The United States is studying recent Russian special operations techniques used (and still being used) in Crimea and the Ukraine. American intelligence realized early on that this was all about spetsnaz (Russian special operations). This was made obvious in March when the U.S. sanctioned a number of Russian officials for their role in the annexation of Crimea. One of the guilty officials named was the chief of the GRU (military intelligence) who apparently sent in one of the army 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. As more information comes out of Crimea and eastern Ukraine it appears that the army spetsnaz had a pretty extensive bag of tricks and techniques and are still hard at work. The Crimea/Ukraine operation was a skillful combination of bribery, stealthy recruiting (of pro-Russian locals), clandestine movement of spetsnaz operators and weapons, bribery of key officials and intimidation of others plus carefully calculated and staged operations that neutralized Ukrainian forces in the Crimea and led to a pretty bloodless victory. It was all classic special operations work and other operators around the world are impressed.
Most of the work is being done by several hundred members of the GRU 45th Spersnaz Regiment. They were then sent in to the Crimea 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 appears to have been recruiting, or prospecting there 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 unauthorized contact with the media but 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 fellows, apparently local recruits, 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.
Unlike the U.S., where the commandos have their own military command (SOCOM or Special Operations Command) in Russia the spetsnaz work more closely with the various intelligence agencies. GRU apparently had a plan for taking over Crimea in a way that would cause the least amount of diplomatic and military damage and the spetsnaz units GRU controlled were the key operators able to make it happen.
Ukraine had 25,000 army, air force and navy personnel in Crimea but the spetsnaz plan included persuading many of them to either just not fight to accept a generous offer to join the Russian armed forces. 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 using 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 that they were being downsized. This was especially bad news for the GRU spetsnaz who were feeling that they were not getting the respect and good treatment they deserved. This was made worse by the fact that 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. Despite that, 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. They were becoming very good at what they were trained to do.
There were other problems. The spetsnaz units contain a lot of 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. The spetsnaz considered these conscripts as potential long-term operators and the short service of these men was considered an extended tryout. The veteran spetsnaz learned to make the most of the constant influx of conscript operators. 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.
Fortunately 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. Now the GRU spetsnaz have another successful op to build on.
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.