Circling the Lion's Den

GRU Special Forces (Spetsnaz): 1998-2010

By Sergei Kozlov

Dagestan and the Second Chechen campaign (1998-2008)

By late 1997 it was clear to the General Staff that Dagestan would be the first republic the Wahhabis would try to isolate from Russia for the creation of their independent Islamic state in the north Caucasus, run from the capital Djokhar (Grozny).

It was in connection with this that special forces detachment 411 (according to GRU spetsnaz terminology, a detachment corresponds to a battalion in the Armed forces) was withdrawn from the 22nd special forces brigade stationed in Kaspiisk, to be replaced, several months later, by the special forces detachment 173. This swap took place ahead of August 1999. The divisions were carrying out intelligence operations in the locality and in regions borderng Chechnya, studying the defense and alert systems of the administrative border from the Chechen side. As a result, when the incursion took place, Shamil Basaev and amir Khattab were being followed by a special forces group lying in wait for them, and feeding information instantly back to the Center.

Once combat operations were underway, the special forces serviced the military troops' intelligence needs, providing them with a detailed understanding of the defense capabilities and positions held by the Chechen militants. Initially this task fell to the special operations 411 detachment, as well as a company from the detachment 173 (due to intelligence officers' who had served their terms being withdrawn from duty, the 411 division drew manpower from the detachment 173, which is why the 173 provided only one company). Later the special forces grouping was bolstered by integrated and non-integrated detachments, drawn from practically all Russian military districts. They were led by the commander of the 22nd special forces brigade.

Before entering Chechnya

The need to form locally staffed Chechen subunits for special operations on Chechen territory had long been recognized. In late August, early September 1999 when Basaev and Khattab's troops entered Dagestan, the decision was taken to put this idea into practice. GRU officers at that time had to work with a large number of Chechens, who were viewed as the opposition and who had to flee Free Ichkeria urgently. In Moscow and the regions, Chechens were selected for work as intelligence officers, trained and sent to Chechnya so they could prepare the way for the intrusion of Russian troops. They succeeded in having found the one real field commander of the Chechen diaspora, Said-Magomed Kakiev, who was ready and willing to fight against Dudaev. He was in charge of a mere 29 men. In Chechnya in October, Said-Magomed Kakiev introduced these 29 fighters, who later became the backbone of the division, to the intelligence officer.

Chechen Detachment

Before November 27, 1999 this group of Chechens acted like a partisan grouping. In November they were set the task of forming them into a military unit. To this end they were given weapons, supplies, and uniforms. All this was taken into Chechnya secretly. The unit was armed and given a makeover. An officer from the North Caucasus military region, Special Forces Company was appointed their commanding officer.

Its key task was carrying out diversions and intelligence operations in Grozny. The fact of the matter is that, for entirely understandable reasons, no spetsnaz group was able to penetrate Grozny and carry out intelligence operations there unnoticed. That is just what the new detachment could do. The fundamental task of the Chechen detachment in this period was carrying out intelligence operations in the region surrounding Grozny and in the capital itself. The detachment's first intelligence results were yielded by a group of 5 operatives on the 28- 29 November 1999.

Cossack Detachment

Closer to January, on the initiative of Albastov, the Ataman of the Grozny department of the Tersk Cossack Division, the GRU leadershup agreed the formation of a parallel Cossack spetsnaz detachment. But in its first stages it acted independently from its Chechen counterpart.

Karl Andreevich Gerter, an atamann of Yakutsk Stanitsa was one of the first to join the division. An excellent hunter and mountaineer, he first served in the First Chechen War, as a Serjeant, when the reserve officers hadn't been called up. Keen to fight, he hid his officer's rank from the recruitment office. In the second campaign, this time in the Spetsnaz, he again became a senior lieutenant, deputy group commander.

