Russian Spetsnaz Special Forces in Ukraine: An Update – As an increasingly demanding and resource-intensive undertaking, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine likely involves almost every element of the Russian family of special forces agencies. These agencies were supposed to play a central role in the opening hours and days of what was supposed to be a quick operation, which came to nothing at all. However, these special forces elements of the Russian armed forces and security organs continue to play an important role in the ongoing invasion of Russia, although they are not as central as they were originally supposed to be. .
What special forces does Russia have for use in Ukraine?
Russia has a dizzying variety of units in its armed forces and security organs that can be referred to as special forces, or “Spetsnaz,” as they are known in popular culture and in the Russian language. Spetsnaz itself is a portmanteau of Russian words Vojska spetsialnogo naznacheniewhich translates to “special forces”.
The core elements of the Russian Spetsnaz that can date back to Soviet times are those controlled by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces and the Federal Civilian Security Service (known by their Russian acronyms GRU and FSB respectively). Within the FSB, the Alpha group and the Vympel group are particularly well known, as are the preeminent Spetsnaz units of the FSB. GRU Spetsnaz units are the oldest of those currently in service in Russia and were originally formed in 1949. In addition to participating in the GRU’s broader military intelligence mission, the GRU Spetsnaz also specializes in targeted operations, including assassinations.
In addition to these former special forces organizations, the Russian National Guard (also known by its Russian name Rosgvardia) is the newest addition to the Russian spetsnaz ecosystem and also one of the most politicized. Formed in 2016 by the merger of internal troops of the Ministry of Interior, units of the rapid response special forces of the SOBR and the special police of the OMON, the Rosgvardia serves both as a pseudo-military branch and internal security organization. While other units such as the Zaslon of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) or the special forces units of the Federal Prison Service fall under the Spetsnaz, they are most often overshadowed by their larger cousins in the GRU, from the FSB and Rosgvardia.
Early employment of special forces during the invasion of Ukraine
In the early hours of the war, various Spetsnaz units immediately entered Ukraine and began participating in what was to be a rapid regime change operation. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russian Spetsnaz troops operated undercover in Kyiv in search of Ukrainian government officials and leaders such as Zelensky himself in the early days of the invasion. This Spetsnaz employment is characteristic of the “political warfare” skills that Russian Spetsnaz units are often designed for, setting them apart from their American and Western counterparts. However, despite the wide range of activities apparently carried out by Russian Spetsnaz units in Ukraine in the early days of the war, they were unable to end the campaign quickly and the Ukrainian government remained in power and functional.
What we know: current uses of special forces in Ukraine
Now that the war in Ukraine has taken on the character of a war of attrition between two opposing armies rather than a jumbled combination of covert and overt actions like the early days, the Russian Spetsnaz have lost their central role in the strategy of Moscow. Although visual evidence exists suggesting that Russian Spetsnaz troops are still fighting in Ukraine, their exact role in today’s invasion remains a bit more unclear.
Although not all are assigned to units classified as Spetsnaz, the presence of Rosgvardia in Ukraine remains well documented. Supposedly included in the structure of Rosgvardia, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov Kadyrovtsy troops played an active role in some of the war’s best-known flashpoints, such as the battles for Mariupol and localities near Kyiv. However, they have gained a reputation as a unit made for tik-tok rather than a powerful fighting force, which limits the real influence of the Kadyrovtsy in practice, despite their effectively autonomous character. Rosgvardia at large seems to have its own problems, as many cases have been opened against Rosgvardia soldiers who had refused to participate in combat operations in Ukraine.
Even if the Russian Spetsnaz were unable to decisively end Moscow’s “special military operation” in a timely manner, their fortunes will not necessarily be compromised or enhanced by their performance. Since Russia’s national security and political system are built around intra-elite conflict, the fortunes of the various Spetsnaz outfits will likely depend on the political acumen of their leaders, rather than their performance in Ukraine.
Wesley Culp is a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He writes regularly on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as the Diplomatic Courier. It can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.