Russia’s Special Operations Forces Command and the Strategy of Limited Actions

by Roger McDermott
Since Moscow’s military intervention in Syria, expert attention has intermittently turned to the role played by Russian special forces in this theater of operations. On May 10, a number of photographs were published online showing Russian special forces operating in northwestern Syria (Almasdarnews.com, May 10). These photographs, however, did not show the real backbone of the deployed special forces, drawn from the elite and secretive Special Operations Forces Command (Komandovaniye Sil Spetsialnykh Operatsiy—KSSO). The development, training and mission types for these highly trained specialist troops appears to be linked to what the chief of the General Staff (CGS), Army General Valery Gerasimov, terms Russia’s “strategy of limited actions.” This strategy envisages the use of military power beyond Russia’s borders in the protection of the state’s interests. The KSSO fits into this overall strategy since it is designed mainly for use outside Russia (see EDM, March 6, 2019; April 26, 2016).

The General Staff’s interest in finding ways to enhance and streamline the capability of the Special Forces stretches back over two decades, and precedes the reform initiated in 2008, following the Russia-Georgia conflict. Resistance to making changes to the existing special forces structures came from the leadership of the Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye—GRU) Spetsnaz. In the formative period of the KSSO (2009–2013), the General Staff leadership extensively studied the development, training and methods used by the special forces of the world’s leading military powers. Finally, in March 2013, the KSSO was formally created and subordinated directly to the CGS (Novosti Rossiya, February 28, 2019).


In 2009, the Office of Special Operations Forces was established on the basis of the Senezh Special Forces Center, in Moscow Oblast. The KSSO consists of the Command for Special Forces Operations, the Center for Special Purposes, the Center for Special Operations Forces (Senezh), Center for Training Specialists (Senezh) and the 561st Emergency Rescue Center (Sepec-naz.org, November 8, 2018). The KSSO functions across three main areas: special operations, special operations in a maritime context, and counter-terrorism. KSSO officers are trained at the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School (Ryazanskom Vysshem Vozdushno-Desantnom Komandnom Uchilishche—RVVDKU) in the Faculty of Special and Military Intelligence and the Department of Special Forces Use, and at the Novosibirsk Higher Military Command School (Novosibirskom Vysshem Voyennom Komandnom Uchilishche—NVVKU), faculty of Special Intelligence and Department of Special Intelligence and Airborne Training. Its recruits are mainly from the GRU Spetsnaz, Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti—FSB) unit Alfa, and the Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) (Everything.surf, December 7, 2017).

Between 2009 and 2013, the first commander of the KSSO was one its founders, Colonel Oleg Martyanov. A veteran of military intelligence, serving as a special forces company commander in Afghanistan, Martyanov was later deployed to most of the “hot spots” involving Russia’s Armed Forces, commanding a special forces detachment and then serving in the GRU General Staff apparatus. In 2014, President Vladimir Putin appointed Major General Alexei Dyumin as the commander of the KSSO. Dyumin was a graduate of the Voronezh Higher Military Engineering School of Radio Electronics and had served in the Presidential Communications Department of the FSB. He also served as the deputy head of the Security Service of the President, also part of the FSB (Topwar.ru, February 28).

It appears that the main purpose in forming the KSSO was to boost and streamline command over the special forces, to use these abroad, and to place the training emphasis upon teamwork. The KSSO focuses on high mobility and efficiency in its operations and concentrates on training its personnel mainly for desert and mountain conditions. The KSSO also reportedly accesses a much wider resource and support base than the GRU Spetsnaz (Novosti Rossiya, February 28). However, it seems to perform tasks quite similar to these assigned to the GRU Spetsnaz, such as adjustment of fire, intelligence collection behind enemy lines, elimination of individual targets, sabotage and anti-sabotage. The KSSO has been deployed in support of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and Syria. Indeed, it first came to public attention due to its involvement in the operation to annex Crimea in late February and March 2014 (Novosti Rossiya, February 28).

In Syria, it has been used to train the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), conduct local special operations, and also in support of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) air campaign. The numbers of deployed KSSO personnel are of course classified, but according to publicly available estimates, it reached no more than 250 service members at the height of the air campaign (Novosti Rossiya, February 28). Since Moscow authorized the use of force in Syria in September 2015, the KSSO has sustained a number of casualties. For example, two officers from the KSSO, Captain Fyodor Zhuravlev and Lieutenant Aleksandr Prokhorenko, were killed in action on November 9, 2015, and March 16, 2016, respectively; they received posthumous state awards for bravery (Novosti Rossiya, February 28). Prokhorenko was an anti-aircraft gunner recruited into the KSSO. President Putin awarded Prokhorenko the title “Hero of Russia” for his heroic actions: surrounded by militants, the KSSO officer called in an airstrike on himself to protect his unit (Topwar.ru, February 28).

The KSSO was designed to fill a niche and coincided with the structural changes occurring in the wider Armed Forces due to the reform and modernization process. It was also tailored to fit changes in Russian thinking concerning the means and methods of modern warfare. The KSSO has been tried and tested in combat, especially in Syria, and is reportedly efficient and dynamic, exploiting highly trained personnel. It also benefits from the use of high-technologies. The KSSO personnel are not only highly trained, but are well armed and equipped with access to most modern small arms, communications, surveillance, vehicles, high-quality body armor, helmets and diving equipment (Topwar.ru, February 28).

The development, training, structuring and equipping of the KSSO demonstrates the immense importance the General Staff attaches to this capability. It is distinctive in the way it is tailored to support and conduct operations abroad. The KSSO is also heavily backed by CGS Gerasimov, who appears to lobby its interests. Given the nature of its role and the extent to which the KSSO complements the doctrine of limited actions in Russian defense planning, it can safely be anticipated that the organization will be present in theater prior to and during Russia’s future military operations abroad.

Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, Senior International Research Fellow for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. McDermott is on the editorial board of Central Asia and the Caucasus and the scientific board of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. He recently wrote The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces: Problems, Challenges and Policy Implications (October 2011).


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