Later, when he was 46 years old, he gained the rank of captain and special forces group commander. He also brought with him the Cossacks who were part of his group. These units were usually composed of the ataman of a stanitsa, and a group of between 9-12 men. They would come from all across Russia and even Belarus. Many Cossacks had no military special military training. They acted in ways deemed unusual, non-traditional, even by the GRU special forces.

The 305 special forces detachment

By May 1, 2000 the mixed Chechen-Cossack detachment comprised over 350 people. This followed the decision to develop the 22nd brigade out of the 305 special purpose division. Alexander S was appointed detachment commander, formerly the deputy commander for political affairs of the 173 special forces detachment who was getting ready to resign. The top brass knew of his successful work in Dagestan, and convinced him to take up the position. Other competent officers came to work in the detachment. That very same Said-Magomed Kakiev started out as deputy commander of the group, although in fact he commanded a chechen detachment. The staff officers were forbidden from taking part in the military operations. The GRU did not want to risk them. But gradually the officers did start playing a role in operations.

Special Intelligence Operations

Once they had quelled the pockets of resistance in Dagestan, the Russian troops were sent into the Chechen Republic. The special forces detachments went in alongside them. They formed part of the military groupings that mounted their attack from different directions. In the first stage the intelligence units of the special forces primarily directed their intelligence gathering towards the interests of the attacking forces. Not a single commander moved their soldiers forward until they got the go ahead from the special forces group commander. This can, in part, explain the limited losses, by comparison with the first Chechen campaign, experienced in this assault on Grozny.

The special forces played a vital role in gathering intelligence about the insurgent/fighter/militant groups who were defending Grozny. Practically all of it was highly credible. But that is not to say there were no mistakes made or losses incurred. On February 21, 2000, two groups of the 2nd special forces brigade were almost entirely wiped out, due to their commanders' negligence.

Later the spetsnaz also incorporated tactics of search and ambush, and carrying out raids on militant bases. This was particularly common in the mountain foothills and mountainous areas. The experience of boarding teams in helicopters was revived from the Afghan campaign. At the same time, as the spetsnaz were, and remained the most prepared detachment of the army, they also had to act in concert with the prosecutor's law enforcement office in their operations against looters.

In addition, by late 2000 inter-service special purpose teams started to be deployed, incorporating detachments of the GRU spetsnaz, the OMON, the Internal troops and prison spetsnaz. This afforded them a degree of success. However there were problems stemming from the different levels of professional training across the mixed groups. This led to their later rejection of further use of inter-service teams. In 2001 the special forces formations were expanded, some of them to full capacity. Accordingly the rank given to their commanders was made to reflect this, a brigade commander would bear the rank of general. This full status gave the opportunity for career growth within the GRU spetsnaz. Before this the only title corresponding to the rank of major general was that of directional head of special intelligence. Commanders who wanted to rise to the rank of General had to leave the special forces. In March 2002 members of the Yamadaev clan formed a special brigade under the military command of the Chechen Republic, part of the mountain forces of the Russian Ministry of Defense. In March 2002 the decision was taken to establish an HQ for special intelligence within the Chechen Republic. However, considering the results of 2002, the special intelligence command concluded that there had been a decline in the productivity of the spetsnaz. As a result the reasons for this decrease was analysed:

  • 1. Insufficient advance information.
  • 2. Dramatic fall in the groups' mobility due to a lack of helicopters and military hardware.
  • 3. For three and a half years the troops had been moving increasingly towards guerilla-style actions. Militant troops were permitted in populated areas.
  • 4. The security forces structures lacked the capacity to implement the intelligence information they had.
  • 5. The work of the commanders of the Combined Group of Forces (Objedinennaya gruppirovka voysk: OGV) on military action was directed at realizing the general ROSh (the Regional Operations Staff on the North Caucasus) plan. By May 1, 2003 the 10th special forces brigade was formed, with a permanent base in the North Caucasus, in the village of Mol'kino, in Krasnodar Territory.

