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    GRU Spetsnaz: The Batmen of Russia

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    1. Who are the GRU Spetsnaz? 

    The GRU Spetsnaz are special covert forces under the Russian Federation’s Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GU/GRU). The GU is Russia’s main wing of foreign military intelligence, and reports directly to the Minister of Defence and the Chief of General Staff. (Source) Above all, it closely resembles the United State’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in purpose. 

    GRU Spetsnaz Russian Special Forces
    GRU Spetsnaz, Russian Special Forces, emblem

    Spetsnaz is a shortened ambiguation of spetsial’noe naznacheniya, meaning “of special purpose” or “of special designation.” These types of units were created to perform reconnaissance and covert actions behind enemy lines. Their doctrinal basis hails from that of  Michael Svechnykvoc and Ilya Strarinov, the former influencing the latter to replicate unconventional tactics seen in the Spanish Civil War into Soviet doctrine.

    Of Special Purpose

    First, Starinov performed guerilla and reconnaissance actions against Nazi Germany in WWII. Then, he used this experience to craft the mould for modern-day Spetsnaz: flexible, highly trained, and highly specialized units. Now, the units function as Special Forces units rather than conventional Russian military batallions.  

    The GRU (The Soviet equivalent to the GU) was officially formed in 1950, and the first Spetsnaz battalions officially adopted in 1957. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, control of the GRU Spetsnaz was passed to the newly formed GU, which is often still referred to as the GRU. To conclude, the GRU Spetnaz’s main purposes were espionage, reconnaissance, sabotage, counterintelligence and even assassination of military and political officials. 

    2. Recruitment and Training 

    Apart from basic military training, Spetsnaz operators or spetsnazovtsi must go through rigorous training procedures to earn their spot. Also, basic requirements to enter the training to become a GRU Spetsnaz operator include recommendations from officers, being a warrant officer, and high psychological fortitude.

    As of 2013, the GRU Spetsnaz was made up primarily of career professionals, known as “contract servicemen” in Russia. (Source) However, their forces were still made up of drafted conscripts, albeit the most physically and mentally capable of the crop. Such is to be expected of the elite Russian Special Forces.

    The GRU Spetsnaz has some problems organizationally that likewise can hurt recruitment and force these draftees into the ranks. The highest rank of the GRU Spetsnaz is officially Colonel, and for those with higher aspirations, it makes more sense to transfer to VDV than fall into the GRU’s intelligence officer-dominated upper ranks. (Source)

    Mark Galliote, a scholar on Russian military doctrine, conceptualized beginner training for GRU Spetsnaz here:

    “Training is an intense mix of physical conditioning, mental orientation – great emphasis is placed on trying to surprise the recruits, and develop their ability to respond quickly to the unexpected – and imparting necessary tactical and technical skills. Professionals may well learn the basics of a language relevant to their specific brigade’s area of operations, but this is not a core issue; there is no expectation that they will acquire anything like fluency, unless they are likely to transfer into the GRU’s intelligence operations.”

    via Spetsnaz: Russian Special Forces

    Spetsnaz training has reached almost mythical status for videos detailing their training regimes, particularly the “Vitjaz” pipeline. However, it mainly reflects other modern special forces training and includes the following:

    Physical Training

    • Advanced weapons handling 
      • Hit a stationary target at 1,600 feet with a rifle
      • 130 feet with a submachine gun
      • between 80 and 100 feet with a pistol
      • Snipers reportedly must be able to engage stationary targets at 1,800 feet, in addition to moving targets (two to ten feet per second) at 1,600 feet
      • able to throw a hand grenade accurately from 80 to 160 feet when standing still or when running
    • Fast rappelling
    • Explosives/demolition training
      • IED training 
    • Counter insurgency/counter-terrorism measures
    • Airborne/Parachutist training
    • Hand-to-hand combat
      • Primarily focused on the Sambo method of martial arts. 
    • Climbing (alpine rope techniques)
    • Diving, underwater combat
    • Emergency medical training

    Language Training

    GRU Spetsnaz are also versed in foreign languages. One former GRU Spetsnaz operator, designated “Ramzes” said this on the language training of the GRU Spetsnaz.

