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A group of the Soviet Army Spetsnaz soldiers near Torkham on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1988

Spetsnaz (Russian: Войска специального назначения, (спецназ, pronounced [spʲɪtsˈnaz]) tr: Voyska spetsialnogo naznacheniya; pronounced [vɐjsˈka spʲɪtsɨˈalʲnəvə nəznɐˈtɕenʲɪjə]) is an umbrella term for any special forces in Russian, literally "special purpose forces". Historically, the term referred to the military special units controlled by the military intelligence service GRU, the Spetsnaz GRU. Currently, the term is also used to describe any special purpose units or task forces of other ministries (even the Ministry of Emergency Situations special rescue unit),[1] also in some other post-Soviet countries. The following article is discussing only Soviet and Russian spetsnaz formations.


The Russian acronyms "SPETSNAZ" (spetsialnogo naznacheniya) and "OSNAZ" (osobogo naznacheniya), both short for "special purpose", are general terms used for a variety of special operations forces or regular forces assigned to special tasks. They are syllabic abbreviations typical for the Russian language of the early Soviet era, although many Cheka and Internal Troops units such as OMSDON used a osobogo naznacheniya designation in their full names.

Modern terminology mostly uses "spetsnaz" abbreviation to refer to special purpose forces or just special operation forces. However, the widespread use of this word is actually a relatively recent, post-perestroika development in the Russian language. The Soviet general public knew very little about the special operation forces. In a way, this became yet another state secret that was disclosed due the glasnost ("openness") policy of the Mikhail Gorbachev era during the late 1980s. The stories about the spetsnaz and their allegedly incredible prowess, from the more serious to the highly questionable, have captivated imaginations of the more patriotic part of the public, particularly being set against the background of decay in the military and security forces during the perestroika and in the post-Soviet era. Meanwhile, a number of books were written about the Soviet Spetsnaz GRU such as 1987's Spetsnaz. The Story Behind the Soviet SAS by a Viktor Suvorov, self-described as a defected GRU agent and a special forces serviceman, helped to introduce the term to the western public. In the post-Soviet Russia, "spetsnaz" has become a colloquial term as special operations (spetsoperatsiya) became much more commonplace, be it a police raid or a military operation. Extensive media coverage of such events and the continued celebrity status of the special operation forces in state-controlled media allowed the public to identify and address many of these forces by name: SOBR, Alpha, Vityaz and so forth. The term spetsnaz continues to be used in several other post-Soviet states in a reference to their own special operations forces as well. Foreign special operations forces are also commonly referred to as "spetsnaz" in Russia (for example, the United States special operations forces might be referred to as "amerikanskiy spetsnaz").


The concept of using special tactics and strategies was originally proposed by the Russian military theorist Mikhail Svechnykov (executed during the Great Purge in 1938), who envisaged the development of unconventional warfare capabilities in order to overcome disadvantages that conventional forces may face in the field. Practical implementation was begun by the "grandfather of the spetsnaz" Ilya Starinov. During World War II, reconnaissance and sabotage forces were formed under the supervision of the Second Department of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces. These forces were subordinate to the commanders of Fronts.[2]

In 1950, Georgy Zhukov advocated the creation of 46 military spetsnaz companies (each company consisted of 120 servicemen). It was the first time after World War II, when the term "spetsnaz" appeared as an original name of the separate military branch. Later, these companies were expanded to battalions, and then to brigades, respectively. However, certain separate companies (orSpN) and detachments (ooSpN) existed along with brigades until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Military spetsnaz included 14 army and two naval brigades, together with numerous separate detachments and companies, which operated under the guidance of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and collectively are known as Spetsnaz GRU. These units and formations existed under the highest possible secrecy and were disguised as Soviet paratroopers, bearing their uniform and insignia (army spetsnaz), or as naval infantrymen (naval spetsnaz).

Twenty-four years after the origin of military Spetsnaz, the first counter-terrorist unit was established by Yuri Andropov, the head of KGB. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s various special purpose units were created within the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).

In the 1990s, special detachments were established within the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) and the Airborne Troops (VDV), respectively. Today, even some civil agencies with non-police functions have created their own special units, which are also called "spetsnaz", such as "Leader" special centre within the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS).

Nomenclature in the USSR and Russia[edit]

Soviet and Russian military special forces[edit]

A group of Soviet Spetsnaz soldiers preparing for a mission at Kabul Airport, Afghanistan in 1988
A group of ethnic Chechen (former rebel) Russian Spetsnaz troops of the Vostok Battalion posing during the conflict in South Ossetia, Georgia in 2008

The elite units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation were mostly formerly controlled by the military intelligence GRU (Spetsnaz GRU). They were heavily involved in the wars in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as in the training of pro-Soviet forces and various secret operations during the Cold War. The Russian Airborne Troops (VDV, a separate branch of the Russian Armed Forces) have the 45th Independent Guards Spetsnaz Regiment. Since 2010, as a result of the 2008 military reforms, GRU special forces come under the control of the Ground Forces.

