Academic journal article Parameters

Russian Special Operations Forces in Crimea and Donbas

Academic journal article Parameters

Russian Special Operations Forces in Crimea and Donbas

Article excerpt

Abstract: Special operations forces have played an important role in Russian warfare against Ukraine. In Crimea, they engaged in mostly covert action tasks, whereas in Donbas they engaged in more regular special operations functions such as special reconnaissance, military assistance, and direct action. The annexation of Crimea was the first time in which the new Special Operations Command took on a leading role. Based on the Ukrainian experience, there is little reason to doubt Russian capacity in special operations has increased. This may have consequences for the contingency planning of other countries, including the United States.


This article investigates the roles special operations forces (SOF) have fulfilled in Russian warfare against Ukraine--both in Crimea and in Donbas. It starts with a brief survey of the different types of Russian SOF and how these forces fit into the "hybrid" warfare paradigm. (1) Russian special operations in both Crimea and Donbas are then analyzed in relation to standard categories of SOF tasks. Finally, the question of what lessons other countries, including the United States, may draw from the Crimea and Donbas examples is discussed.

First, a brief note on sources is necessary. Given the particularly secret nature of special operations, reliable data are difficult. This is even more so in this case due to the recent nature of the events and the current timidity of the Russian press. Barring a few media outlets and Internet sites, much investigative journalism is "scared into silence" in Russia today. Except for the officially admitted use of SOF in Crimea, and the arrest of two Spetsna% GRU officers in Donbas in May 2015, there is little available in Russian open sources.

Hence, this study, relies to a large extent on Ukrainian sources. Since Ukraine is party to the conflict, these sources are obviously biased. The Ukrainian sources used are relatively independent from the Ukrainian government. Still, they are not objective. Most of them, understandably, display varying degrees of patriotism in the face of Russian military aggression.

On the other hand, since the presence of in-service Russian military personnel on Ukrainian soil has been demonstrated beyond doubt, there is little reason to assume Russian SOF are not there. No modern army would engage in a foreign mission of this scale without having designated roles for its SOF in operations. Thus, it would be in the details of how they operate, rather than in the fact of their presence, that the bias in Ukrainian sources could skew the analysis.

Russian SOF in the Serdiukov Reforms (2)

Russia has many military and paramilitary formations that are called special operation forces or Spetsnaz (short for spetsialnoe naznachenie or special assignment). For this study, the special forces of the armed forces' Main Intelligence Directorate, Spetsnaz GRU, the special forces of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Spetsnaz FSB, the special forces of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Spetsnaz SVR, the Special Operations Command (SOC) and the 45th Special Forces Regiment of the Airborne troops are the most relevant. One should note special forces only make up parts of each of these organizations. GRU, FSB, and SVR have a number of agencies beyond special forces, such as spying bureaus (Agentara), SIGINT (signal intelligence) units and others. These latter agencies are also included in this study, since they often work in close cooperation with "their" special forces. However, belonging to the same super-structure is no guarantee of close cooperation. The rivalry between Spetsnaz and Agentura within the GRU is well known.

Spetsnaz GRU is probably the most famous of the Russian SOF. This organization was established in the early 1950s, and it played an important role in the Russian warfare in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Consequently, most of the operational experience of the organization is as elite light infantry rather than as special forces in the current Western understanding of the term. …

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