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Armed Forces

Russian “Spetsnaz” Forces — from Saboteurs to Court Bailiffs

Aleksey Nikolsky

Origins of the word “Spetsnaz”

The word “Spetsnaz” is an abbreviation of sily spetsialnogo naznachenya, which means “special task forces” in Russian. Used to denote various military and paramilitary units, the term entered wide circulation a few decades after the end of World War II. It has largely replaced another term, sily osobogo naznacheniya (special purpose forces), which dates back to imperial times, and which was used for such disparate forces as heavy artillery and counter-insurgency squads. During World War II, units of saboteurs operated by the NKVD (a forerunner of the KGB and today’s FSB) were part of an independent “special purpose” motor rifle brigade. Its remit was quite similar to that of the present-day MoD and FSB Spetsnaz. There were also “special purpose” radio reconnaissance units. In other words, the word “special” was used to denote either a very narrow specialization of the unit in question, or the special importance of the political or clandestine tasks entrusted to them.

Spetsnaz entered popular Soviet culture in the late 1980s, although the Special Purpose Brigades which the word refers to, were set up back in the 1950s. These brigades were subordinated to the Main Intelligence Department (GRU) of the Soviet Army’s General Staff. The word Spetsnaz was popularized by such mass culture phenomena as the book Aquarium by Vladimir Suvorov (Rezun), a notorious ex-GRU turncoat. Incidentally, another book by Rezun, Spetsnaz, was not very popular in the Soviet Union or Russia. Finally, GRU Spetsnaz units acquitted themselves very well during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, thereby adding to the word’s widespread use.

By the time the Soviet Union broke up, Soviet airborne troopers (Desant) and GRU Spetsnaz brigades had acquired a firmly established reputation as elite troops, the best of the best. As a result, various armed units subordinated to Russia’s numerous government agencies began to borrow the word Spetsnaz for their own titles so as to sound more important, even though in many cases these units were just glorified guard and protection squads. The term was also borrowed by some highly trained and well-armed police units, the Russian equivalent of America’s SWAT teams. Among the original GRU Spetsnaz brigades, such proliferation of “Spetsnaz” units in the 1990s caused significant annoyance. Nevertheless, dozens of various armed units in Russia still use the word “special” in their names, and the list of such units we offer below is by no means complete. The various Russian “Spetsnaz” forces have a combined headcount of about 50,000, so they are a large and important player on the market for small and light arms, as well as special tactical hardware.

The Russian Armed Forces

Special Purpose (Spetsnaz) Brigades and units subordinated to Military Districts, Navy Fleets, and the Airborne Troops

At present Russia’s four Military Districts and four Naval Fleets operate seven Spetsnaz brigades, whose main purpose is special reconnaissance. There are also four naval intelligence stations (brigades) operated by the four Fleets. Previously all of them were operationally subordinated to the GRU, but now they take their orders from the Military District commands. The GRU still remains in charge of their training, materiel provision, and operational guidelines. The term “special reconnaissance” covers such areas as military and human reconnaissance/intelligence, sabotage and special operations behind enemy lines. These Spetsnaz forces consist of a total of 20–25 squads (the basic Spetsnaz unit, roughly equivalent in size to a battalion).1 They also include the 45th Independent Guard Spetsnaz Regiment of the Airborne Troops. The total numerical strength of these forces, including support units, is estimated at 5,000–10,000.

Special Operations Forces (SSO) of the General Staff’s Special Operations Command

The Special Operations Forces (SSO) were set up approximately in 2008–2009 to perform especially important military-political and counterterrorism tasks. At present the SSO service includes a combat division and a training division, both based at the Senezh military compound near Solnechnogorsk. Another combat unit is now being established in Kubinka, outside Moscow. The total numerical strength of the SSO is estimated at 1,000 or more.2

Special Submarine Anti-Sabotage Units (OSNB PDSS)

These units were set up in 1967; there is one unit serving with each of the four Russian Navy fleets. As their name suggests, the special submarine anti-sabotage units defend the Russian Navy from the adversary’s combat swimmers and divers at the naval bases and at sea. Their total headcount is probably below 1,000.

Mobile Spetsnaz companies protecting facilities of the MoD’s 12th Main Directorate

These forces are subordinated directly to the 12th Main Directorate of the MoD. They protect the directorate’s facilities, i.e. nuclear weapons depots and assembly facilities from saboteurs. Their total numerical strength is below 1,500.

Anti-saboteur battalions and guard-and-reconnaissance companies of the Strategic Missile Troops

These units protect the Strategic Missile Troops’ facilities from saboteurs. They also provide anti-saboteur protection along the patrol routes of ground-based mobile ICBMs. The units are subordinated to the Strategic Missile Troops Command and their numerical strength is up to 3,000 servicemen.

Counterterrorism units of the Russian Armed Forces

In view of their hard training, high morale, and general excellence, the armed forces’ counterterrorism units probably qualify as Spetsnaz as well. These squads, platoons and companies were set up in the mid-2000s in every brigade, regiment, division and airbase of the Russian armed forces. Their overall numerical strength is thought to be several thousand servicemen. They are subordinated to the counterterrorism department of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate. Their main function is to serve as a mobile reserve force that can be brought to bear in the event of an increased threat of a terrorist attack against military units and compounds. They will also take on the terrorists in the event of an actual attack.

Military police Spetsnaz

The MoD military police service, which was set up in 2011, includes special task units. The overall numerical strength of these units is several hundred people; their main role is to take on armed deserters and military servicemen who have committed serious crimes.

Interior Ministry

The Interior Ministry includes the internal affairs branch and the Interior Troops. Both branches have special-purpose or special operations units.

The internal affairs branch


Apart from the Interior Troops, special units are also operated by the Interior Ministry’s centrally subordinated divisions and by the regional Special Purpose Centers (TsSN). The TsSN centers are subordinated to the regional Interior Ministry departments and to the ministry’s central office in Moscow. In 2011 the ministry set up the Directorate for Special Units and Interior Ministry Aviation (UPSNiA), which is in charge if the TsSN.3 There are two main types of special units: the first is OMON (mobile special police squads), whose purpose is to deal with rioting and conduct large raids. The structure of OMON units is similar to the structure of ordinary motor rifle units. The second type is OMSN (mobile special-purpose squads), which are often called by the old name SOBR. The OMSN service was created through merger of the former SOBR (armed units which dealt with organized crime in the late 2000s) and OMSN (special-purpose police squads, which were mainly used to apprehend armed and dangerous criminals). The present OMSN service is the closest thing Russia has to America’s SWAT police units.

In most of the Russian provinces the OMON and OMSN units have been merged into Special Purpose Centers (TsSN), but in some parts of the country where the crime situation is especially worrying, there are several OMON or OMSN units in every large city. There are a total of about 120 OMON units in the whole of Russia, with a numerical strength of about 22,000 officers. There are also about 90 OMSN units, with 4,500 officers.

In addition, there are OMON and OMSN units subordinated directly to the Interior Ministry HQ in Moscow (the Zubr and Rys squads, respectively). These units take their orders from the UPSNiA directorate, and are used mainly as a reserve force. UPSNiA also operates the Yastreb squad, a small unit that has several planes and helicopters. Finally, there are Special Air Squads (AOSN) in 20 of the Russian provinces; these units usually have several helicopters, and take their orders from the regional Interior Ministry departments.

Special Purpose Center of the Interior Ministry’s extra-agency guard service

The name is used to denote a fairly ordinary Interior Ministry extra-agency protection division which guards and protects government buildings and sensitive facilities. The numerical strength of this division is at least 500 people.

Road Safety Special Purpose Center (TsSN BDD)

These service guards protect top officials on the road, and apprehend armed criminals trying to flee by car. The service has units in Moscow and the Southern Federal District. Its numerical strength is about 300 people.

State Protection Service Spetsnaz

This Interior Ministry division guards and protects witnesses, judges and police officers from assassination attempts. It has a unit subordinated to the Interior Ministry HQ in Moscow, and several units subordinated to the ministry’s regional departments. Its numerical strength is about 700 people.

Interior Ministry’s Interior Troops

The Interior Troops Spetsnaz was set up in the early 1980s. It has about 20 units stationed in various Russian provinces (mainly in the North Caucasus), and includes the centrally subordinated Vityaz unit. Its numerical strength is up to 10,000 people. The service is subordinated to the Reconnaissance Directorate of the Interior Troops Main Command. Along with the FSB special units, the Interior Troops Spetsnaz currently bears the brunt of the fighting with Salafist insurgents and terrorists in the North Caucasus.

The Federal Security Service (FSB)

The FSB Special Operations Center (FSB TsSN)

This is Russia’s main counterterrorism outfit. The FSB Special Operations Center is situated in Moscow. It consists of the HQ, the A Directorate (the Alfa squad conducts counterterrorism operations at mass gatherings and mass transit facilities), the B Directorate (the Vympel squad conducts counterterrorism operations at strategic facilities), and the S Directorate (special operations to apprehend terrorists and provide support during field operations and investigations). The A Directorate has regional divisions in Khabarovsk, Murmansk, Krasnodar and several other cities. These regional divisions are called Regional Special Operations Departments (ROSN). In addition, there are Operational Support Groups and Operational Support Squads (GSOM and OSOM, respectively) at the FSB regional directorates. The overall numerical strength of the FSB Spetsnaz units is much lower than the figure for the Interior Troops Spetsnaz; it is probably below 2,000 people.4

FSB Border Service

The Border Service operates several Mobile Squads and Mobile Units, as well as Special Operations Squads, which protect the most sensitive stretches of the Russian border. The overall numerical strength of these units is probably below 2,000 servicemen.

External Intelligence Service (SVR)

The Russian foreign intelligence service has its own internal security center often referred to as Zaslon (Firewall). Its numerical strength is classified information, but it is unlikely to be more than a few hundred people. It appears that Zaslon’s main mission is to guard and protect Russian diplomatic missions, as well as Russian envoys visiting conflict zones.

Federal Protection Service (FSO)

Special Purpose Directorate of the FSO Presidential Security Service

The directorate includes such squads as the Bastion Spetsnaz and the Arsenal Spetsnaz. Its main remit is to guard sensitive facilities and top officials during trips around Russia and during foreign visits. The service also implements anti-sniper and counterterrorism measures. Its numerical strength is 500 to 1,000 people.5

Presidential Regiment of the Moscow Kremlin Superintendant’s Department

The Presidential Regiment’s rapid reaction battalion includes about 300 servicemen; it consists of several companies, and essentially serves as the regiment’s fighting force. Its training program centers on suppressing riots, including such scenarios as using live ammunition against armed rioters trying to seize the Kremlin and other key facilities.

Federal Counter-Narcotics Service (FSKN)

The FSKN has inherited a physical protection directorate from the Federal Tax Police Service, which was abolished in 2003. After being taken over by the FSKN, the directorate added the word “special” to its title. At present, special-purpose services and departments (SSN and OSN) are operated by all regional FSKN departments across Russia. They take their orders from the 5th Operations and Combat Division of the FSKN Department for Special Operations and Protection.6 The overall numerical strength of the FSKN Spetsnaz forces is about 3,000. Their main purpose is to provide armed support during operations to apprehend drug dealers and traffickers, as well as to guard senior FSKN officers.

Federal Customs Service (FTS)

The FTS Armed Support Service (SSO) consists of special rapid reaction squads (SOBR), special operations customs offices, and regional customs departments. The remit of the SOBR units includes locating and apprehending smugglers and people suspected of breaking customs regulations; providing armed support for special customs operations; guarding confiscated shipments and, on a paid commercial basis, providing armed guard for such shipments en route to temporary storage depots. The numerical strength of the FTS Spetsnaz is about 1,000 people.

Justice Ministry

Federal Bailiffs Service (FSSP)

The FSSP armed units include Rapid Reaction Groups (GBR) that serve with the Special Operational Duty Departments (SOOD). These departments have been or are now being set up at the regional FSSP divisions. Their purpose includes providing security during high-profile court cases enforcing court rulings and lately, also escorting illegal migrants being deported from Russia in accordance with court warrants. The numerical strength of this force is 1,500 people.

Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN)

Regional departments of this service include special operations squads (OSN), whose remit includes suppressing riots and dealing with hostage situations at prisons locating and apprehending escaped prisoners and guarding FSIN officers during searches and in other situations. The number of the OSN squads (about 90) does not match the number of regional FSIN departments; their overall numerical strength is about 4,000 people.7 FSIN Spetsnaz units were actively involved in the campaigns in Chechnya, along with the FSB and Interior Ministry special task forces (whereas the Spetsnaz units operated by other Russian ministries and government agencies were barely involved at all).

Ministry of Industry and Trade

Directorate for Safe and Secure Storage and Destruction of Chemical Weapons (UBKhUKhO)

The directorate operates several Spetsnaz companies, with a total numerical strength of about 500 people. Their remit includes guarding chemical weapons destruction facilities, which are being used to eliminate the Russian stockpiles of toxic agents in accordance with the country’s international commitments.

1. The numerical strength of the Spetsnaz squads serving with special reconnaissance units has been estimated on the basis of a statement made by the minister of defense, Sergey Shoygu, on August 1, 2013, and the MoD Plan of Action until 2020. (http://mil.ru/mod_activity_plan/constr/lvl/plan.htm), In accordance with that plan, by the end of 2013 some 60 per cent of warrant officers and soldiers should be professionals serving under contract, and the number of these squads is expected to reach 15.

2. Aleksey Nikolsky. The Olympic Reserve: Why Russia Has Created Special Operations Command/ Moscow Defense Brief, #4, 2013.

3. http://mvd.ru/mvd/structure1/Upravlenija/Upravlenie_po_obespecheniju_dejatelnosti.

4. http://www.agentura.ru/dossier/russia/fsb/structure/specnaz/.

5. http://bratishka.ru/archiv/2010/4/2010_4_1.php, author’s own information.

6. http://fskn.gov.ru/pages/main/info/leadership/6000/index.shtml.

7. http://www.spec-naz.org/dossier/MVD_special_forces/perechen_otryadov_specialnogo_naznacheniya_fsin_rf/.

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