By: Warren Gray
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is
a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
— Winston Churchill, October 1, 1939.
The Russian Federation is geographically the largest nation on Earth, and it has a correspondingly vast array of special operations forces. Certainly, the most well-known of these are the Spetsialnovo Naznacheniya (“Special Purpose”) units, more-commonly referred to by their abbreviation of “SpetsNaz.” These are under the command of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the armed forces, and they first came to widespread, international attention during the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 to 1989.
Currently, there are eight SpetsNaz brigades of various sizes (the 2nd, 3rd, 10th, 14th, 16th, 22nd, 24th, and 346th Special Purpose Brigades), and one SpetsNaz regiment (the 25th Special Purpose Regiment), totaling approximately 16,000 men. In addition, the 45th Guards Special Purpose Airborne Brigade of the Russian Airborne Troops is considered to be a crossover, SpetsNaz/paratrooper unit, even though virtually all SpetsNaz commandos are fully-qualified paratroopers. There are also four Naval Special Reconnaissance, or Naval SpetsNaz units, the 42nd, 388th, 420th, and 561st Naval Reconnaissance Points, assigned to the four Russian naval fleets.
In general terms, SpetsNaz troops are not “Special Forces” in the American sense of the term, because their role is not to train and organize foreign, allied units, like our own Special Forces groups. Russian SpetsNaz are more like U.S. Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, trained primarily for direct-action, commando missions.
SpetsNaz troops and Russian paratroopers wear light blue berets (recon paratroopers wear green berets, as photographed in Syria) and camouflage uniforms in a wide variety of patterns, including the standard, Digital Flora/Tetris pattern, Survival Pattern (SURPAT), Spekter-S, and many others, while Naval SpetsNaz and regular, naval infantry units wear black berets, and a similarly wide array of camouflage patterns. In addition, “Cobra” brown-suede, assault boots are now available to begin replacing the traditional, VKBO black-leather, combat boots in desert environments. They’re also available in olive-green suede, for woodland operations.
In 2013, the new Special Operations Forces Command (KSSO) was added to this expanding list of troops, assigned to the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. KSSO is a strategic-level asset, created for foreign-intervention missions and counter-terrorism duties. In this respect, according to knowledgeable, media sources, the unit is somewhat similar to the mysterious, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC.) They have been particularly active in the Syrian Civil War, and there are approximately 2,500 of these highly-trained men, at two special purpose centers and two more locations.
Rather ominously, KSSO commandos in Syria were recently photographed dressed in U.S.-designed, Multicam camouflaged uniforms, sporting light beards like our own Special Forces units, and displaying the famous, skull-and-crossed-swords emblem of Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham’s English pirate ship from 1718 to 1720, now a very popular symbol of U.S. Navy SEAL teams and other U.S. special operations forces, leading to possible confusion on the battlefield. In fact, the only way to readily identify them as Russian forces was by their distinctive, Kalashnikov AK-105 carbines.
There are also Russian special operations forces assigned to the Federal Security Service (FSB), including Spetsgruppa (“Special Groups”) Alfa (“Alpha”), Vympel (“Pennant”), and Smerch (“Whirlwind.”) Alfa is an élite, counterterrorist unit created in 1974, wearing MultiCam uniforms in action, and black berets, and is very similar to the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has a shadowy, élite unit known as Zaslon (“Barrier,” or “Screen”), most similar to the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) of paramilitary operatives.
The National Guard of Russia, formed in 2016, also has at least 16 “special purpose detachments,” consolidating the Interior Ministry’s (MVD) and other special units under the 604th Special Purpose Center, including four MVD naval units (the 1st, 2nd, 31st, and 32nd Naval Detachments), and these are commonly known under the Osobovo Naznacheniya (also “Special Purpose”), or “OsNaz” designation, wearing maroon berets. And finally, the Russian Ministry of Justice maintains several SpetsNaz organizations, including special groups of the Federal Penitentiary Service.
Over the past 40 years, Russian Special Forces have seen extensive, combat action in Afghanistan (1979 to 1989), the North Caucasus region (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North and South Ossetia, and other areas, from 1994 to 2017), Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Eastern Ukraine/Donbass (2014 to present), and Syria (2014 to present.) Naval SpetsNaz, in particular, wearing their black berets in battle, fought with such ferocity in Chechnya that the insurgents called them the “Black Death,” a grim nickname also associated with Russian naval infantrymen since the savage Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two.