    Creating the Mountain Faction

    In September 2003 the Mountain Faction was created. Its task was to fight the militants in the mountainous areas of Chechnya. It incorporated all the Army special forces detachments. Each division was given a particular area of responsibility. One of the key tasks, carried out by the GRU spetsnaz in the Chechen mountains was the location and destruction of militant bases, of which there were many dating back in part to the 1st Chechen campaign. At the same time separate spetsnaz subdetachments were also used to action in Chechen plains. Action taken by the spetsnaz led to a drastic shift in the situation in a very short period of time. The mountain regions became much calmer than the plains. After the decision to place the command under the Ministry of Interior's leadership, the Zapad (West) and Vostok (East) Chechen special forces battalions were formed. The West battalion incorporated Chechens who had fought in the 22nd Special forces brigade, 305 detachment.

    Establishing the East Battallion

    The East battalion was formed on the initiative of the head of the General Staff Kvashnin, by GRU officers. The battalion was part of the GRU and was directly subordinate to the General Staff of the Russian Army. It was created at the end of 2003 out of special Chechen divisions and was directly subordinate to the divisional commander. The Battalion formed part of the 291 Motorized Rifle Regiment, of the 42nd Guard Motorized Rifle Division of the Ministry of Defense, and comprised Chechens, led by Sulim Yamadaev.

    In December 2003 the subdivisions of the Special forces eliminated a group of fighters led by field commander Ruslan Gelaev, one of the most renowned and successful opposition commanders. By the mid 2000s the spetsnaz was scattered: there were 17 special purpose forces groups in Dagestan, 9 in Ingushetia, 5 in the Chechen Republic. Their operations continued in Chechnya until the anti-terror operation was called off. However the GRU continues its work in the Chechen Republic to this day.

    The war in South Ossetia, Army Reform, August 2008- present day

    The milirary intelligence special forces were involved in in the conflict in South Ossetia: The 2nd, the 10th and the 22nd special forces brigades were deployed, along with the East battalion. Despite their less than impressive application the spetsnaz successfully tackled the objectives set, thanks to their high level of training. So, for example, one spetsnaz group, of the 10th special forces brigade, spent ten days repelling the Georgian attacks, and returned without losses.

    But as soon as the war was over, the Minister of Defense, Serdiukov, ordered military reforms which would also affect the GRU's spetsnaz.

    Spetsnaz Groups as of 01.01.2010

    In 2010 the GRU special forces (spetsnaz) comprise non-integrated brigades which form part of the frontline units under the District Intelligence Officer, and in wartime the front. In addition, the military training program and oversight ensuring it is adhered to, as well as the development of new technology and arms, are all delivered by the Special Intelligence Section of the 14th Division of the Main Intelligence Department (GRU) at the General Staff of the Russian Federation.

    GRU Army Spetsnaz Structure

  • 2nd special spurpose brigade (Promezhitsa, Pskov Region, Leningrad Military District)
  • 3rd special purpose brigade (Chernorech'e, Volga Ural Military District)
  • 10th special purpose brigade (Mol'kino, Krasnoyarsk Territory, North Caucasus Military District)
  • 14th special purpose brigade (Usuriisk, Far East Military District)
  • 16th special purpose brigade (Tambov, Moscow Military District)
  • 22nd special purpose guards brigade (Stepnoi, Rostov Region, North Caucasus Military District)
  • 24th special purpose brigade (Irkutsk, Siberian Military District)

    In March 2009 as part of the Russian army reforms, the 67th and 12th GRU spetsnaz brigades were disbanded. The 3rd brigade is being cut.

    Despite the decision taken to transfer the spetsnaz brigades to the jurisdiction of the Ground Forces and on the formation of the Special Operation Forces Command, the question remains open, since the GRU spetsnaz does not simply comprise brigades, but also scientific-research establishments and other facilities hidden from public view but which do play a vital role in the spetsnaz's activities.

    Agentura.Ru 1.09.2010