Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 10

The Degradation of Russia’s Special Forces

By Stanislav Lunev

The more than unfortunate situation which characterizes the state of affairs in Russia’s armed forces, which can in no way be said to have emerged from the state of virtually non-existent reforms, and are not capable, even in principle, of carrying out their task of guaranteeing the nation’s security, has already affected even the elite units known as the special operations forces [in Russian, sily spetsialnogo naznacheniia, or spetsnazfor short]. Such units exist in Russia at the present time, not only in the army, but in all of the country’s other "force ministries" as well. They are directly subordinate to the Russian president, and act on his orders or on the orders of other officials who have been given special authority by the Commander-in-Chief. And as has already happened more than once in recent years, they will be used by the Russian leadership to put pressure on political rivals and to achieve other goals rising out of a possible increase in tensions in the country.

There is a broad spectrum of such forces in Russia, ranging from the army, where dolphins and beluga whales, especially trained by specialists of the Defense Ministry’s Scientific Research Center No. 172, serve as underwater saboteurs, to social structures worthy of the attentions of the Russian special services. (1) But the units which are of the greatest interest are those which enable Russia’s rulers to achieve their political goals.

There are more than enough such units in Russia today. As the magazine Ogonek observed, if someone assumes that the Russian armed forces consist of only an army, a navy, and an air force, they are mistaken. (2) There are other, less visible, armed forces. There are the internal troops, the border troops, the railroad troops, Communications Ministry troops, armed units of the Federal Security Service (FSB), of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), and Ministry of Emergency Situations troops. And almost each of these agencies have their own units or detachments which could be called elite.

There is also the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate’s[GRU] spetsnaz, which the military men do not discuss. The security services’ elite detachments–the anti-terrorist "Alfa"and "Vympel" units–are well known. The Ministry of Internal Affairs’ special detachments are also well known–they specialize in fighting street disorders, organized crime, and terrorism. There is talk of creating a special border detachment. To make a long story short, there are about as many special detachments as there are agencies.

Whether or not a unit is "elite," according to the magazine, is defined, for the most part, by three things: by fulfilling a special function or mission distinct from that of the army as a whole, by its special equipment: material, technical, etc., and by the amount of money spent on the unit. All the rest–a special way of selecting personnel, special training–is secondary. In addition, service in such units is always considered prestigious and thus the spetsnaz has rarely experienced a shortage of people wishing to fill its ranks, either in Soviet or in post-Soviet times.

But if, before the end of 1991, this prestige was linked with a further career in the service, in recent years, it is defined by the fact that professionals who have been discharged from thespetsnaz can easily set themselves up in, or near, commercial structures. Only those who are especially gung-ho, or those who have not yet found a place outside the army, remain in the spetsnazunits. When their service is up, soldiers and officers in elite units, who have received high-class professional training, willingly leave the armed forces for civilian life, where all sorts of security firms and criminal organizations, who will pay them well for their knowledge, experience, and skill.

And spetsnaz veterans no longer shun contact with these structures and groups, where the pay for one day’s work is higher than the monthly pay of a professional officer on active service. The ideological and moral reasons for not doing so no longer exist in today’s Russia, and the "wild capitalism" fostered by the Russian authorities implies the simple principle that everything can be bought and sold.

The politicization of the army, wittingly or unwittingly implanted by the Kremlin regime in its desire to maintain itself in power, has removed the last moral and ethical limitations that had once been cultivated in elite military units. Thus, the spetsnazraid, which caused such a sensation in the summer, on one of the offices of the "Most" financial group in Moscow, (which supported the Russian president’s potential rivals), directly demonstrated that elite Russian units can be used not only to achieve political goals, but also to attract financial benefits by putting pressure on political rivals of the ruling regime, or on people who simply do not declare their devotion to the Kremlin rulers regularly enough.