    “When we were trained all GRU Spetsnaz were educated in one or more several key languages – Farsi, Mandarin, English, Arabic, French. Now they learn a greater variety of languages. For example during the Afghan War our Spetsnaz were fluent in various local dialects and after this experience this practice was expanded.”

    via Russia Insider
    GRU Spetsnaz Russian Special Forces
    Members of the Russian 24th Special Purpose Brigade during a training with Uzbek Special Operations Forces. (Source

    3. GRU Spetsnaz Units 

    • 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade – based in Promezhitsa, Pskov (Source)
      • Signals Battalion (2× Company)
      • Support Company
      • 70th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 329th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 700th Special Purpose Detachment
    • 3rd Special Purpose Brigade – based in Tolyatti
      • Signals Company
      • Special Weapons Company
      • Support Company
      • Logistics Company
      • 1st Special Purpose Detachment (1st Battalion)
      • 790th Special Purpose Detachment (2nd Battalion)
      • 791st Special Purpose Detachment (3rd Battalion)
    • 10th Special Purpose Brigade – based in Mol’kino, Krasnoyarsk (Source)
      • Signals Company
      • Special Weapons Company
      • Support Company
      • Logistics Company
      • K-9 Unit
      • 325th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 328th Special Purpose Detachment
    • 14th Special Purpose Brigade – based in Ussuriysk (Source)
      • Signals Company
      • Logistics Company
      • 282nd Special Purpose Detachment
      • 294th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 308th Special Purpose Detachment
    • 16th Special Purpose Brigade – based in Tambov (Source)
      • EOD company
      • Signals Company
      • Logistics Company
      • 370th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 379th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 585th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 664th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 669th Special Purpose Detachment
    • 22nd Special Purpose Brigade – based in Stepnoi (Source)
      • Signals Company
      • Support Company
      • Special Weapons Company
      • Logistics Unit
      • Engineer Unit
      • 108th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 173rd Special Purpose Detachment
      • 305th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 411th Special Purpose Detachment
    • 24th Special Purpose Brigade – based in Irkutsk (Source)
      • Signals Company
      • Special Weapons Company
      • Logistics Unit
      • 281st Special Purpose Detachment
      • 297th Special Purpose Detachment
      • 641th Special Purpose Detachment
    • 25th Special Purpose Regiment 
    • 42nd Independent Naval Reconnaissance Spetsnaz Point based in Vladivostok, Pacific Fleet (Source)
    • 420th Independent Naval Reconnaissance Spetsnaz Point based in Severomorsk, Northern Fleet (Source)
    • 431st Independent Naval Reconnaissance Spetsnaz Point based in Sevastopol, Black Sea Fleet (Source)
    • 561st Independent Naval Reconnaissance Spetsnaz Point based in Parusnoe, Kaliningrad, Baltic Fleet (Source)

    Covert operations
    Members of the 3rd Special Purpose Brigade in Syria, 2015 (Source)

    4. Equipment 

    Weaponry

    • Smalls Arms 
      • 5.45mm AK74/M/N
      • AKS-74U
      • 7.62mm AKM/N
      • AK-103/12
      • AS VAL
      • SR-3 Vikhr
      • PP-19 Bizon
      • AEK-919K 
      • Vityaz-SN
      • GsH-18
      • PP-2000
      • PB-6P9 
    • Support Weapons
      • PKP/PKM Pecheneg LMG
      • SVDS marksmen rifle 
      • VSS Vintorez 
      • SV-98
      • RPG-27 Tavolga, RPG-29 Vampir, RPG-26 Arlen, RPG-30 Kryuk 
      • RPO-A Shmel
      • SA-24 9K338 Igla-S
      • Underbarrel GP-25/GP-30 
      • G30 Grenade Launcher
    • Special Weapons
      • APS Underwater Rifle 
      • SPP-1M 
      • ASM-DT

