Having been the kind of nerdy kid who frequented the library to scour the Osprey military history titles, who predictably enough grew up to be the kind of nerdy adult who buys them instead, it was a thorough delight to be able to write my first Osprey book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991, which is due to be published August 2013. (Elite series number 197, ISBN 978 1 78096105 7). In part it gave me new respect for the series given the extensive detail and fact-checking involved, as well as the way the artists need to have a distinctive combination of the meticulous and the imaginative when producing the color plates which are such a feature of the books. The accompanying sketch, from the talented Johnny Shumate, is just the first rendering of an operator from the Saturn special forces group of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in full riot kit. The color version is even more stunning…but you’ll have to wait and buy the book to see that!
However, the exercise also led me to think more about the rise in Russian security, special and paramilitary forces since the collapse of the USSR. The Soviets, after all, were hardly averse to maintaining large parallel armies and also sundry elite forces. However, there has been not just an increase in the numbers of many of these forces, there has also been a proliferation. There are OMON riot police (who do more than just quell riots), KSN/OMSN/SOBR special police response units, various special forces within the MVD’s Interior Troops, numerous commando ‘spetsgruppy’ within the security apparatus, from the FSB’s Alfa and Vympel to the SVR’s Zaslon. As if that were not enough, there are special forces within the FSIN, the FSKN anti-narcotics service, even of a kind within the MChS Ministry of Emergency Situations.
The irony is that the only special forces elements which have shrunk of late have been the regular military’s Spetsnaz — and even then, they still proportionately make up a larger share of the army than in Soviet times. The same is true of the security troops of the Interior Troops: there are fewer than in the Soviet VV, but more compared with the smaller size of Russia’s population.
Why might this be? Here are a couple of preliminary thoughts:
1. An acknowledgment of the relatively poor quality of the run-of-the-mill street cop or soldier compared with increasingly complex challenges. In other words, if you can’t raise the general level of professionalism, but need men who can do tough jobs in an age when terrorism, hostage-taking, etc are increasingly common challenges, then instead you accept a two-stage army/security apparatus, with ‘spets’ types (who are not always that special) and the ordinary herd.
2. Bureaucratic warlordism and Kalashnikov confederalism. In the 1990s, when the Russian Federation seemed all too fragile and everyone was busy building their own powerbases, having such operational forces seemed a good survival strategy (‘Kalashnikov confederalism’). Since then, the threat of fragmentation has receded, but in a time when the siloviki (“men of force”) were in the ascendant and tough guys were all the rage, having your ‘own’ spetsgruppa, whether you’re a minister or a local police chief, was a symbol of political machismo and might even get you credibility in the Kremlin.
Either way, despite the shrinkage of the military Spetsnaz, there is little evidence of any reversal of this overall trend. Indeed, new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is being urged to create his own Special Operations Command (KSO), Senezh. And so it goes…