With Western SOF in a process of gradual withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a very distinct change in posture, from long-term commitments to emergency deployments and training, 2014 proved to be a momentous year, especially in eastern Europe, where Russia annexed the whole of the Crimea in what was an almost bloodless operation.
In the face of constant Kremlin denials of any Russian participation, positive identification of these units was difficult because the troops carried no insignia, wore ski masks, and did not engage in conversation, except, reportedly, with children. Apparently they had also been stripped of cellphones and personal identification papers before deployment, but some characteristic tattoos were recognized that were closely associated with the VDV Air Force amphibious commandos, and the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate).
The entire episode, which reportedly was not anticipated by any Western intelligence agency, was facilitated by Spetsnaz units, SOF groups very familiar to NATO analysts during the Cold War. The word itself is a contraction of spetsialnogo naznacheniya, meaning “of special purpose” or designation, and has a tradition dating back to 1957, when the first Red Army SOF battalions were formed by the Soviet GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) and consisted, unlike their Western counterparts that drew on experienced personnel with several years of military service, of selected conscripts.
After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the GRU continued virtually unchanged, and in the subsequent era, GRU Spetsnaz saw action in Bosnia and Chechnya, and were involved in a counterterrorism role in the rescue attempts at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in October 2002, and the ending of the Beslan school siege in September 2004.
Neither of these interventions ended well, or enhanced the GRU’s reputation, and there were further embarrassments during the 2008 war with Georgia, a conflict marked by a series of avoidable friendly fire accidents. In one, six paratroopers at Zugdidi, just outside Abkhazia, were killed by Russian artillery which failed to lift their barrage when the troops began their assault on the town.
Like the U.S. Green Berets and Britain’s Special Air Service regiment, Spetsnaz hold an almost mythical status within their country’s armed services, but their perceived poor performance in Chechnya over a decade from 1991, and more recently in Georgia, led the general staff to wrest control of the organization from the GRU and develop separate, individual Spetsnaz in all military districts. The GRU responded with a major investment in a new headquarters at “the aquarium,” the top security compound on Moscow’s Khodinka military airport, and in the creation of a control center, or Senezh, at Solnechnogorsk, just northwest of the capital.
The GRU Spetsnaz consists of eight brigades, of which three are held in reserve. All are thought to be slightly under-strength and lack their own helicopter support. At the end of February 2014, all were believed to have participated in the invasion of Crimea, their movement from their bases apparently unnoticed by the West.
In what was to be a textbook example of a SOF operation, Spetsnaz acted in a battlefield reconnaissance role. Whereas conventional Spetsnaz training implied penetration deep behind NATO lines to seek and destroy the enemy’s tactical nuclear weapons, on this occasion, they were debadged and inserted as the “tip of the spear” to secure key strongpoints in anticipation of the arrival of regular forces. In the Crimea, Russian SOF were carried in Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships to seize the airports at Belbek and Simferopol, and to take control of the parliament and local Ukrainian government buildings.