    Observed Personal Kit 

    • 6B43/6B45/6B46/6B48 Ratnik-ZK Body Armor 
    • 6Sh117 Load Carrying Vest
    • Defender 2 Combat Vest
    • Barmitsa/Permyachka Combat Suits
    • SRVV Butt Pack Z3T Tactical
    • SRVV Cargo Day Butt Pack 3L
    • Vityaz Double Mag Pouch
    • SRVV Quick Rifle Mag Pouch
    • HSGI Pistol TACO – MOLLE 
    • SRVV Medical Pouch
    • SRVV Vertical Utility Pouch/Utility Pouch for Bottle
    • ShBM/6B47/LSHZ-2DT Helmets 
    • VKBO Combat System 
    • Valday 1P87 sights
    • Valday NVG systems
    • Strelets Communication system 
    • GLONASS Sat. Navigation
    • LPR 2 Laser Range finder 
    GRU Spetsnaz
    Soldiers from the 24th Special Purpose Brigade kitted out with AK-74M Rifles and Valday NVGs (Source
    GRU Spetsnaz Russian Special Forces
    GRU Spetsnaz operators from the 16th Brigade take part in a training exercise in Tambov. (Source

    5. Known Operations

    The Super Cobra

    In the ironic heart of the Cold War, GRU Spetsnaz operators were all over the globe. Certainly, in Southeast Asia at the time of the Vietnam War. The Soviets were supporting the North Vietnamese at this time and provided them with munitions and artillery. Above all, the Americans had just released the new AN-1G “Super Cobra” attack helicopter, which was considered ahead of its time. The helicopter also had advanced technology that rendered Soviet-provided anti-air missiles obsolete against it. In effect, the Soviet Union dispatched the GRU and their Spetsnaz to capture the new helicopter. (Source)

    Flying Joe

    The Americans had been using a forward-operating base deep in the Cambodian jungle, codenamed “Flying Joe.” Likewise, Flying Joe was home to mainly rescue pilots and airmen who carried out search and rescue missions for downed pilots in Vietnam. One night, during the darkness of the hour and the silence of the jungle, 10 GRU Spetsnaz operatives fought their way into the base. Subsequently, the battle between the GRU and the American pilots left 15 Americans dead or wounded, with only three dead GRU operators on the scene. (Source) The GRU commandos destroyed three of the Super Cobra helicopters and commandeered the last one out of US-controlled airspace. (Source)

    MI-24

    In conclusion, it is suspected that the Super Cobra helicopter stolen from the United States was an important piece to the Soviet’s MI-24 Hind helicopter program, which was unveiled the following year in 1970. It was only revealed to the Americans when an internal leak occurred within the KGB. (The Soviet Union’s equivalent of the CIA) (Source)

    Prague Spring

    “Prague Spring” was a time of political liberation and outcry against oppression in Czechoslovakia during the spring of 1968. Wanting to curb the rampant counter-party ideologies that were spreading in their proxy state, the Soviet Union wanted to seize control of the city. In effect, to put an end to the expression of political freedoms in Czechoslovakia. 

    The plan that the GRU utilized was simple and effective, as it mirrored the fabled Trojan Horse.  A Soviet transport plane requested an emergency landing at the airport, citing critical engine failure. They were allowed to land and once the cargo doors opened close to 23:00, GRU operatives flooded into the runway and took control of the air traffic control tower. (Source) Simultaneously, GRU operatives who were already in Prague leading up to the seizure of the airport began to take other key positions in the city. 

    In conclusion, the speed and efficiency of the GRU Spetsnaz were incredible at the time. Firstly, they were able to take an entire city overnight without the help of conventional military elements, and secondly with low to no fighting across the city.  