And the activity of these forces in Chechnya is not only a crime against their own people, but also against the spetsnaztroops themselves, who no longer understand either their place or their role in Russia’s present system of security services. As the magazine Novoye Vremya noted, "in the absence of intellectual support, the president has to rely on force alone. But even this reliance is flimsy; the devotion of his henchman Grachev alone is not enough. The army, which they have resolutely refused to reform, is decaying before our eyes, and the other ‘force structures’ will not be far behind."

"Of all the possible ‘moral’ stimuli," the magazine stressed, "the soldier at battle has, perhaps, only one left: the desire to take revenge for fallen comrades. But this stimulus can only serve to degrade the army further, by turning it into just another ‘illegal bandit formation.’ A few days ago, the whole country could watch the story of the hostages who happened to survive the hell of Pervomaiskoye on their television sets, of how ‘Federal’ helicopters consciously and deliberately shot unarmed hostages, who were carrying wounded women on stretchers, at close range. Everyone heard what the hostage called our ‘valiant soldiers,’ time and time again: ‘Animals!’ Who would have the courage to take issue with him?" (3)

One example of the process which is taking place in the Russian special operations forces is the experience of a unit formerly more secret and less known to the public, which is now the most famous elite military unit–the "Alpha" antiterrorist detachment. It was created in 1974, when, in response to the wave of terrorist acts which had swept across most of the world and had hit Western Europe especially hard, a decision was made in the KGB to create special units to fight terrorism. In forming "Alfa," a thorough study was made of other countries’ experience, most of all, of the American anti-terrorist teams, the British special SG-9 units, and similar formations in the Israeli Mossad.

Alpha brilliantly carried out both its antiterrorist mission as well as some other, completely opposite, functions, and quickly won authority as a special operations unit which was capable of much, which carried out the work entrusted to it in a professional way, and without losses to its own personnel. But this only lasted until the beginning of the 1990s, when in the storming of the television center in Vilnius [Lithuania], one member of Alpha was killed under mysterious circumstances. At that time, rumors circulated in the Soviet spetsnaz that he had refused to obey the order to attack and had been shot on the orders of the unit’s commander, after which his corpse had been thrown into the television center captured by the Alpha men.

It is difficult to judge the truth of such rumors, but after the storming of the Vilnius television center, President Gorbachev, KGB Chairman Kryuchkov and other former Soviet leaders all denied having anything to do with Alpha’s actions. So it turned out that Alpha had undertaken the storm of the television center without orders from anyone, that is, on their own authority, and losing one of their men to boot, who had died without any practical or political need for it.

Moreover, after paying their last respects to their fallen comrade in the KGB Club on Dzerzhinsky Square, Alpha members began to have serious doubts about whether or not it was right for the country’s leadership to use them, not only for purposes which are suitable for professional antiterrorist organizations, but for political purposes as well. And already, in a few months, these doubts found practical confirmation in Alpha’s demand, when it received a verbal order in August 1991 from the so-called "National State of Emergency Committee" (GKChP) to storm the Russian White House, to have that order in writing. Not a single member of the GKChP wished to soil his hands by signing such an order, and Alpha’s subsequent refusal to storm the building virtually saved Boris Yeltsin and his supporters and permitted Mikhail Gorbachev to return to the Kremlin, albeit briefly.

The second time that Alpha tried to refuse to participate in the Kremlin leaders’ political games was in October 1993, but this time, their luck ran out. When they again refused to storm the Russian White House with the Russian legislators barricaded inside, Alpha was "called on the carpet" by the president and faced with the choice: to come out either for or against the president, with "all the consequences which flow from that." Alpha decided to support the president in his "settling accounts"[razborka] with the parliament, and, using all sorts of weapons, took the Russian White House in several hours. After their storm, Muscovites began to call it the "Black House."

So although Alpha took the parliament building, it lost the trust of the president, because of its hesitation to attack. And since they were involved in the deaths of hundreds of defenders of the"Russian Black House," they lost the trust of Russian democratic forces, and that of society as a whole, as well. After this, the leaders, disillusioned with Alpha, began to move it further away from the capital, moved it under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), and threw it into the various "hot spots" which abound in the territory of the present Russian Federation. And indeed, the activity of this unit, whose professionalism was once legendary, has not been all that successful.

