The United States and Russia find themselves reviving Cold War tactics when it comes to using or defeating guerilla warfare. The Soviet Union, and communist movements it sponsored around the world for over half a century, adapted ancient irregular warfare to 20th century technology and politics. The Western World War II Allies, especially the U.S., and Britain, developed successful techniques to foster and support resistance movements in areas occupied by the Germans or Japanese.
Russia was a special case because it had to operate both in support of guerillas and in suppressing them. About half the population of the Soviet Union preferred to be independent and during the Cold War Russia did not publicize its internal counter-insurgency operations as much as they did successful World War II and post-World War II insurgent operations. Some of the World War II era Soviet insurgents were not just hostile to the Germans but also to the Soviet forces. After World War II Russia found itself successfully using insurgent operations to impose communist government in East European nations where they had chased the Germans out of at the end of the war. Inside the Soviet Union there were anti-communist insurgents seeking to expel the Russians in places like Ukraine, where the Russia was still fighting the Ukrainian insurgents into the 1950s.
At the same time the U.S. Army created its Special Forces in the 1950s, to revive anti-communist insurgent operations in areas occupied or threated by Russian or communist forces. The U.S. had a long tradition of winning and defeating insurgent operations, including post-World War II communist ones.
The United States freed itself from the British Empire with one of the first modern insurgent operations. The British American colonies contained an unusually (for the time) literate and well-armed rural population. Before the revolution the British tolerated and often encouraged local militias to share the cost of defending their American colonies against local and European threats. During the revolution the American insurgents started small, driving British forces and officials out of most colonies. The various rebellious colonies united and formed a regular army. This force was not meant to defeat British troops in conventional battles, but to exist as a threat while American insurgents made life difficult for the British and German mercenary troops who were better trained and equipped for conventional warfare but were confined to urban areas by the numerous insurgents and the threat from the rebel army led by George Washington, a former militia commander who had campaigned alongside British regulars. Washington understood that his main job was to keep his army intact so it could threaten British forces who would otherwise defeat the insurgents one area at a time. The rebels sent skilled emissaries to Europe to cultivate foreign support for the rebellion. That succeeded in bringing French ground and naval forces, seeking revenge against the British more than independence for the American colonists. The French understood that the rebels were too strong for the French forces to usurp and turn the British colonies into French colonies. The French did appreciate the failed American rebel efforts to extend their rebellion to the former French colony (Quebec) in Canada. French forces returned to France just in time to get involved in the French Revolution, usually as rebels with practical experience in carrying out a successful rebellion.
Before and after World War II American forces successfully defeated over a dozen major insurgencies. There were some insurgencies that succeeded despite American intervention and those provided confirmation that under certain circumstances insurgencies succeed or fail more because of the presence of foreign intervention (with weapons and other supplies, not troops) than the determination of the rebels.
This brings us to the 2020s where American and Russian Special Forces are confronting each other in several regions, especially Eastern Europe (Ukraine) and the Middle East (Syria). The Russians are trying to suppress another Ukrainian insurgency, which succeeded in 1991 with an independent Ukraine. Since 2000 the Russian government has been dominated by former Cold War era KGB officers who consider the demise of the Soviet Union a tragic loss for mankind and are trying to repair that damage. In 2014 the Russians used their well-tested insurgency techniques to take one Ukrainian province (Crimea) and half of two other provinces in Eastern Ukraine. The Russians were hoping for a collapse of Ukrainian morale, which would allow the Russians to seize all of Ukraine. This turned out to be overly optimistic as the Ukrainians had more resolve, and foreign assistance, than during their failed insurgencies of the 1940s and 50s. One of the primary reasons for going after Ukraine was to prevent this former key component of the Soviet Union from joining NATO, as many other new nations created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist controlled nations in East Europe by 1991 had already done.
In Syria the Russian Special Forces (or Spetsnaz) succeeded in keeping the Assad government alive, despite a seemingly overwhelming rebel threat in 2011. Russia Special Forces and diplomacy saved the Assad government and left Russia with a long-term lease for a naval base and military air base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. There were also profitable economic opportunities. The Russian special operations troops also confronted their American counterparts and found the U.S. forces more formidable than expected. The American Special Forces also noted that the new Russian Special Forces were quite capable, having learned from earlier defeats in the 1990s. There are also Russian and American Special Forces in Ukraine, more to evaluate each other than to fight.