Most units of the military Spetsnaz have no official names and are generally referred to by the type of its formation (company, battalion and brigade) and a number, much like any other Soviet or Russian military unit. An exception was given to the ethnic Chechen Special Battalions Vostok and Zapad ("east" and "west") during the 2000s.

List of Spetsnaz units in the Russian Armed Forces in 2012:[3][4]

KGB and FSB special purpose forces[edit]

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visiting a local base of the FSB special forces in Makhachkala, Republic of Dagestan in 2009

The Center of Special Operations of the FSB (CSN FSB, центр специального назначения ФСБ) is officially tasked with combating terrorism and protecting the constitutional order of the Russian Federation. The CSN FSB consists of three different "operative" divisions: Department A (also known as Spetsgruppa Alfa), Department V (also known as Spetsgruppa Vympel) and the Special Purpose Service. The headquarters of CSN FSB is an enormous complex of buildings and training areas, with dozens of hectares of land and scores of training facilities. The average training of a CSN officer lasts about five years.[5]

Together with Center of Special Operations and its elite units, there are many FSB special forces units of regional significance. Such operative detachments are usually called ROSN (Regional Department of Special Designation). The strongest ROSNs are said to be stationed at Saint Petersburg (ROSN Grad) and Nizhny Novgorod.

The foreign intelligence service SVR also has its own paramilitary special force, known as Barrier and estimated to be about 300-strong.

Soviet and Russian MVD paramilitary and police special forces[edit]

A group of Russian paramilitary soldiers from the Internal Troops' 27th OSN Kuzbass in 2010
Two Russian OMON special police officers in the Red Square, Moscow in 2006

Spetsnaz of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) includes numerous Internal Troops (VV, see also Russian Internal Troops) paramilitary units intended for use to combat internal threats to the government, such as insurgencies and mutinies. These units usually have a unique name and official OSN number; some of them are grouped into the ODON ("Dzerzhinsky Division").

The following is a list of Internal Troops OSNs (отряд специального назначения, "special purpose detachment") in 2012:[7]

Aside from the Internal Troops special forces, the MVD has numerous Politsiya (former Militsiya) police special forces, which are stationed in virtually every Russian city. The majority of Russia's special police officers belong to OMON units, but these are mostly used as riot police and are not considered an elite force, unlike the SOBR (officially called OMSN in 2002–2011) rapid-response units that consist of experienced officers who are better trained and equipped than those of OMON.

The Chechen Republic has some unique special police formations, supervised by Ramzan Kadyrov and formed from the "Kadyrovtsy", such as the [Akhmad/Akhmat] Kadyrov Regiment ("Kadyrov's spetsnaz").

Maroon beret[edit]

A group of Russian paramilitary soldiers from the Russian Internal Troops' 7th OSN Rosich posing with an Russian Orthodox priest and their flag that also features a maroon beret in 2005

MVD Spetsnaz servicemen from the VV and police (including special units of the FSIN and FSKN) can compete for the distinction to wear the krapovyi beret maroon beret (RU), which is awarded to "most professional, physically and morally fit" sergeants and officers. The competitions are arranged twice a year and are handled by ex-Vityaz instructors. The competitors must first pass various physical fitness test and shooting exercises to be qualified for main course. The main competition includes 12 km cross-country running in full combat uniform, a 100 m sprint, urban assault exercises with wall climbing, acrobatic exercises, and a 12 minute free-style sparring match against three separate opponents. Due to harsh conditions, less than 10% of the applicants pass the tests and are granted the right to wear the maroon beret.


  1. ^ The Degradation of Russia's Special Forces, by Stanislav Lunev, The Jamestown Foundation
  2. ^ Carey Schofield, The Russian Elite: Inside Spetsnaz and the Airborne Forces, Greenhill, London, 1993, p.34-37
  3. ^ "ГРУ (Главное Разведывательное Управление) ГШ ВС РФ". Russian Military Analysis (in Russian). Retrieved December 30, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Военно-Морской Флот". Russian Military Analysis (in Russian). Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  5. ^ "FSB Special forces: 1998–2010". Agentura.ru. Retrieved January 2, 2013. 
  6. ^ "The Take-Down of Kabul: An Effective Coup de Main". GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved January 2, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Министерство Внутренних Дел (МВД)". Russian Military Analysis (in Russian). Retrieved January 1, 2013. 


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