Russian Special Forces: The Spetsnaz - History Key

Russian Special Forces: The Spetsnaz

You most likely know what it means to live in a constant comparison between Russia and the United States: who has the biggest tanks, the fastest fighter planes or the deadliest bombs. In fact, even today the situation is pretty much the same, but regardless to that, our intention is to present you a less known army unit, this time from Russia.

Many of us are already familiarized with other special forces, we have all heard about the American Delta Force, Green Berets, Navy Seals & Co, but this time our story is related to their Russian counterpart, the Spetsnaz.

Part of a Spetsnaz team
Part of a Spetsnaz team © Systema

The “Spetsnaz” name is used in order to regroup several Russian Special Forces units, and it is still in use also in multiple post- Soviet states. The ‘Spetsnaz’ term is translated as ‘Special Purpose Forces” or ”Special Purpose Military Units” and it is usually connected to the military units under the direct command of the GRU, which is the Russian intelligence service.

Usually, the Russian citizens used to know nothing or very little about their special forces service, that’s why the Spetsnaz term is more likely like an umbrella for several different units. The general purpose of these units is related to ”special operations” activities, without other specifications, but it would be enough in order to generate many myths around them.

Not much is known about them, because of their secretive nature. Locally, in Russia, they are considered almost supernatural beings: tough, extremely well trained and ice-blooded operators, the kind of guys you truly don’t want to encounter in a ”wrong” situation.

The Spetsnaz force numbers around 17,000 men, most of them comparable with more known units like the US Army Rangers. Among these 17,000, around 1,000 can be directly compared to the US Army’s Delta Force or the Navy Seals.


Even if compared with other US special forces, the Spetsnaz have another kind of structure and method of organization. There are Spetsnaz units in numerous military branches, all of them having a dedicated and specialized training program. It is also known that the Spetsnaz units are the first ones to test new weapons and gadgets, having also another kind of freedom related to weapons customizations.

Interesting to note how in Russia also the foreign Special Forces are called Spetsnaz; for example, a US special operation force would be called ”amerikanskiy spetsnaz”.

The Spetsnaz units saw action on multiple battlefields, like the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where they fought between 1979 and 1989, usually in commando warfare and quick insertion and extraction missions. One of their most known operations in Afghanistan is the ”Operation Storm 333” when Soviet Spetsnaz stormed the Tajbeg Palace killing the Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and his 200 personal guards.

During the Afghan war, the Spetsnaz units were usually traveling by helicopters, in order to be dropped quickly around the targeted locations or even exactly on them. They were specialized on ambush or search and destroy missions, managing to gain great respect also from their direct enemies, the Mujahideen.

Spetsnaz in Afghanistan
Spetsnaz in Afghanistan © Tumblr


Another battle episode related to the Spetsnaz history comes from the ”Hill 3234”, located near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. There, between 7 and 8 January 1988, a paratroopers Spetsnaz regiment defended the positions against a force of around 250 Mujahideen. The hill was occupied by only 39 Russian Spetsnaz, but regardless to that, they managed to resist to an attack coming from two directions and kill over 200 Mujahideen; only 6 Russian paratroopers were killed during the battle.

The Russian Special Forces were not deployed only in war, but also in other sorts of actions. We must remember their intervention at during the Moscow theater hostage crisis, when during October 2002 a group of around 50-armed Chechens took 850 hostages in the Dubrovka Theater. The terrorists had powerful explosives planted in the theater, which if detonated were capable of causing the ceiling collapse and an 80% rate of casualties; in fact, the entire theater was a very difficult structure to storm, with long hallways and several staircases.

After some of the hostages were executed by the terrorists, the Spetsnaz entered in action by pumping an unknown chemical agent into the ventilation system of the theater and starting the raid. During the attack 130 hostages died due to reactions caused by the gas, 40 terrorists were killed while the Spetsnaz did not report any casualties. The name of the used gas is still unknown.


Spetsnaz sniper
Spetsnaz sniper ©

When the Chechen terrorist warlord Shamil Basayev demanded recognition of the independence of Chechnya, he thought that the best way to gain attention would be a massacre. Started on 1 September 2004, the ”Beslan Massacre” is related to the capture of over 1,100 hostages by armed Islamist’s combatant. The terrorists occupied the School Number One of Beslan, located in North Ossetia; among the hostages 777 were children.

After 3 days of siege, the Spetsnaz units attacked the building, using explosives and heavy weapons. During the action, 334 hostages were killed, among them 186 children.

There is not a clear number related to the Spetsnaz casualties related to the Beslan school assault (an unofficial number is ”about 20”) but it is known that many Russian special forces officers died trying to protect the escaping children who found themselves in the middle of a heavy gunfight.

Some of the weapons used by the Spetsnaz are the AK-74M (considered the standard Spetsnaz weapon), the AKS-74U (a short barrel version of the AK-74), the sniper rifle SVD Dragunov (and also the SVDS Dragunov, a lighter version of the SVD), the SV-98 (also a sniper rifle) or the PKP Pecheneg, which is a general-purpose machine gun.

Spetsnaz team in modern day Afghanistan
Spetsnaz team in modern day Afghanistan ©


We must admit that we liked the fact that no much clear information can be obtained about them; it would be better if the special forces would remain ”special” and not so discussed or presented as circus phenomena.

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