    The Muslim Battalion and Operation Storm 333

    Certainly, the Soviet Union was home to a diverse mix of Central and Eastern Asian ethnicities, and the GRU utilized the diversity to their advantage. Before the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, a special battalion of ethnic Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Tajiks was raised. (Source) This was mainly because the ethnic and cultural connections between these groups and Afghans were closer than those of ethnic Russians, and would lead to a better conceptual understanding of the people they were fighting against. This is where the “The Muslim Battalion” came to be. The 500-strong battalion were practising Muslims. Officially they were the 15th Independent Special Forces Brigade. (Now part of Uzbekistan’s military) (Source).

    GRU Spetsnaz
    Afghanka rocking GRU Spetsnaz unit in Afghanistan, 1988 – Mikhail Evstafiev

    Storm-333

    The Muslim Battalion would come into fame mainly under the shadow of the KGB’s Alfa and Vympel groups in the seizure of the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul on December 27th, 1979. Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan General Secretary, was set to be ousted. Later, A Soviet-approved leader would be put in place. (Source)

    In 40 minutes, 520 operators from the GRU Spetsnaz’s Muslim Battalion (led by the KGB Spetsnaz groups) were able to take complete control of the palace, subsequently killing 347 Afghans in the process. The Afghan Army thought a coup was occurring, due to the ethnicities of the Muslim Battalion attackers. Amin himself could not believe it was the Soviets who were ousting him. (Source) To conclude, the operation ended with Amin and his son dead. 

    Vostok and Zapad

    Two of the most known GRU Spetsnaz units are Vostok and Zapad. Formed by the Russian Federation’s G.U. these two units utilized ethnic Chechen and Dagestani fighters. They fought in both Chechen Wars and the conflict in South Ossetia. Zapad covered the western part of Chechnya while Vostok was in the east. (Given their names mean West and East) (Source).

    The purpose of these ethnically-driven units was similar to that of the Muslim Battalion. These fighters knew the area, the language, and the people around them, subsequently making them very important assets in the Chechen wars. 

    GRU Spetsnaz
    Members of the Vostok Battalion – By Yana Amelina (Амелина Я. А.)

    During the First Chechen War, many Vostok members fought against Russia. Vostok was also under the control of the Yamadeyev family, a direct rival to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Russia leader. 

    It was reported that Vostok fought in the Georgian conflict, and suffered heavy losses while doing so. It was this same year in 2008 that they were officially disbanded by Ramzan Kadyrov.
    (Source) However, some sources point out that pro-Russian fighters had taken the moniker in eastern Ukraine in 2014. (Source)

    GRU Spetsnaz in Crimea and the Donbas

    On February 26, 2014, Russian special forces from the GRU Spetsnaz 3rd Special Purpose Brigade along with airborne troops landed in Crimea from the Black Sea. (Source) Sources also point out that elements of older Vostok operators were a part of the landing. Donning no identifying marks, these soldiers then on February 27th, seized control of key government buildings in Simferopol, the administrative capital of Crimea. (Source) The nature of this operation in addition to the operators was odd, to say the least. Dubbed “Little Green Men” or “Polite Green Men” these unmarked troops with no identifying insignia proclaimed themselves to be protectors of Russians in Crimea. (Source

    In addition, an open-source Ukrainian reporting platform, InformNapalm, was able to identify GRU Spetsnaz from almost all of the GRU’s known forces by selfies the Russian soldiers had posted online. (Source) Also, a GRU Spetsnaz operative was arrested in Ukraine in March 2014. Later he admitted he was a part of the GRU. (Source

    Green Men

    The GRU Spetsnaz’s strategy in this conflict was to provide intelligence-gathering and not directly partake in fighting. This strategy, bolstered by conscripts and local groups in Crimea and the Donbas, proved to be somewhat effective. However, GRU Spetsnaz were confirmed to be wounded in battles at Sanzjarkova and Stsjastye. (Source & Source) It was also confirmed that they were from the 3rd Special Purpose Brigade and the 16th Special Purpose Brigade, respectively. It seems that the GRU Spetsnaz and other elements of Russian Special Operations Forces were involved in more military assistance and direct action in the Donbas than they were in the Crimea. 

    The number of leaks that directly came from GRU Spetsnaz operators could show a lack of professionalism, and in effect reflect the status of conscripted soldiers in the units. Likewise, the GRU clamped down on mishandled information leaking after this campaign. 

