The KSSO: Russia’s Special Operations Command

The Special Operations Forces Command has established itself as Russia’s foremost special forces division. Known also as the “polite people”, Russian Special Forces or the KSSO and it rivals many tier-1 western special forces.

1. History of the KSSO

Special forces can come from a variety of national motivations and military needs. For some, it comes out of necessity to meet changing demands of combat, for others a specific event triggers the need to develop such a task force. Russia already had a number of special forces groups when the KSSO was formed. The Spetsnaz, a remnant organization from the Soviet era, filled many of the gaps in the new Russian Federation’s special forces needs. The Russian military, Federal Security Service and the Ministry of the Interior all have Spetsnaz units assigned to them. 

Despite themselves being special forces on paper, they did not serve the same purpose that most Western special forces groups did. Russia would realize the necessity to add an entirely new division with a new purpose, as Western powers had. For the United States: The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and a general new approach to special forces would emerge from Operation Eagle Claw. For Russia, the Spetsnaz failures in Beslan and Nord Ost would be their Eagle Claw. Just as the US would fail to rescue hostages taken in Iran, so too would Russia face a failure to rescue hostages taken in Moscow, with 130 dead. (Source)

Russian FSB Vympel officers are preparing to storm the Beslan school that was the scene of terrorist hostage situation 01/09/2004-01/09/2004 (source)

1.1 Russia’s Special Operations Command is Born

The subsequent failures of the Spetsnaz and the rising usage of US and other Western special forces made Russia embrace the creation of a new group. This group would not be an extension of the Spetsnaz, instead it would be entirely independent, and it would entirely emulate its Western counterparts. 

In 2012, the KSSO, going by their official name, the Komandovanie Sil Spetsial’nalnykh Operatsii (English: Special Operations Command). It established from forces transferred over from the GRU Spetsnaz. Since then, the KSSO would operate in many of the theaters that Russia seeks to expand its presence in, handling the most delicate and complex special operations. (Source

2. KSSO Organisation and Mission

In contrast to the Spetsnaz, the KSSO is neither numerous nor does it aim to cover as many different roles. Estimates of the team’s size are between 2000 and 2500, whereas Spetsnaz estimates are around 17,000 total personnel. (source) (source)

The KSSO was formed in 2009 after GRU personnel were transferred to its authority. (source) The exact composition of the force is not known given the covert nature of the group. The unit has grown and will very likely continue to, given its increased usage around the world.

From a command standpoint, the KSSO is an independent entity from both GRU and the Russian Army. Both standard soldiers and commissioned officers compose the servicemen in the KSSO. (source)

KSSO operators fulfil a number of specialized roles in the field and according to some experts rival Zaslon. The Russian Ministry of Defense noted that some of the actions carried out by the KSSO are “…methods and of combat operations that are not typical for conventional forces – reconnaissance and sabotage, subversive, counter-terrorist, counter-sabotage, counterintelligence, partisan, anti-partisan and others”. (source) These actions alone require an extremely focused and effective individual. The expectations of the KSSO however do not end there.

3. Selection and Training

KSSO trainees, from both Spetsnaz as well as the standard Russian military, pass through a rigorous training process.

KSSO recruits participate in five primary specialization and training schools. These include training in parachuting, mountaineering, diving, urban warfare and VIP protection. (source) The KSSO has deployed into Crimea, Syria and during the North Caucasus Insurgency. These deployments demonstrate the adaptability expected of the KSSO by its varied environments and battlefields.

4. KSSO Equipment

In addition to their training, the KSSO is armed with some of the most advanced weapons in the Russian arsenal.

4.1. KSSO Kit

Ratnik, the modular Russian tactical kit, is one of the most commonly seen kits utilized by the KSSO. (Source) While Russian forces have started the integration of the kit into their ranks, the KSSO has extensively integrated it. The modular kit allows it to specifically cater to each operational need. This adaptability is a key feature for special forces operating in a range of environments and mission parameters. 

In addition to Ratnik, the KSSO uniquely use the gear and kit of other countries. (Source)

Russian operations can often attempt to seek levels of deniability and obscurity both on a local and international level. When forces use kits that are utilized mostly by their own nation, these kits become giveaways of who they serve. The solution has been to don the camouflage and kits of Western forces, including (Source)

  • US Multicam
  • French Camouflage Centre-Europe
  • German Flecktarn
  • Polish Multicam
  • A-TACS F
  • SURPAT (MARPAT copy)

This can help disrupt observers’ ability to confirm or deny the presence of Russian forces in certain battlespaces.

Additionally, Russian military funding is comparatively low to its rivals, being only slightly ahead of the UK and Germany, and vastly behind the US. (Source) Due to its lower spending, few components of the military will receive the best gear or have extensive budgets, and even special forces will suffer from this. While a SEAL team may have new and exclusive weapons procured, the KSSO has chosen a more wide procurement method. This is reflected in their kit and gear, as well as their weapons.