When it comes to weapons and equipment of the Russian special operations forces, there seems to be a much wider variety to choose from than even the U.S. Special Forces (USSF) are accustomed to having. American special operations troops typically employ the Colt M4A1 assault carbine (or HK416 carbine for JSOC units), Beretta M9 pistol (or Glock-19 for many U.S. special ops units, including USSF, Delta, the SEALs, and the CIA), or the brand-new, SIG M17 (U.S. Army only) or M18 (all U.S. services) pistols, which are just now beginning to replace the venerable M9.
But the Russian weapons choices are much more varied and interesting. Traditionally, in the past, they used the standard, well-known, Kalashnikov AK-47-series of assault rifles and carbines (the AKM, AKMS, AK-74, AKS-74, and AKS-74U), and Makarov PM or PMM service pistols in 9x18mm. The standard SpetsNaz weapon today is still the AK-74M (the “M” is for “Modernized”) in 5.45x39mm, while the newer, AK-104 (favored by MVD units and SVR Zaslon) and AK-105 (favored by FSB Alfa, the KSSO, and many other special units) compact carbines are beginning to eclipse the older, longer AK-74Ms in popularity.
The outdated and underpowered Makarov has been largely replaced in active service by the Yarygin PYa, or MP-443 Grach (“Rook”), in 9x19mm, although some units, particularly the MVD, prefer the GSh-18 pistol design. The standard, designated marksman or sniper rifle remains the old-fashioned, Dragunov SVD in 7.62x54Rmm, but many newer models are also available, and are now entering service.
The term “standard,” however, has little meaning within the Russian Special Forces, which are routinely used for testing and experimenting with new weapon designs. In recent years, especially, Russian arms designers have been quite prolific, producing a mind-boggling array of new firearms, and aggressively competing for military contracts. It’s virtually impossible to list every weapon variant in use by Russian special units, so let’s break the list down into those that are most-widely seen in active service:
Assault rifles and carbines:
The AK-74M in 5.45x39mm is still fairly standard, but it’s a full-sized rifle, on the verge of being overtaken in popularity by the shorter, more-compact, AK-104 and AK-105-series. Also in use are the new KMZ A-545 (especially with the MVD), AK-103 rifle in 7.62x39mm, suppressed AS Val (“Shaft”) in 9x39mm subsonic, suppressed SR-3M, some H&K (German) MR556s (HK416 version) and MR762s (HK417 version), and the brand-new AK-12 (which will become the new, standard rifle), AK-12K compact carbine in 5.45x39mm, and AK-15K series in 7.62x39mm, as well as the new, compact, Kalashnikov AM-17 in 5.45x39mm, and suppressed AMB-17 version in 9x39mm (the new replacement for the combat-proven, AS Val.) FSB Alfa also uses the Bushmaster (American) M4A3 carbine. For quiet, close-range, hard-hitting firepower, the new, suppressed, bullpup ShAK-12 in 12.7x55mm is available.
The Yarygin PYa is still the most-numerous pistol, holding 17 (standard magazines) or 18 rounds (newer magazines), with the GSh-18 also in widespread use (and exported to Syria), especially with the MVD. Special-purpose pistols include the suppressed Makarov PB, PSS-2 Vul (“Wool”) silent pistol in 7.62x43mm (captive-piston round, used by FSB and MVD), powerful SR-1M Vektor in 9x21mm, the Stechkin APS (issued to Russian fighter pilots in Syria, and personally tested by President Vladimir Putin in November 2006) and OTs-33 Pernach (“Mace”) machine pistols, both in 9x18mm, and the slim, compact, PSM in 5.45x18mm for undercover concealment.
On February 3, 2018, Russian Su-25SM3 Frogfoot-A Mod. 3 ground-attack, fighter pilot Major Roman Filipov was shot down over Saraqib, in western Syria, by hostile, rebel forces. He ejected safely, parachuted to earth, and died using his selective-fire, Stechkin APS weapon in a blazing gunfight behind a huge boulder on the ground, surrounded by Islamic extremists. He was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, their very highest decoration for valor.
The Orsis factory in Russia also assembles unlicensed copies of the Glock-17, Glock-19 (now the overwhelming, U.S. special operations favorite), and Glock-22 (once favored by the U.S. Delta Force) for special units such as KSSO. The innovative, Glock-like, Arsenal Strizh (“Swift,” the bird) pistol was briefly issued and tested in limited numbers in 2012, especially by FSB Alfa. More recently, the Kalashnikov/Lebedev PL-15 and PL-15K began to replace the PYa as the standard service pistol, but the brand-new, TochMash SR-2 Udav (“Boa”) is now apparently slated, since January 2019, to become the next standard pistol, instead.
