonstrated that technical superiority means nothing. The Americans barely escaped. We can also recall an example when the Iranian marines captured American Spetsnaz and, literally speaking, forced them on their knees” (RIA Novosti, July 7, 2018). Russian military experts tend to downplay the importance of technical superiority. But leaving the fighting qualities aside, the decimation of the Wagner Group (early 2018) in Syria has vividly demonstrated that the lack of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) in the Russian inventory—which Moscow is currently attempting to rectify (see EDM, February 13, 20, 2019)—might, in the short-to-medium term, become an insurmountable challenge for its special forces as well.
- True casualty rates: The official data on the losses in Syria is presented as testimony of success. According to the government, both combat and non-combat deaths in the Syrian war total approximately 115 military men to date, with only two SOF members supposedly killed since 2016 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 30, 2018; The Moscow Times, March 26, 2019). However, Russian investigative journalists from the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) believe Russia may be concealing the true number of SOF members killed in Syria, which is considered a “state secret.” One of the ways the government covers up SOF deaths is by calling those who were killed in Syria “casualties of the special anti-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus” (New Times, August 18, 2016). It is possible that growing casualty rates among Russian elite forces (such as the SOF) compelled Moscow to increasingly turn to private military contractors since 2017 (see Jamestown.org, July 13, 2018). Indeed, Russian PMCs are currently proliferating in other regional conflicts around the world—a trend that can be expected to only increase in the coming years.
Reportedly, 100 Russian soldiers, including special forces and cyber troops, arrived recently in Caracas (Gazeta.pl, March 27, 2019). But conservative Russian information outlets close to the Kremlin have, for weeks, been speculating about potential military engagement “in the jungles of Venezuela” between the Russian SOF and US elite formations. These media sources muse that Russian elite forces (apparently, supported by private military contractors, as the Syrian example demonstrates) could be used together with local forces and “Cuban guides perfectly familiar with the local environment” (Tsargrad.tv, February 27). One way or another, tensions are rising quickly.
Dr. Sergey Sukhankin is a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and an Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv). He received his PhD in Contemporary Political and Social History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), with his thesis discussing the transformation of Kaliningrad Oblast after the collapse of the USSR. His areas of scientific interest primarily concern Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea region, Russian information and cyber security, A2/AD and its interpretation in Russia, as well as the development of Russia Private Military Companies (PMC) after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.