Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces

Posted: October 27, 2015 in Books, Cold War, World War I, World War II

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When the shadowy, notorious Spetsnaz were first formed, they drew on a long Soviet tradition of elite, behind-the-lines commando forces from World War II and even earlier. Throughout the 1960s-70s they were instrumental both in projecting Soviet power in the Third World and in suppressing resistance within the Warsaw pact. As a powerful, but mysterious tool of a world superpower, the Spetsnaz have inevitably become the focus of many ‘tall tales’ in the West.

This new book, from Mark Galeotti and Osprey Publishing, attempts to debunk these myths, uncovering truths that are often even more remarkable. Now, since the chaotic dissolution of the USSR and the two Chechen Wars, Russian forces have seen increasing modernisation, involving them ever more in power-projection, counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism and the Spetsnaz have been deployed as a spearhead in virtually all of these operations.

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The first thing to strike me about Spestnaz: Russia’s Special Forces was how much history was in there. I’d been thinking of the Spetsnaz in terms of a recent organisation, perhaps formed during the height of the Cold War, but Galeotti displays that it’s been around since The First World War – and debatably even earlier.

The Spetsnaz involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War is very interesting especially in terms of how they were used as almost “ethnic infiltrators”. Special squads were formed in terms of those who could physically pass for Afghan/Muslim.  Some of the stories and anecdotes presented from this time period are astonishingly stark and brutal.

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The latter part of Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces moves onto cover the forces in Chechnya, and how the collapse of the Soviet Union affected the military in general.  As we approach the more recent exploits of the Spetsnaz (including the incidents in Ukraine and Crimea), details and information becomes notably scantier…but that’s hardly surprising.

Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces ends with a round-up of the weapons and unarmed techniques currently used by the Spetsnaz, which is interesting, but doesn’t really flow with the rest of the book, and as such feels rather tacked on.

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Unusually for an Osprey book the photos are generally lacklustre, and don’t really show anything particularly interesting (various Spetsnaz members standing around, not doing anything in particular) but the illustrations are exceptionally good, showcasing the different uniforms and combat roles infinitely better than the photographs do.

A light, but engaging read – great for anyone with a passing interest, but may lack substance for those looking for greater detail.

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