January 23, 2012: Russia's special operations units have benefited greatly from the major reforms being instituted in the armed forces during the last decade. Airborne Forces (paratroopers) and special operations troops (Spetsnaz) have historically been the most effective Russian troops. This was demonstrated in the '70s and '80s when special operations and airborne units provided the most effective troops available during the Afghan War (1979-1989). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Spetsnaz suffered the same problems as the rest of Russia, namely corruption, low morale, low funding, and a major degradation in training capabilities. Special operations soldiers were often accused of being highly paid assassins for Russian mobsters during the chaotic '90s.
The low point for Russian special operations troops was 1999-2004, during the height of the Second Chechen War. Spetsnaz and airborne troops suffered major reversals and defeats at the hands of Chechen guerrilla fighters, with an entire company of supposedly "elite" paratroopers being wiped out during one infamous battle. The most embarrassing moment for Russia's elite was the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the 2004 Beslan school siege. During the former, Spetsnaz troops, instead of executing a well-planned attack on the hostage-takers, bungled the rescue operation resulting in the deaths of hundreds of hostages along with all the terrorists. During the Beslan incident Russian special forces conducted a conventional-style assault on the building, including the reckless use of rocket launchers with incendiary warheads, tanks, and RPG-7V1s to blast their way into the school. Both incidents not only damaged Russia's reputation abroad, as it was seen as callously disregarding the lives of its own citizens, but also the reputation of the country's best soldiers.
After the Beslan incident Spetsnaz leaders decided to set things right and in recent years the improvements have been obvious. For example, Russians know that their elite forces are the most effective, reliable troops they have and can't afford to have them spread thinly across the military in different formations. Instead, the Russians concentrated their most effective troops into specific units in order to have a lot of them ready to go and already integrated for action.
One of the more public examples of this was seen four years ago. A Spetsnaz reconnaissance battalion led the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and displayed a high degree of skill and ability. Spetsnaz soldiers obviously had a lot of new equipment, as they could be seen employing a wide variety of specially developed small arms and light weapons during operations.
There are actually several different special operations, or Spetsnaz organizations and most are of recent origin. After World War II it took the Soviet Union a while to note the success of U.S. and American commandos and attempt to emulate their success. In the 1960s, the Red Army began to organize "troops of special purpose" ("Spetsialnoye nazranie", or Spetsnaz for short) units. The Soviet Union had always had some form of commandos but they were special units of the secret police (KGB). For special operations the army would form temporary units consisting entirely of officers.
The original Spetsnaz were organized more like a massive use of SAS raiding teams. A Spetsnaz brigade of 1,300 men could field about 100 8-10 man teams. A Spetsnaz company had 135 men further divided into 15 independent teams. The actual organization of these brigades was four parachute battalions, an assassin company, a headquarters, and support troops (mainly communications). A naval Spetsnaz brigade had two battalions of "combat swimmers" (comparable to U.S. SEALs), a parachute battalion, a midget submarine company, and other units the army Spetsnaz brigades had. There were also many independent Spetsnaz companies assigned to armies or smaller units.
In wartime each team would be given an objective to destroy deep inside enemy territory. Or, if not to destroy something, to go deep and find out what was happening in the enemy rear. Put simply, the job of the Spetsnaz was reconnaissance and sabotage. The Spetsnaz teams would get to the target by parachute, ship, submarine, or as "tourists" before the war began. At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union had about 30,000 Spetsnaz in service.
There was one flaw with this system: most of the Spetsnaz troopers have long been conscripts, in the army for two years. The Russians made this work by being selective in who they chose to be in the Spetsnaz and putting the recruits through a rigorous, and violent, training program. You could think of the Soviet era Spetsnaz as paratroopers with additional training in demolitions, infiltration techniques, foreign language training (which many Russian conscripts had just received in high school) and reconnaissance techniques. Perhaps most importantly, the Spetsnaz recruits were taught to think for themselves. This was a rare directive in the Soviet (or Russian) armed forces. But for commandos to be effective they had to think independently, and the Soviets realized this when they set up the Spetsnaz and the Spetsnaz training program.
During the Soviet period the Spetsnaz were seen as an elite organization and a career enhancing thing to have on one's resume. The army had more volunteers than it needed and would take the top graduates from the training program. A favorite method was to send volunteers to the six month NCO course. This course had a high wash out rate but those who made it through were competent leaders and just the kind of people the Spetsnaz were looking for. Even after the Soviet Union fell the Spetsnaz were still seen as elite. It did not go unnoticed that Spetsnaz veterans were always in demand as well paid bodyguards and security experts.
The Soviets knew they were getting a lot of eager, motivated, and not thoroughly trained Spetsnaz troopers. But they had so many of them that it was felt enough of them would do enough damage to make it all worthwhile. We'll never know if the original plan would have worked, but the Spetsnaz were effective during the 1980s Afghanistan war. The main reason wasn't the superior Spetsnaz combat skills but their initiative and ability to think for themselves. The Afghans they were fighting noted this and learned to clear out of the area if Spetsnaz were found to be operating there.
The Spetsnaz recognized the need for career troops for some jobs. The assassin company in each Spetsnaz brigade was staffed with 70-80 career soldiers, whose job was to find, identify, and kill key enemy political and military leaders.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 the Spetsnaz didn't disappear. The new nations formed from parts of the Soviet Union inherited any Spetsnaz units stationed in their territory. Many of these non-Russian Spetsnaz still exist, although most are not of the same quality as they were when the Soviet Union still existed. Although there are fewer Spetsnaz today there are still about 10,000 of them in Russian service. And more of them are career soldiers (more than half, versus 20-30 percent during the Soviet period). Soon all Spetsnaz will be volunteers because conscription is fading away in Russia. Many of the current Spetsnaz are specialists, with specific skills needed for underwater operations (like U.S. SEALs) and anti-terrorist operations (like the U.S. Delta Force). The post-Soviet Union Russian government maintained the strength of their commandos because they knew they would need some skilled and dependable troops for emergencies.
The Spetsnaz selection and training methods were used to create commando units in the FSB (the successor of the KGB), the Interior Ministry (the national police), and various other paramilitary organizations. But most (about two-thirds) of the 15,000 Spetsnaz troops are in the ten army Spetsnaz Brigades.