- The Russian dash toward Kyiv in February 2022 was thwarted by stiff Ukrainian resistance.
- Russia’s invasion also struggled because of flaws in its planning for the operation.
- One misstep was how Spetsnaz was used, and it may have lasting consequences for Russia’s military.
Special forces are highly-trained troops reserved for high-value missions. But using them as assault infantry? That’s a wasteful way to use a scarce and precious resource.
Yet that is precisely the mistake Moscow made during its invasion of Ukraine, according to a recent report on Russia’s planning for the war.
The problem wasn’t just that Spetsnaz commandos and other special-operations forces were assigned missions that should have gone to conventional units. The Russian military’s focus on creating those elite formations, which pre-dated the war, also stripped the regular infantry of its best soldiers.
“The lack of effective line infantry units caused Spetsnaz units to be deployed mostly as light infantry, which also led to a high level of casualties among these units. Far fewer Spetsnaz were therefore available for special forces missions,” according to a study of Russian unconventional-warfare operations in Ukraine by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
Spetsnaz date back to the early 1960s, when they were tasked with sabotage, assassination, and other missions meant to disrupt NATO defenses in advance of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
Spetsnaz is distinct from Western special operators in that the Russian focus is on special tasks rather than the “special-ness” of the operators themselves, according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian military.
Unusually for commandos, Spetsnaz units include conscripts — or at least the more capable ones — as well as volunteers, and there are some 17,000 Spetsnaz in total. Most Spetsnaz are assigned to the GRU, Russia’s military-intelligence agency, rather than the military itself. (Russian federal agencies also field Spetsnaz units that generally act as rapid-response forces.)
It wasn’t until 2012 that Russia formed a unit closer to the Western concept of special-operations forces. The Special Operations Forces Command (KSSO) is a strategic-level force assigned to the Ministry of Defense and comprises about 2,500 volunteers. Its troops have already seen combat, including in Syria.
The RUSI report focuses on the operations Russia carried out, in some cases for years, to undermine Ukrainian institutions. It details not only structural flaws but also the tactical misuse of Russian special forces during the invasion itself.
The February 2022 invasion assigned key roles to Spetsnaz commando units. Under current Russian doctrine, special forces should have gone in first to disrupt Ukrainian defenses, alongside covert operations carried out by agents of Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB, who were already in Ukraine, including in the Ukrainian government and military.
Instead, the invasion began with airborne units attempting to seize key locations from which the paratroopers were to fan out and secure Kyiv before being relieved by mechanized columns.
But where were the special forces? “Most Spetsnaz deployed in conventional reconnaissance roles ahead of” those columns, according to the report.
Rather than operating behind enemy lines, KSSO forces were tasked with pacifying captured Ukrainian territory, in conjunction with Russian and Chechen Rosgvardia, or national guard. (Rosgvardia units aren’t part of Russia’s armed forces and function like internal security forces.) This would have included capturing Ukrainian leaders and securing critical infrastructure.
Russian leaders were so confident of a quick victory that their support elements had already rented apartments near key sites in Kyiv were their special forces were supposed to operate, the report said.
When the airborne assault on Kyiv failed and the tank columns stalled, the special forces were left adrift. “When the occupation of much of the target territory failed, these troops were neither in position to fulfill their traditional role nor able to fulfill the role specified in the invasion plan,” the RUSI researchers wrote.
Special forces by their nature are supposed to be adaptable, so perhaps they could have used their unique capabilities for other missions in Ukraine. But within the first days of the war, the tactical clumsiness and rigidity of Russian line infantry became evident. The Kremlin’s solution was to use elite units — paratroopers, naval infantry, and special forces — as assault troops.
“Once the Russian military found itself in heavy fighting, however, the shortage of infantry became a serious problem,” the report said. Russian commanders then sent Spetsnaz units in to operate like light infantry, which increased their casualties and left fewer Spetsnaz units available for their designated missions.
Ironically, the Russian military’s approach to special forces in recent years compounded the problem in Ukraine. Efforts to increase size of those Spetsnaz units drew in the cream of the volunteer contract soldiers who have begun to replace the often-reluctant conscripts who made up most of the Soviet army.
“The expansion of Spetsnaz units had contributed to a shortage of competent contract infantry for the wider Russian military — as most competent infantry had been pushed toward Spetsnaz and airborne units,” the RUSI report said.
Tensions between elite forces and conventional units are not uncommon. During World War II, critics complained that diverting the best recruits to US and British airborne divisions led to less proficient line infantry. Those airborne units earned legendary reputations for bravery and prowess in battles their expensively trained and equipped troops weren’t intended to fight.
The diversion of talented soldiers into elite units is also an issue for the US military, but Russia’s problem is bigger and more urgent. With its losses mounting in Ukraine, the Russian army may eventually have to choose between maintaining a special-operations capability or rebuilding its demoralized regular infantry.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.