Peculiarities of Russian special forces in the battles in Ukraine

Erkki Koort
, Security expert
Ukrainian special forces in Kharkiv before being sent on a mission on January 30, 2015.
Ukrainian special forces in Kharkiv before being sent on a mission on January 30, 2015. Photo: Stanislav Belousov / Reuters / Scanpix
  • Moscow has not been able to organize effective special forces operations.
  • The experiences of Crimea, Syria and Kazakhstan did not help the special forces.
  • Russia used its special forces as regular infantry.

Muscovy has always honored and used special forces, which are now lost or a commodity in conventional battles. Security expert Erkki Koort writes about what happened and what signs can be read.

In describing its military power, Russia has relied for years on special forces, in addition to the nuclear bomb and weapons that have no analogues (read: image projects based on lies). Their image has been built up for years and used in shorter or smaller military operations. For example, they were at the forefront in the occupation of Crimea in 2014, in the aggression against Georgia in 2008 and, of course, in both wars in Chechnya.

Voices from those conflicts are still present today. For example, in the last war of words between Wagner and the Chechens, Dmitri Utkin, one of Wagner's leaders, also opened his mouth, reminding the mountaineers that they had been at odds before, before the Kadyrov clan switched sides and cooperated with the Kremlin. Namely, Utkin was a member of the special unit of the Russian military intelligence GRU during the Chechen wars.

After the occupation of Crimea in 2014 and military operations in Eastern Ukraine, Russia also intervened in the Syrian civil war. The troops that were left out of the occupation of Crimea were also supposed to gain experience there, but in hindsight it has turned out that the Syrian experience is so different from Ukraine that there is not much to be done about it. Unlike Ukraine, Syria was really a big special operation, where special forces also played a considerable role.

«Military exercise» before Kiev

The last successful Russian special forces operation was in January 2022 in Kazakhstan, where the settlement of scores between clans had begun, which escalated into street riots. On January 6, 2022, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) decided to send 2,500 military personnel, called peacekeepers, to the member state at the request of Kazakhstan. The largest contingent was the airborne troops of the Russian army. The withdrawal of the KJLO troops was completed earlier than planned, i.e., by January 19, 2022. Russian ruler Vladimir Putin said that the Kazakhstan mission was a success for Russia and that it is worth learning from for the future.

Today we know that these were very significant words because a month later the same troops were sent to occupy the next capital, and part of the same airborne troops were landed at the Hostomel airfield near Kiev. The Kazakh operation, which took place in January 2022, seems in retrospect to be a training exercise where it was possible to test the special forces, their transport and logistics, and most importantly - in a foreign country. Apparently, it seemed to Moscow planners that the events in Kazakhstan could not have come at a better time. There has also been talk of the possibility that Moscow initiated riots themselves but given the plans to attack Kiev in the same time window, this is rather unlikely. The attack on Kiev had already been decided by that time, and a real test of forces in a country with a similar recent history seemed like a jackpot. But the two operations were not similar, and this was also the moment when the success of the Russian special forces ended.

Since the Russians counted on quick success when attacking Ukraine and planned to send troops via Hostomel to the capital via the air bridge, a lot of special forces were used in the operations. In the war in Ukraine, several categories of attacks took place at the same time, where conventional military action took place in the south and east, and an overthrow attack had to be carried out in Kiev. Due to poor planning and the lack of other combat-capable troops, special forces were used very much as regular infantry. In this case, they wear out quickly, and the Russian command, hoping for an imminent breakthrough, pressed hard despite the loss of fighting ability.

In this way, airborne troops from Pskov, Ulan-Ude, and other airborne divisions were spent. Marines from the Black Sea, Baltic Sea and other fleets went the same way. To crown it all, special forces trained for underwater operations of the North Sea Fleet also appeared on the battlefield as infantry.

This was not enough for the military command, and when the Ukrainians began to push the Russians out of Kherson last year, a large number of combat-capable special forces were also sent to the other side of the Dnieper, which became consumables. In the end, these troops had to retreat, which was not positive for their combat ability, and did not boost their motivation due to the losses suffered and the equipment left behind.

Lack of special operations

For more than a year, Ukraine has been collecting military equipment that the Allies have given to fight. Russia has said it considers the cargoes to be legitimate targets and intends to destroy them. Considering how much weaponry has been transported into battles, losses before reaching the front are almost non-existent. Such cargoes can be destroyed in two ways - with an accurate hit from afar or from close range with special forces. Neither of them has happened, because there are not many precision weapons in Russia, and there are also no special forces with such capabilities. No weapons caches destroyed, or high value targets killed. There aren't even any trains that have been dropped into the ditch.

The lack of special operations in the rear of Ukraine and the lack of attacks against strategic targets clearly show the current capabilities of the special forces and planning in the staffs. They cannot carry out similar attacks that Ukraine can carry out in the occupied territories or in Russia. It shows the state that has been reached. Of course, special forces attacks in the rear of the enemy are high risk, but if successful, they can also have a very large strategic effect.

Currently, however, the Ukrainian special forces were the ones who organized attacks on the other side of the Dnieper, occupied islands in the river delta and established positions on the occupied shore. It was the blowing up of the Kakhovka dam that created a huge buffer zone for Russia against such a threat. Yes, it was also a long water resistance before the blow-up, but now it's a swamp for a long time. It is possible that Ukraine had no plans to cross the Dnieper, but now this threat to Russia is largely eliminated. One side is practically unfit for offensive battles, and compared to the dilapidation of the roads, which prevented military operations on a very large scale, the current situation is many times worse. Ukraine cannot attack there. It is said that Russia has already moved its troops from there to other front lines, among them two brigades of airborne forces.

The (military) cemeteries in Pskov, Ulan-Ude and elsewhere, where fallen war criminals are buried, will inevitably need to be supplemented. The formations of the special forces have become thinner, because they also need to be quickly replaced, and the recruitment threshold is lower, the training period is shorter, not to mention the experience.

It is speculated how quickly Russia will be able to restore its offensive potential at the beginning of 2022 when the war ends. Moscow will probably be able to restore special forces the fastest. They are small enough considering the size and population of the country. But it must be taken into account that special forces do not only depend on training, but also need equipment, which certainly cannot be produced in this time frame. But the Russians will be able to recreate that part of the special forces, who break bricks with their heads and turn frying pans during performances, in a couple of years.