KSSO forces in Syria, seen using the SURPAT camo which is a US marines used MARPAT camo copy and various AK platforms. (Source)

4.2. KSSO Weapons

The KSSO, like many other special forces, have procured various weapons for many different combat situations. Their weapons, like their kit, feature weapons from the standard Russian arsenal, and weapons from other nations.

As the KSSO is a special forces group with covert operations and a generally secretive nature, it is impossible to confirm every single weapon used in their arsenal. It is hard to fully confirm the entire arsenal of the KSSO, given their covert nature. It is especially difficult to confirm the ones used in low-frequency and as well experimental systems they may use. 

4.2.1. Assault Rifles

No Russian special forces brigade, be it GRU, KSSO or otherwise would be complete without a myriad of AK platforms. Among the more usual suspects, there is the AK-104, a known favourite of Zalson. More modern AK platforms are becoming increasingly commonplace among Russian special forces, especially the KSSO. Additionally, their arsenal features many variants of the AK platform, including: (Source)

  • AK-47
  • AKM
  • AKMS
  • AK-74
  • AKS-74
  • KS-74U
  • AK-105
  • HK 416/MR556

These AK’s have and will likely continue to serve the entirety of the Russian military for years to come. 

The AS-VAL, featuring its unique integrated suppressor, continues to be used by Russian special forces for any number of operations. With subsonic rounds, high fire rate and collapsible stock, it’s understandable why this Soviet-era weapon continues to see use. It’s likely that its DMR brother, the VSS Vintorez, is used by KSSO as well. The more experimental and AS-VAL-inspired SR-3, also featuring subsonic rounds, has seen extended service by Russian special forces. 

Aside from the more known Russian weapons, some other highly notable ARs appear. The AN-94, once an intended replacement of the standard AK platforms, has been seen in relative use. Its complex design makes it more prone to breakage than the extremely resilient AK, making it a less compelling replacement. (Source)

Additionally, the HK MR556, a reliable German AR platform common among Western armed forces has also seen use. This, alongside their use of the American M4A3 Bushmaster, shows the KSSO’s willingness to adapt to non-Russian weapons. 

KSSO sniper in Syria
KSSO sniper operating in Syria sometime in 2017. Image via Reddit (Source)

4.2.2. Submachine Guns

First among the submachine guns is another uniquely Russian weapon, the PP-19 Vityaz. Developed from the base PP-19 Bizon, it features a more conventional magazine design compared to its helical magazine predecessor but does not sacrifice in its fire rate nor its compact design.

Alongside the PP-19, the KSSO and other special forces continued usage of the HK MP5 demonstrates the Russian military’s ability to integrate weapons that are simply too reliable to ignore. With a low calibre and reliably fast fire rate, the MP5 continues to be used for close-quarters combat solutions. 

Russian special forces
A member of the KSSO on training, featuring a Russian-manufactured Glock, PP-19 and tactical kit. (Source)

4.2.3. Machine Guns and LMGs

The PKP Pecheneg still maintains itself as one of the primary MGs of many Russian special forces. Its heavy calibre and signature ammo box make it a major component of Russian fire support systems. Its older versions including the RPK-74 and PK are still in extensive use as well. (Source) The PKM, a more modern version of the PK base platform, is also in frequent use by the KSSO. (Source)

The RPK-74(M) also sees usage among Russian special forces, including the KSSO, featuring an extended magazine and low barrel. Many of the modern variants have seen usage throughout the Russian military.  

4.2.4. DMRs and Sniper Rifles

The KSSO use a number of DMRs and sniper rifles to achieve an advantage in long-range engagements. 

The Dragunov SVD, a weapon that joins many others as a symbolic Russian weapon, has been and continues to be a go-to choice for many Russian armed forces. The SVDM, a more modern variant that shares many of the original SVDs characteristics, minus its wooden finish, is becoming increasingly commonplace in Russian special forces circles. (Source)

The SVDK, a precision rifle with a high calibre designed for above-standard armour penetration is also in consistent use among Russian special forces. It bridges the gap between more medium-range DMRs and longer-ranged sniper rifles.

To facilitate more long-range situations for its special forces as well as some more standard military groups, the Chukavin SVCh proves to be a worthy contender for the SVD. Putin himself fired the weapon, helping make it a more visible aspect of long-range Russian weapons.

Other major sniper rifles that are in circulation in Russian military units, as well as their special forces, include:

  • Orsis T-5000
  • VSSK Vychlop
  • VSK-94
  • SSG-08
  • AWM
  • Sako
  • HK 417/MR762
A KSSO sniper using an SSG 69 on deployment in Syria. (Source)

4.2.5. Side Arms

Seeing usage as one of the most standard-issue Russian military sidearms, the MP-443 Grach has seen continued use by GRU, KSSO and other Russian military forces. It features a 17 or 18-round magazine and compact design, making it both reliable and effective.

