The United States recently sanctioned a number of Russian officials for their role in the Russian annexation of Crimea. One of those sanctioned was the chief of the GRU (military intelligence) who apparently sent in one of the army commando (spetsnaz) regiments into eastern Ukraine and Crimea with orders to wear civilian clothes or uniforms with no insignia, contact pro-Russians civilians (GRU maintains lists of those kinds of people) and carry out a plan to return Crimea to Russian control.
The GRU is one the three main Russian intelligence agencies. It is about the same size as the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and is responsible for conducting military related espionage operations overseas. SVR is more like the CIA. GRU is more like the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. But the Federal Security Service (FSB), with nearly 100,000 personnel is more than twice as large as the GRU and SVR combined and is the successor to the KGB (secret police during the Soviet era). Russia also has Federal Communications & Information Agency (FAPSI), which is about half the size (in personnel) of the FSB, and is a direct equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.
GRU apparently had a plan for taking over Crimea in a way that would cause the least amount of diplomatic and military damage. This operation got under way in late February, after the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who had been bribed by Russia to back away from a very popular (with most Ukrainians) economic deal with Western Europe, was run out of power by a popular uprising. The army and police told Yanukovych they could not protect him because too many Ukrainians hated him for so blatantly betraying the will of the people for the Russians. Yanukovych took the hint and headed for Russia.
Apparently several hundred members of the GRU 45th Spersnaz Regiment were then sent in, disguised as civilians, to create a “popular uprising” that would enable Russia to annex Crimea. Some of the uniformed men who then took control of Crimea were apparently hired, pro-Russia, locals, but the core of this “local militia” are men with obvious military training and who have been using those skills recently. These were the spetsnaz men and they were obviously in charge. Nearly 60 percent of Crimeans are Russian and GRU has probably been recruiting for years. Some of these locals admitted that money changed hands and they were glad to be part of the effort that returned control of Crimea to Mother Russia. When you use armed amateurs you have to expect this sort of thing and these comments did not sidetrack the takeover plan. The armed men were obviously briefed and most would not talk to reporters or even let journalists get close. But a few of these guys just could not resist a reporter with a camera crew looking for a few snappy comments for the evening news. Some of the anonymous armed men may be civilian contractors (which Russia exports to some parts of the world) and some were just pro-Russian veterans willing to take a gun and endure a bit of risk.
Russia also got former Ukrainian president Yanukovych to write a letter requesting Russian military assistance in Crimea. Yanukovych insisted he was still president of Ukraine and the Russians openly agreed with this as well as providing Yanukovych with sanctuary and protection from prosecution for crimes he is accused of in Ukraine. Yanukovych was the Russian Plan A, what the spetsnaz then carried out in Crimea was Plan B.
The 11,000 Russian troops normally stationed in Crimea are mostly support personnel for the naval bases of the Black Sea Fleet. The exception was 2,000 marines. These were reinforced by another 7,000 troops, mostly infantry and special operations forces flown in or arrived by ship by early March. These were followed by 15,000 more ferried across the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait that separates Crimea from southern Russia. By late March Russia had over 30,000 troops in Crimea, including over a thousand spetsnaz.
All this was right out of the old Soviet playbook, used by the communists to avoid the expense and mess of directly taking control of a newly conquered territory but instead got locals to be figureheads who answered to Russia. This is what happened in East Europe after World War II. That all fell apart between 1989 (when the East European nations Russian taken control of after World War II broke away) and 1991 (when the Soviet Union itself fell apart and most of the unhappy non-Russians forced to be part of the empire got their freedom). Russia is trying to use the old techniques to get their empire back. That’s not working out so well, although there have been some minor successes like Crimea.
The Crimea operation was something of a comeback for the spetsnaz who, after the sloppy Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 were told the spetsnaz force was being reduced and the GRU spetsnaz were not getting the raise they were expecting. This was especially bad news for the GRU spetsnaz who were feeling that they were not getting the respect and good treatment they deserved. The FSB spetsnaz units had better fringe benefits and pay. On top of that, the GRU spetsnaz spent more time in hell holes like Chechnya but after Georgia some were getting layoff notices.
Down in the Caucasus, a lot of the actual fighting was between non-Chechens (al Qaeda types) and Russian commandos (GRU Spetsnaz.) Some 80 percent of the Chechen casualties are inflicted by the spetsnaz teams, who were the only troops that regularly patrolled the mountains where the Chechen rebels and their foreign allies hid out. Most of the dead and captured rebels were not Chechens. They were foreigners, many of them Arabs. This had largely quieted down by 2009, but the GRU spetsnaz were still doing six month tours down there and not feeling appreciated.
There were other problems. The spetsnaz are mostly conscripts, which is in sharp contrast to Western commandos (who are volunteer careerists). But the conscripts were carefully selected and were volunteers for spetsnaz duty. GRU Spetsnaz Brigades in Chechnya suffered about ten percent casualties for each tour. The brigades were usually under strength. Moreover, entire brigades were not sent into Chechnya, so there were only a few hundred spetsnaz there at a time. The spetsnaz were there mainly to collect information on the rebels, locating their camps and travel routes. Artillery or bombers are called in to do the actual attacks. When the spetsnaz do run into rebel units, they inflicted far more casualties than they took.
Russia doesn't send more Spetsnaz to Chechnya because these units spend a lot of time training and are needed elsewhere, especially in Central Asia and for counter-terrorism duty in general. Some are held ready for emergencies like the Crimea operation. Moreover, duty in Chechnya is grueling, as the spetsnaz don't have all the special equipment and specialized helicopters that Western (especially American) commandoes have. Russia also considers their spetsnaz as a strategic reserve for emergencies, and thus likes to keep at least three of the seven GRU brigades in reserve, training and ready for any unexpected emergency.
Ultimately the planned 2009 cuts to GRU Spetsnaz were rescinded. Apparently the fact that the first spetsnaz units were the ones working for GRU and their long history of successful operations (many still top secret) did count for something.
The GRU continued making a comeback. In 2007 a new $300 million headquarters for GRU was opened. The 62,000 square meter (670,000 square foot) GRU complex contains the latest of everything for one of the smallest of Russia's intelligence services (the domestic, and foreign, intelligence services are larger). Since 2000 the increasing flood of oil revenue has made it possible to rebuild the intelligence services. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there followed a decade of decline for the intelligence services. The feared KGB became the threadbare SVB, with domestic intelligence taken over by the FSB. Many Soviet spies defected, and sold their secrets to Western intelligence agencies. While many intel specialists were cut loose, many were kept on the payroll, just in case. The GRU was the most reluctant to part with many of its officers and for a while it was open season on officers who didn't have a really good reason to stay in uniform.
The successful Crimea operation will go down as one of GRU’s biggest successes. The GRU Spetsnaz were the first (in 1957) of the spetsnaz units created and have now demonstrated that they not only can fight Islamic terrorists, but also carry out complex political operations as well.