Moscow, Russia – Recently a Russian government approved video montage of Russian Special Forces or Spetsnaz soldiers conducting counter-insurgency operations in Syria was released to the public via a Russian news outlet. The depiction was that of edited cut-scenes of Spetsnaz operators fighting the Islamic State in and around the highly contested region of Palmyra, where ISIS fighters are still attempting to gain majority control of city and the Russian-controlled airbase known as Et Tifor or T4. The video is nothing if not similar to the deluge of American Special Operations videos that have made their way to online video hosting sites. Yet with one subtle difference, the Spetsnaz unit was actually reported as an elite ‘Tier 1’ counter-terrorism unit of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s newest clandestine command known as the KSO. And it’s supposedly modeled after the U.S.’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
The moniker of Spetnaz is derived from the first two words of the Russian phrase ‘Spetsialnogo Naznacheniya” which is Cyrillic for “special purpose.” Just like the Jedburgh teams of the famed Office of Strategic Services or OSS of World War II, the Spetsnaz have a history of establishing partisan forces and training them in the arts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare behind Axis lines in the Nazi-controlled countries along the Russian Front. After the great war the main Russian intelligence wing, the ‘Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye,’ or simply the GRU took command and control of the Spetsnaz in 1950. During the height of the Cold War, the GRU sought to establish five regular battalions of Spetsnaz with the main goal of offsetting the Unites States special operations aspirations and to have specialized units capable of being inserted into U.S. and NATO countries to conduct deep reconnaissance of U.S. and allied NATO bases and troop strengths as well as specialized targeting of forward deployed NATO tactical nuclear weapons.
These types of operations and operational training for Spetsnaz chugged along without much adjustment for the better part of the 20th century as Russian military strategy has for the most part maintained its established Soviet doctrine of deploying large heavily armored units to deconflict threats in what Russian military strategists call a “very carefully crafted large-scale operations.” Such as what was seen in Russia’s quagmire that was Afghanistan in the early 1980’s. Where the large-scale deployment of armor and troops trained in Cold War tactics of a large-scale conflict with the West failed to repel and diminish the ‘hit and run’ guerrilla tactics of the mujaheddin in the mountains of Afghanistan. The Russian Ministry of Defense leaned on the GRU and its Spetsnaz forces to meet the guerrillas head on and thus began the Spetsnaz education in clandestine counter-insurgency operations.
In the early 2000’s the former KGB agent turned politician Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia and expressed his desire to increase the Russian defense spending budget to revamp the military into a modern fighting force, especially the GRU’s Spetsnaz. In 2008 Russian military strategists presented a plan to create a Special Operations Command which was designated as KSO. This plan was to design a command structure and elite units autonomous to the GRU and in essence the newly formed KSO would answer directly to the Defense Minister and supposedly to the Russian president himself. The GRU didn’t like this plan as this would cut the intelligence agency out of operational command on control of its Spetsnaz units and Foreign Intelligence Directorate wholly rejected the idea.
Infighting between the Joint Chiefs and the ministers of the GRU continued until late 2010 while using lessons learned from operational failures of the GRU in the Georgian War. The Russian Joint Chiefs were able to gain some wiggle room from the Kremlin and establish specialized special forces ‘test-bed’ brigade named the 100th Brigade. This test bed unit in which the KSO was to be established began using the models of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command’s Tier 1 along with the British Special Air Services (SAS) units command structures to set up the infrastructure of the Russian unit. Along with developing focused training that mirrored the tactics gleaned from each of these elite western special operations mission sets, such as counter-insurgency, direct action anti-terrorism operations, and foreign internal defense. The Joint Chiefs pushed even harder for the establishment of the special operations command as the Russian government (desperate not to have an international terror incident occur during the winter Olympic games being held in Sochi) began entertaining all aspects of military reform in the realm of terrorism to avoid the embarrassment of such an attack on such a high-profile international sporting event. And out of this fear, the KSO was born in 2013, funded and fully backed by Vladimir Putin and the Defense Ministry with GRU’s complaints of losing control of this newly formed Spetsnaz unit falling on deaf ears within the Kremlin.
The newly formed Special Operations Command, or KSO was given carte blanche with the defense budget and sought to develop a ‘special purpose command center’ known as Senezh, which answers directly to the Russian Defense Ministry and a direct pipeline to president Putin, just like JSOC and the SAS. Training of potential KSO members also began along with a special purpose helicopter squadron being established and filled with what the Defense Ministry deemed their best pilots to be trained in special operations specific air operations to support the newest KSO operators in ground operations similar to the U.S. 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment or SOAR. This they felt was a winning recipe for the development of an elite ‘Tier 1’ unit that Russia desperately needed.
