Spetznaz is short for Spesialnogo naznacheniya (Special Designation). Early in the Soviet era, the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) and security services developed the Special Designation forces to operate deep in the enemy’s rear and sow terror and confusion with sabotage and assassination. In the early 1920s, the Fourth Bureau of the Soviet General Staff trained terrorists and partisans from several nations. German communists were prepared during this period to seize power. Their coup in 1923 fizzled as the German working class stayed out of the fight. Beginning in the 1930s, the Red Army developed a doctrine of unconventional warfare, featuring the use of Spetznaz troops. During the Spanish Civil War, GRU and NKVD cadres trained Spanish Republican forces in unconventional warfare with great success.
   The GRU’s success in the Spanish Civil War in partisan warfare convinced senior military officers of the greater need for troops schooled in guerrilla warfare and terrorism. During the Great Patriotic War, Spetznaz forces took part in operations on all fronts, and Spetznaz units became integrated into Soviet war planning. Beginning with the Battle of Moscow, Spetznaz formations disrupted the German rear areas and logistical networks
   The security service always had an ability to conduct terrorist operations, killing dangerous émigrés and defectors. It was not until June 1974, however, that the KGB created its own Spetznaz formation, Group Alpha, which was responsible for operations against terrorism and “extremists” within the Soviet Union. In December 1979, Group Alpha was tasked with capturing the presidential mansion of Afghanistan president Amin and killing him and his entourage. Alpha’s work in Afghanistan, as well as other GRU and KGB Spetznaz successes, created concerns about the threat of Soviet special forces in the West. Spetznaz became a subject of misinformation in the Western press: Soviet Spetznaz forces were reported to have a corps of sinister women killers and credited with operations in Alaska that never took place.
   As the Soviet Union slowly disintegrated in the late 1980s, Group Alpha was increasingly used against domestic enemies. In January 1991, Alpha stormed the main television station in Vilnius, Lithuania, killing several civilians. It also operated in Latvia and Azerbaijan. During the August putsch, Alpha was reportedly ordered to storm the Russian White House (the parliament building) in central Moscow and kill President Boris Yeltsin. Alpha commanders, however, refused the order, citing its illegality.
   Group Alpha is now subordinated to the FSB (Federal Security Service). GRU and MVD special forces units, as well as Alpha, have been engaged in operations against insurgents and terrorists and in Chechnya since the early 1990s. In the summer of 2004, Spetznaz troops stormed a school held by Chechen terrorists in southern Russia. In the resulting firefight, all the terrorists, hundreds of hostages, and several members of Alpha perished. Russian Spetznaz units, reportedly well trained and well armed, continue to play a critical role in Russian security, counterterrorism, and war fighting. However, these special forces are still developing new strategies for operating against domestic enemies. Operations inside Russia have generated casualties that in the West would be seen as unacceptable. Liaison with Western services may have an impact on Russian use of deadly force.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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