    GRU Spetsnaz in Syria 

    GRU Spetsnaz
    GRU Spetsnaz operators near Homs using a LPR 2 Laser Range finder (Source)

    Aside from airstrikes on ISIS and anti-government positions in Syria, evidence points that GRU Spetsnaz may have been active in Syria from 2015 onward. A Russian Special Forces soldier who was confirmed once to be part of the 16th Special Purpose Brigade posted photos with him, other soldiers, and Russian military vehicles on Instagram, with the geolocation tag being Aleppo. (Source) The setting was geolocated and confirmed to be Aleppo. (Source)

    KSSO Involvement

    Mark Galeotti reported that a battalion of GRU Spetsnaz from the 431st Naval Reconnaissance Point and elements are taken from other units were present in Syria. He points out that other units, certainly from the KSSO, are most likely partaking in a higher tier, direct action. Subsequently, the GRU Spetsnaz are most likely used in a reconnaissance capability and protection. (Source) However, this claim is directly contradicted with videos reportedly showing the GRU Spetsnaz in an offensive combat manner. 

    GRU Spetsnaz in Ukraine 2022

    Meanwhile, the Russian invasion of Ukraine beginning in February of 2022 has seen Russian Special Forces deployed across eastern Ukraine. In effect, it is hard to note the exact operations the GRU Spetsnaz are in, it is possible to identify what units/battalions are in active combat through death records and reports. 

    Operators from the 2nd Brigade in Ukraine (exact location unknown), with what appears to be an AK-12 (Kord 6P68?!?!) on the far right, AK-74Ms, and PKM LMGs.

    However, through recorded deaths GRU Spetsnaz units have been identified: 

    • Sergeant Vladimir Vasilyev: 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade – based in Promezhitsa, Pskov (source)
    • Aleksey Chuchmanov – 3rd Special Purpose Brigade (source)
    • Semyon Nesterenko: 3rd Special Purpose Brigade – based in Tolyatti (Source)
    • Major Azamat Alinov – 3rd Special Purpose Brigade – (Source)
    • Senior Lieutenant Yevgeny Zelenkov – 10th Special Purpose Brigade – based in Mol’kino (source)
    • Captain Alexei Glushack: 22nd Special Purpose Brigade – based in Stepnoi (Source) – Fighting in Mariupol
    • Alexander Kilinsky – 22nd Special Purpose Brigade (source) – Embedded with DNR forces in Pisky, eastern Donbass
    • Starshina Boris Zhuraviev –22nd Special Purpose Brigade – Mariupol
    • Dmitry Volensky – 22nd Special Purpose Brigade – Mariupol
    • Sergeant Khongr Ivanov – 22nd Special Purpose Brigade
    • Alexander Savelyev: 24th Special Purpose Brigade – based in Irkutsk (Source) Confirmed to be fighting in Lymen. Awarded the title of “guards” by the Kremlin. (Source)
    • Dmitry Podoprigora – 25th Special Purpose Regiment (Source)
    • Alexy Krenik (Source)
    • Valery Zapolyansky (source)

    As mentioned before, the ongoing and fast pace of this conflict and operations has proven it difficult to place exactly where GRU Spetsnaz troops are in Ukraine. However, through the recorded and official deaths of their ranking officers, it is safe to assume that the GRU Spetsnaz are in a heavy combat role in the invasion of Ukraine.  

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, the GRU Spetsnaz remain one of Russia’s elite covert operations unit classes. Operating away from tradition structure, these operators train and deploy with high levels of skill and capability. The GRU Spetsnaz has operated across the world, and it will be interesting to see what is in store for the helicopter thieves, palace stormers, and “Green Men” in the future.

    Wes Martin
    Wes Martinhttp://wesleyjmartin.com
    Wesley is an alumni of The Fund for American Studies and Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington, DC. He is currently in his senior year of his undergraduate degree at Southern New Hampshire University studying Law & Politics.

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