The advanced, polymer-framed Udav holds 18 rounds of 9x21mm ammunition, equivalent in power to a hot-loaded, 9x19mm +P cartridge at 1,300 feet-per-second velocity. SP-10 armor-piercing loads are the preferred, military round, although SP-11 full-metal jacket, SP-12 plastic-tipped, jacketed hollowpoint, and SP-13 tracer loads are also available, mostly for law-enforcement agencies. The pistol can be fitted with raised, tactical sights and a high-technology, spiral-pattern, carbon-fiber suppressor for special operations missions. In all likelihood, the new SR-2 will certainly be adopted by the SpetsNaz and other special forces in limited numbers, but actually replacing all Makarovs and Yarygins is probably too ambitious of a project for the Russian firearms industry.
These include the PP-19 Bizon (“Bison”), PP-19-01 Vityaz-SN (“Knight-SN”), and AEK-919K Kashtan (“Chestnut”), as well as the H&K (German) MP5A3, and suppressed, Brügger and Thomet (Swiss) MP9-N (which is also issued to Dutch F-16AM jet fighter pilots flying combat missions in the Middle East.)
Light machine guns:
The existing standard is the battle-proven, RPK-74M in 5.45x39mm, but these will eventually be replaced by the new, RPK-16 and compact RPK-16K.
Infantry machine guns:
The PKM and PKP Pecheneg (named for an ancient, indigenous people of central Asia, living near the Black Sea) are the most-common, medium machine guns.
The classic, Dragunov SVD (in 7.62x54R) dating back to the Vietnam War is still the standard sniper rifle, alongside its improved, SVDM variant, and the SVDS folding-stock, paratrooper version. The suppressed VSS Vintorez (from the Russian acronym for “Special Sniper Rifle”) is used for quiet operations. Other sniper weapons include the suppressed VSK-94 in 9x39mm, long-range OSV-96 in 12.7x108mm, and bolt-action SV-98M in 7.62x54R or .338 Lapua Magnum, and foreign rifles include the Accuracy International (British) AWM (used by FSB Alfa), SIG (German) SSG-08, Sako (Finnish) TRG-42, and Truvelo (South African) CMS in 12.7x99mm.
More-recent, Russian developments are the highly-accurate, Orsis T-5000M “Terminator,” VSV-338, Kalashnikov SVK in 7.62mm, integrally-suppressed VSSK Vychlop (“Exhaust”) in 12.7x55mm, ASVK-M Kord-M in 12.7x108mm, and the all-new, semiautomatic, Kalashnikov/Chukavin SVCh-7.62 (or SVCh-308) and SVCh-8.6 (or SVCh-338.) The Chukavin is slated to eventually replace the longer, more-cumbersome, Dragunov SVD as Russia’s standard, sniper rifle in coming years.
President Putin himself had recently test-fired the shorter, less-powerful SVCh-7.62 (with a suppressor), as described in The Sun (British media) on September 20, 2018: “Vladimir Putin took time this week (just two days ago) to flex his tough-guy credentials as he proved himself a deadly killer with Russia’s newest sniper rifle.
“The Kremlin claimed the Russian strongman made three ‘kill shots,’ hitting the head, liver, and abdomen of a target at (almost 600 meters)…with the Kalashnikov-designed, (suppressed) Chukavin sniper rifle…The other two missed the target. The president…(was) shooting…at a Patriot Park firing range in (the) Moscow region…He showcased his sniper skills…In the summer, Putin posed for a Bear-Grylls-style photo shoot in the Siberian mountains.”
The ultra-long-range, ultra-expensive ($30-34k), Lobaev SVLK-14S Sumrak (“Twilight”) with a fixed, carbon-fiber stock, and the folding-stock, Lobaev DXL-4 “Sevastopol” (the capital of the recently-annexed, Russian Republic of Crimea), both chambered for .408 CheyTac, have been photographed while on display for recent, combat testing in the separatist, Donbass region (eastern Ukraine.)
But sometimes, the inevitable, new, “arms race,” even for something as simple as bolt-action, sniper rifles, takes an interesting, even semi-humorous, turn. On October 9, 2017, a Russian team armed with a super-expensive, Lobaev Sumrak chambered for a souped-up, wildcat version of the .408 CheyTac round, with a March Optics (American, gasp! ) 5-40X scope, smugly thought that they had set a new, world’s record by successfully hitting a one-meter-square target at a truly impressive 4,604 yards, or 2.62 miles.