The weakest link in this plan however was with the pool of talent coming from the Spetsnaz ranks themselves. The majority of the Russian military is mostly conscripted or drafted into service. This includes about 30% of the Spetsnaz forces as well. This means that twice yearly conscripts rotate out of their three-year commitment leaving the Spetsnaz in constant transition of experienced operators being few and majority of teams filled with members with only one or two years training and experience. This has led many military analysts to surmise that Spetsnaz is considered special operations but isn’t truly an elite Tier 1 level quality unit and share similarities closer to the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment. The Russian Joint Chiefs desire to develop the ‘elite within the elite’ of special operations has pushed them to incorporate a volunteer program where KSO hopefuls become kontraknik or ‘contract soldiers’ where they sign up for 4-6 years as a commitment to the KSO, similar to the U.S. military’s all volunteer based enlistment structure. The Joint Chiefs deemed this a solid plan on slowing down the revolving door of incoming and outgoing conscripted soldiers that has plagued the Spetsnaz for years. This ensures the operational experience accrued by KSO operators stays within the unit longer by enlisting an all-volunteer force.
A year after the KSO was formed, the unit saw its first modern-day deployment after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Where elements of the KSO along with other Spetsnaz units still under the command of the GRU infiltrated Crimea and began covert operations with local ‘self-defense militias’ in the area of Simferopol where KSO elements and militias seized control of several governmental buildings to include the parliament building of the Supreme Council of Crimea using well-orchestrated helicopter insertions to fully engulf the target area and take control of the opposition government’s leadership. A similar assault took place at the Simferopol International Airport where Ukrainian news media reported that “Little Green Men” with state-of-the-art Russian military equipment had taken control of the airport. These “Little Green Men” were later confirmed by Russian Admiral Igor Kasatonov to members of newly formed elite Tier 1 unit, KSO along with other Spetsnaz elements.
Shortly after the Crimea operation the KSO also was reported to have deployed to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Russian Defense Ministry denied that special operations elements were deployed to the region until an unsanctioned ‘humanitarian convoy’ from Russia entered Donetsk and was later found to be not so much humanitarian aid, but that of a stealth incursion by Russian special forces which included the 346th brigade of the KSO. Russia maintained that the group of Russian-speaking soldiers were that of volunteers or mercenaries “defending the Russian-speaking population in the Donbass.” And that Spetsnaz units were simply there as trainers and advisers to insurgent forces loyal to the Russian Federation. It is rumored that the GRU liaised with the little known private military contracting company ChVK Vagner, which ranks are filled with former Spetsnaz operators, and contracted these ‘volunteers’ out to train and fight alongside Russian-backed separatists in and around the cities Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russian Joint Chiefs used the Crimean and Ukrainian conflicts as a proof of concept that the KSO were ready for operations outside of the Russian sphere of influence and green lighted KSO’s deployment into Syria’s civil war to assist pro-Assad Syrian Arab Armies in routing the Islamic State, as well as other moderate al-Qaeda aligned groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham from its country. Russian special operations have been conducting direct action raids alongside their counter-parts for quite some time with earliest overt reporting of Spetsnaz units believed to be from KSO helping liberate the city of Palmyra in March of 2016. Where Russian special forces directed air strikes by Russian fighter jets and attack helicopters to commanding close quarters ground attacks alongside Syrian Arab Army units which led to Palmyra’s retaking from the Islamic State. This only to return to the city of Palmyra in December to reinforce the overwhelmed Syrian army there and to attempt to destroy a coordinated offensive by the Islamic State on the vital city once more.
The latest video reportedly depicts just that, as it shows what is being reported as KSO unit members in direct conflict with ISIS insurgents in and around what is being reported as Palmyra itself; something Russian military leaders have never allowed to be seen publicly before. Russia has no doubt taken the JSOC and SAS playbooks and have attempted to augment these elements into its own. Russia has studied JSOC and its special operations allies successes and failures in the Global War on Terror and has found its special operations lacking in such a way that they needed to adapt or, well, die. The Joint Chiefs of Russia’s Defense Ministry and Mr. Putin hope that the KSO will soon be on par with the combined nations of the West’s most elite Tier 1 operators these countries have ever produced. As tensions seem to rise daily between Russia and the West. One has to wonder if this new “elite within the elite” of Russian special operations is another preemptive chess piece added to the board of a potential resurgence of a new Cold War.
Featured Image courtesy of: YouTube