The Americans consider the current Russian Special Forces as “competitive” with their Western equivalents and a more serious threat than during the Cold War. Both Russia and the Americans have also noted that China has developed competent, and sometimes world class, Special Forces and counter-insurgency capabilities. There are other new players from places like Iran, Israel and Turkey. The Israelis were long noted for their skills in insurgency operations, but they rarely operated far from Israel. Iran has, via its Quds Force, become active, and often successful, throughout the Middle East as well as distant areas like Venezuela and other parts of South America.
Both Russia and the United States have made greater use of armed military contractors. The armed contractors are usually military veterans, often with special operations experience. Both Russia and the Americans hire or support armed locals to sustain their insurgent or counter-insurgent operations. For example, Americans continue to work with autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq and neighboring northeast Syria. In return for sustaining Kurdish autonomy, the Kurds became a key element in defeating Islamic terrorists in general and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in particular in both countries. The Russians use Syrian Arab mercenaries in Syria and Libya.
Irregular warfare operations are still fundamentally the same as they were a century ago but the major practitioners have also adapted to new technology and opportunities. Russia has had a hard time keeping up with the competition. The U.S., especially after it united all the special operations troops into one command (SOCOM or Special Operations Command) in the 1980s, was able to find and take advantage of new technology and still attract enough qualified volunteers for the exacting training and challenges encountered after the Cold War ended in 1991.
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 Beslan, Spetsnaz leaders decided to set things right and by 2014 the improvements were 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 and proved the resources for these few units to train and be equipped for immediate use.
One of the more public examples of this was seen in 2008 when a Spetsnaz reconnaissance battalion led the Russian invasion of Georgia in the Caucasus 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.
Russia has 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 commando 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 accepted from the conscripts who volunteered for 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 and reconnaissance techniques, along with foreign language training, which many Russian conscripts achieved sufficient fluency in high school. 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 Spetsnaz had more volunteers than it needed and would often take the top graduates from other selective training programs. A favorite method was to send Spetsnaz applicants to the six-month NCO course, which had a high wash out rate. Those who made it through were competent leaders and just the kind of people the Spetsnaz needed. 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 facing them noted this and learned to clear out of any area where Spetsnaz were operating in.
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 most of them are career soldiers. Currently more than half are careerists, versus 20-30 percent during the Soviet period. Eventually 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.
Russia had much less money for its special operations forces after 1991 and had to buy as much of the new Western gear as they could. The Russian defense industries rapidly declined in the 1990s as did the number of qualified personnel available. Rebuilding took over a decade and fundamental reforms were necessary to create the current force. Russia still has an edge with its less restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) than the Americans. The current Spetsnaz also suffers from less popular support. Too many Spetsnaz combat deaths, especially outside Russia, is a major problem. Russia gets around this by using more expensive military contractors for the most dangerous jobs. When a lot of contractors get killed there is less of a problem with public opinion back in Russia. After all, the military contractors are not officially soldiers and get paid more to face such risks. After 1991 the Russian military found they had an image problem that the average Russian could now openly express in many ways. Evading conscription became more acceptable and lower post-1991 birth rates among a Russian population that was half the size of the Soviet Union’s added to the problem. The desired all-volunteer force is indefinitely delayed and few military contractors can be hired because the money is not there.
SOCOM has five times as many personnel as all Russian special operations forces combined, and all the Americans are career volunteers. SOCOM personnel encountering their Russian counterparts in Ukraine and several foreign areas found that the Russians are still formidable, but a long way from meeting Western standards. This is one reason Russia wants to keep Ukraine out of NATO, because joining NATO and the EU means meeting Western military standards and access to Western economies to spur economic growth. Keeping Ukraine out of NATO is what the Russians are after and the Russian leader, a former KGB officer, has been increasingly aggressive with his demands, but no longer threatening nuclear war over it. Earlier nuclear threats did not go over well in Russia, where public opinion is even more important than during the Soviet period. Even Stain quietly tracked public opinion and when the secret KGB reports on that opinion revealed problems, Stalin quietly adjusted his methods to calm the population. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed because too many Russians refused to believe, or obey, their government. Some things never change, even if they are state secrets.