Alpha didn’t particularly distinguish itself in Budennovsk last summer, when Basayev’s detachment succeeded, for various reasons, in disappearing without a hitch into the Caucasus mountains, while Alpha itself suffered substantial losses. True, as the Russian press pointed out, the unit which conducted the operation in Budennovsk was hardly the same Alpha which everybody knew from the August 1991 putsch. (4) After they were handed over, for reasons which are to this day inexplicable, to the MVD, out of a unit almost three thousand strong, only a handful stayed on to put on policemen’s shoulderboards. And although Alpha was later transferred back to the GUO [the Main Protection Directorate], it turned out to have lost its military experience, its skill, and its traditions.

And it would be difficult to call Alpha’s actions this January in Pervomaiskoye successful, where the number of losses among the hostages and the peaceful inhabitants of the village was several times greater than the number of fighters killed in Raduyev’s band. True, Alpha suffered losses as well, but only by chance. When there was no longer anything left of the village of Pervomaiskoye, and the fighting was over, one Russian regular army soldier unintentionally hit a switch which launched his armored personnel carrier’s "Grom"cannon. The shell blew up another armored vehicle, and its fragments landed on the Alpha team, as a result of which two Alpha men died, two were wounded, and one bruised. (5)

Today it is difficult to determine in which operations Alpha will have to participate in the near future, but it is already clear that together with carrying out its fundamental mission, it will have to participate in guaranteeing the safety of the coming political maneuvers, linked in particular with the presidential elections. What kind of participation this will be depends not on Alpha’s members, but on the country’s political leaders, who have now put Alpha back under their own direct control for a reason, subordinating it directly to the Federal Security Service. But to this day, Alpha remains the Russian special services’ most effective antiterrorist unit, and has substantial capabilities to carry out the missions with which it is entrusted.

According to the Russian press, Alpha has about 200 universally trained fighters who have made it through a rigorous selection process, physical, psychological, and special training, who are able to master any kind of weapon and any form of land transportation.(6) To these men are added specialists in narrower professions, including snipers and the best shots with various weapons, specially trained frogmen, alpinists, rock climbers, psychologists, and, in recent times, hostage-negotiation specialists. This unit has no contract system; everyone passes through real military service in the military ranks from lieutenant to colonel. Incidentally, similar units exist in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus, where individual Alpha units existed in Soviet times, and Russian special operations troops maintain professional and friendly relations with them.

Alfa first won international renown after the storming of Afghan president Hafizullah Amin’s palace, in which it participated together with the anti-terrorist unit Vympel. The Vympel group was created in 1979 as the special operations unit of the KGB’s First Main Directorate, and its first mission was to carry out special missions, to carry out military actions and sabotage abroad. The Vympel group was manned only by officers who knew two or three foreign languages, and it was said that they knew the maps of about thirty world capitals by heart.

After August 1991, Vympel was passed on from one Soviet, and later, Russian, security structure to another, and after October 1993, it was put under the MVD and thrown into the fight against organized crime. After that, 110 of the group’s 180 officers applied for discharge so that they wouldn’t have to take orders from police bureaucrats. With what was left of Vympel, the MVD leadership tried to create its own anti-terrorist unit, Vega, to fight nuclear terrorism. As a result of the latter’s unprofessional efforts to neutralize terrorists in Mineralnye Vody (in the Northern Caucasus)on July 29, 1994, four hostages were killed.

At the same time, the KGB’s main successor — the predecessor of the present FSB, left without its own antiterrorist unit for about a year, began to create the so-called USO, or Special Operations Directorate. After Basayev’s fighters’ raid on Budennovsk last year, a few of the remnants of Vympel were returned to Russia’s security system. And after last year’s presidential decree on the formation of a so-called Antiterrorist Center in the FSB system, this organ began to coordinate or attempted to coordinate the antiterrorist efforts and capabilities of these disparate groups–USO, Alfa, and Vega.