Alongside the Grach, the Makarov, which takes its place alongside AK platforms, the AS-VAL and PKP as one of the most recognizable Russian weapons. Its extremely compact design and signature look make it a near eternal component of the Russian military.

Among the less local sidearms are the Glock-17, a weapon whose usage has been seen in most Western militaries and police forces. Though not a standard regulation weapon, the KSSO possesses the ability to change their kit much more than other military divisions, allowing them to pick from less frequent weapons. The Orsis factory produces many of the Glock-17s, 19s and 22s used by Russian forces. (Source)

The APS automatic pistol, used by Roman Filipov in Syria, as well as the Udav pistol are important components of the KSSO loadout.

5. Contemporary Operations

The KSSO has been anything but idle since its formation in 2012. They have participated in a number of operations both near and far away from Russian territory. Though they have undoubtedly participated in more operations than are officially known, they are known to have been involved in a few different very notable operations.

5.1. Black Box Retrieval

In 2015, when a Russian Su-24 bomber was shot down over Turkish airspace, an international crisis ensued, with Russia sanctioning Turkey and calling for an investigation. Militants killed the pilot of the Su-24 after they bailed out and descended into Syria. The primary way Russia could prove its pilots’ innocence is by retrieving the plane’s black box. In order to properly retrieve this, Russia needed operators who could quickly, efficiently and discretely retrieve the black box, and the KSSO was entrusted with this task.

KSSO operators rapidly retrieved the black box, operating just as intended. This would be only the beginning of KSSO operations in Syria.

5.2. The Palmyra Offensive

The Palmyra Offensive of 2017 marked a decisive victory over ISIL, with Syrian National Forces retaking the lost city of Palmyra. Certain “advisors” from Russian special forces including the KSSO, assisted the Syrian National Forces.  The offensives following the retaking of Palmyra would allow the region to be reconnected to Damascus, and Russian state forces assisted in achieving this objective. (Source)

5.3. Fighting in Aleppo

According to the Center for Strategic Assessment and Forecasts, during the fighting around Aleppo, 16 men who belonged to the KSSO fought back upwards of 300 militants. The militants supposedly assaulted the entrenched special operators during the day and at night in an attempt to dislodge them. (Source) Eventually, the resistance of the KSSO forces would cause the militants to back off and halt their assault attempts. A number of these men would receive high-level awards from the Russian state for their service.

Russian special forces in Palmyra Syria
KSSO operators with ATACS FG and Multicam camo carrying suppressed AK platforms and PKM in Syria. (Source)

5.4. The Battle of Akerabat

Beyond the 16 men holding off 300, an equally impressive feat of combat occurred in the city of Akerabat. It would involve the KSSO, and more specifically an operator named Denis Portnyagin. In an engagement that has become legendary in Russia, Portnyagin was part of a KSSO group travelling through Syria, where his squad was ambushed by roughly 40 insurgents. All members of the squad besides himself were quickly either injured or killed, and Portnyagin took it upon himself to engage and kill a large number of the opposing force. He even reportedly was ready with grenades to detonate himself in the event he was captured. (Source) Portnyagin would receive the Hero of Russia award from Putin. Such efficiency under pressure is a testament to the training and skill of the KSSO.

The KSSO fighting alongside Syrian National Forces in both discrete and overt ways helps demonstrate both the groups’ adaptability but also reflects Russia’s footprint in the area. Assisting allies with the KSSO demonstrates a dedication to a more permanent power presence within the region, alongside regional allies.

6. On the Motherlands Doorstep

Syria would not be the only place where the KSSO would earn both experience and notoriety. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the annexation featured a unique phase to describe Russian invasion forces, “little green men”. These men were KSSO members, some of whom were wearing Russian kit as well as non-uniform kits. (Source) KSSO forces specifically were believed to have been tasked with taking more strategic positions amidst the chaos of the power transition. These positions included airports and other highly valuable locations that needed more specialized deployments to secure. 

A journalist on the ground in Crimea noted that one of the soldiers spoke about the appearance of a Russian soldier, stating that “Not only was his face hidden, but his green and black digital patterned kit that shouted “special forces” rather than “conscript” had no insignia or markings”. (Source)

The full composition of the “little green men” is very hard to confirm, given their innate design to be essentially untraceable with no visible insignias. The KSSO took on more strategically important targets, but also very likely participated in the annexation. 

Russian Special Forces
Photograph of Russian soldiers (little Green Men) in Crimea in 2014, featuring AK platforms and a AS-VAL. (Source)

7. Future

The KSSO stands as a formidable and adaptive special forces group, existing as the logical emulation of Western special forces groups. Russian war doctrine has been able to establish a new group that more effectively meets the modern requirements for lean special forces operations. Alongside their brother organization of the Spetsnaz, it is likely the KSSO will continue to develop its methods and become used with increased frequency in any theatre Russia finds itself.

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