Unfortunately for the gloating Russians, an American team had already secretly broken the world’s record 10 days earlier, on September 30, 2017, at an astounding 5,000 yards, or 2.84 miles, using a customized, Armalite AR-30 rifle chambered for another wildcat derivative of the combat-proven, .408 CheyTac cartridge.
The issued knives are normally AK 6x5 bayonets or Kampo 6x9-1 combat knives, but Smersh-5 combat/hunting knives and Vityaz (“Knight”) fighting knives are also seen, as are the Izhmash NV-1-01 survival knife, and the NRS-2 Special Scout Knife, with a single-shot, captive-piston, 7.62x42mm pistol cylinder built into the grip.
A large number of Russian Special Forces men privately purchase fighting knives from Kizlyar Supreme, handcrafted in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, which was a war-torn region in 1999. Favorite, SpetsNaz knives include the Kizlyar DV-2 (an abbreviation for “Far East-2,” $270) Bowie-style, Voron-3 (“Raven-3,” $89), and Korshun (“Kite,” the bird, $210), with the all-black, Kizlyar Cerberus ($120) dagger being an imposing, new, tactical design. Vladimir Putin owns a beautiful, custom-engraved, Kizlyar Kuniza ($1,085), for hunting, fishing, and camping purposes.
Russian special operations troops are issued the new, 6B45 Ratnik (“Warrior”) body armor, with matching, 6B46 tactical vest equipment and 6B47 aramid-fiber, combat helmet. Hand grenades are the standard, RGD-5, RGN, or RGO models. The Saiga-12K is an interesting, AK-style, semi-automatic, tactical shotgun, and there is a wide variety of grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles, and shoulder-fired, antiaircraft missiles, primarily the SA-18 Grouse, SA-24 Grinch, and new, SA-25 Verba (“Willow.”) They use Arbalet-2 (“Crossbow-2”) or Malva-24 freefall parachutes.
The latest field equipment includes the LPR-3 laser rangefinder, Garmin (American) GPS units (used in Syria), R-187-P1E Azart (“Excitement”) handheld, combat radio, and KRUS Strelets (“Shooter”) tactical field computers. ZALA Aero 421-16E (very similar to the U.S. MQ-27B ScanEagle) drones, and other small drones, such as the Forpost (“Outpost”) and Orlan-10 (“Sea Eagle-10”), are also widely employed.
The unofficial, standard vehicle of SpetsNaz and KSSO troops is probably the VPK-233114 Tigr-M (“Tiger-M”) utility vehicle, very much like an American Humvee. They’ve also been seen driving the older, UAZ-3132 Gusar (“Hussar”) jeep, the nimble, UAZ-3150 Shalun (“Joker”) fast-attack jeep, the armed, Lada RDA-1 paratrooper, fast-attack vehicle, and a Russian-made copy of the high-quality, Iveco (Italian) LMV “Lynx.” The UAMZ Toros (“Hummock”) 4x4 vehicle and Eskadron (“Squadron”) fast-attack vehicle were recently offered to Russian SpetsNaz and paratrooper forces.
Foreign-manufactured vehicles include the Toyota Hilux pickup truck, Land Rover Defender 110, Israeli Zibar (“Transverse Sand Dune”) Mk. 2 vehicle, and Yamaha Grizzly 700 ATVs. For military assault operations, SpetsNaz soldiers are often transported in BMP-2, BMP-3, or BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, or are airlifted in Mi-8MTV-5 Hip-H unarmed transports or Mi-8AMTSh “Terminator” assault helicopters, used especially in Syria for combat search and rescue.
As we’ve seen above, Russian Special Forces are characterized by a notable lack of standardization in their uniforms and weapons, and they’re constantly experimenting with new firearms designs, which promotes competition and innovation within their arms industry. The ongoing civil war in Syria currently serves as a testing-and-development opportunity for modern, Russian weapons designs, and a paranoid government obsessed with newer-and-better weaponry, incessant warfare, a new arms race, foreign intervention, and military expansionism, as in Crimea and Ukraine, will certainly guarantee that this rapid pace of arms development continues.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, eight more military qualification badges, two command badges, 19 U.S. military medals, and three foreign medals. He also earned four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons