Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the
General Staff, stated that the decision to revive the special operations wing
of the country’s armed forces was based on the experience that leading nations
have in forming, training and using special operations units. This includes the
experience of the best-known unit of them all – the United States Special
Operations Command (SOCOM).
Such units have completely altered the very concept of special forces
and their operating methods. The key difference is that
command identifies only the scene of operations, whereas special operations
units act autonomously and define their objectives independently, in order to
accomplish the ultimate mission. They are actively engaged with space and
tactical reconnaissance units, and they involve army, air force and navy units.
Some examples of such operations include SOCOM activities in Yugoslavia,
where special units directed planes and cruise missiles to strategically
important infrastructure units in Serbia and Montenegro from the rear of the
Yugoslav army. Also noteworthy are combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and
Libya, where SOCOM acted as an autonomous spearhead unit of the U.S. Army,
capable of independent actions taken to eliminate enemy personnel and
The Soviet counterpart to SOCOM was the Spetsnaz GRU – eleven brigades
controlled by the Main Intelligence Directorate (or GRU in Russian). Some of
them were designed for land operations, while others performed naval missions.
Spetsnaz proved itself to be highly efficient unit during the Soviet military
campaign in Afghanistan, the two wars in Chechnya and the war with Georgia in
The experience that special operations units gained during the most
recent conflict in Georgia encouraged the General Staff to reform the system of
special services of the Russian armed forces. However, the Minister of Defense
at the time, Anatoly Serdyukov, did not approve the initiative.
Instead, Serdyukov decided to abolish the special operations wing of the
GRU, leaving only strategic functions such as analysis and
human/radio-electronic intelligence. As a result, the Spetsnaz GRU was placed
under the control of military regions and fleets; the special forces lost a
great deal of their personnel.
As soon as Sergei Shoigu was appointed minister, the Russian Ministry of
Defense deemed it necessary to form a special operations command – especially
given the Pentagon’s recently announced plans to markedly increase its number
of secret operations abroad.
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According to a GRU veteran who wished to remain anonymous, the current
initiatives of the General Staff will become another step in the evolution of
the Spetsnaz GRU. The change in approach has been prompted by the experience of
the leading armies of the world – including the U.S. Army – which operate
similar combat units. “We need to meet the new standard,” the specialist said.
According to Gerasimov, the special operations forces will have the same
tasks that the Spetsnaz GRU used to have: tactical reconnaissance and target
marking for strike forces; sabotage operations in the deep rear; the elimination
of enemy commanders; and the capture of strategic infrastructure facilities.
Just as important is the use of special operations forces to protect
Russian citizens abroad: for example, the protection of Russian diplomats
during regional armed conflicts or terrorist threats. The special forces had
already been used to rescue the crew of the MV Moscow University GT tanker,
which had been captured by Somali pirates.
The creation of the special operations forces is essentially an effort
to bring together the components of the reduced operations force of the GRU.
The change in their functions – from tactical operations under the control of
military regions and fleets to strategic missions serving the interests of the
entire country – means that the special operations forces will report directly
to the chief of the General Staff when it comes to tactical operations.
However, the use of the new service beyond the borders of Russia will
have to be authorized personally by the president of Russia and approved by the
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The most important question that still remains unanswered is what
threats the special operations forces will have to respond to. The GRU veteran
source was unable to provide insight on the matter, since he left the military
intelligence agency back in the early 1990s, when the objectives of the
Spetsnaz GRU were different.
One can assume that the efforts by the General Staff to create the new
force have been prompted by the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. troops from
Afghanistan and the need to prevent the penetration of Islamic militants to the
former Soviet Union.
The special operations forces may also become a response to the
deployment of the U.S. missile defense in Europe. In any case, Gerasimov has
repeatedly mentioned asymmetrical countermeasures to U.S. initiatives. However,
this is just guesswork.
Neither the Ministry of Defense nor the General Staff
will ever provide specific answers, because the very imperative of the special
services controlled by the GRU and their operations has always been and will
always be secrecy.