In addition to the security forces’ spetsnaz troops mentioned above, there is also the well-known Vityaz, the special operations forces of the MVD’s special Dzerzhinsky division. It was formed on the eve of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, when the Soviet authorities feared the possible acts of "terrorists sent by the CIA." In distinction from Alpha and Vympel,this unit was staffed by soldiers who served for a fixed period[soldaty srochnoi sluzhby], who received excellent training in hand-to-hand combat and showed impressive mental toughness.Vityaz became well-known in October 1993 when the government used them in their military operations at the Ostankino television center. Arriving at the television center at the president’s personal request, the Vityaz team physically annihilated virtually all the opposition supporters who tried to break into Ostankino,(and all the innocent bystanders who just happened to be in the battle zone) losing only one man in the process.

But the GRU’s spetsnaz, about which the Russian press has only begun to write, remains little known, although its brigades, battalions, and companies exist in every military district. As the magazine Ogonek reported, the GRU’s spetsnazis designed to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage activity on the enemy’s territory. The army’s spetsnaz‘ main missions are to destroy the command posts for the guidance of nuclear weapons and other especially important enemy installations. Acting in groups of five to ten people, the GRU’s spetsnaz is able to act autonomously for days at a time. It is staffed by soldiers who serve for a fixed period, who go through special physical and psychological training, in which special emphasis is placed on mastering the main types of weapons, skill in radio communications ,and knowledge of the enemy’s territory.

The GRU’s special operations troops differ from airborne troops [desantniki] in the character of their mission. Airborne troops are, in essence, a special kind of infantry, which undertake military operations. The mission of the GRU’s spetsnazis to carry out its orders secretly, without engaging in military operations–to search, to find, and to destroy. After Budennovsk, some people said that the only ones who could have coped with the situation would have been the GRU’s spetsnaz. In fact, the GRU’s special operations troops are trained to gather information and destroy. They are not trained to save hostages. (7)

And it is hard for someone who is the least bit familiar with the GRU’s spetsnaz to disagree with the magazine’s conclusion. The GRU’s spetsnaz really is designed to destroy the enemy’s command posts, the systems for guiding the enemy’s armed forces and his weapons of mass destruction, and the physical elimination of the opposite side’s military and political leadership. Which side is that? Whichever side the angry finger of the Kremlin points to, at any time it chooses.

As the press has noted in characterizing the situation in the Russian special operations forces, if anything has grown in the years of post-communist rule, it is the special services. (8)If all their berets were gathered in one place, the spectrum of colors would be enough to drive even an avant-garde artist out of his mind: black, blue, green, red. Special units of the MVD, the FSB, the GUO, the VDV [airborne troops], the GRU… the OMON, the RUOP [Regional Department to Protect the Public Order], the SOBR [Rapid Reaction Force], airborne battalions, marines, and other special units. Up to ten percent of their agencies’ money is spent on maintaining them. And how have these special services earned this money in the fight against terrorism? In the words of the witnesses of the events in Budennovsk, local inhabitants, the numerous armed men showed a lack of professionalism noticeable even to the eyes of a civilian.

It is difficult to add anything else to that conclusion except that dragging the Russian special operations forces into the Kremlin leaders’ political game will inevitably lead, if it has not already led, to the degradation not only of Russia’s war machine, but even of those forces which could and ought to be used in the fight against terrorism–the greatest evil of the end of the twentieth century.

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence[GRU].

Translated by Mark Eckert


1.) Ogonek, No. 4, 1996

2.) Ogonek, No. 44, 1995

3.) Novoye vremya, No. 5, 1996

4.) Ogonek, No. 26, 1995

5.) Ogonek, No. 5, 1996

6.) Ogonek, No. 44, 1995

7.) Ibid.