“Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces”

Johnny Shumate's preliminary sketch for colour plate of a Spetsnaz sniper

Johnny Shumate’s preliminary sketch for colour plate of a Spetsnaz sniper

I’m very happy to be able to note that my latest compact book from Osprey is out this week. Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces is, in my admittedly hardly humble opinion the most comprehensive work on Russia’s special forces yet out in English, taking to task many of the myths both old and new about these guys (not least, the idea that they are all some kind of Slavic ninjas), exploring their role in operations ranging through Civil War pacifications, through Afghanistan and to the seizure of Crimea, and considering what they can and, just as importantly, cannot do. Orders of battle, anecdotes about some of their members and operations, and Johnny Shumate‘s amazing colour plates, what more could you want? Available in both paperback and ebook formats.

Here’s the official blurb:

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. In this book, a peerless authority on Russia’s military Special Forces debunks several of 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 modernization, 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. This book offers a unique, absorbing guide to the secrets of the Spetsnaz, their most noteworthy missions and personalities, but is also packed with details such as orders-of-battle, equipment and operational doctrine.
  • Introduction: overview; background in Russian history and culture
  • The Spetsnaz Tradition: special units of the Bolshevik Red Guard, and behind-the-lines NKVD operations in World War II
  • Cold Warriors: foundation by GRU, 1950. Operations 1960s-70s: Angola, Czechoslovakia, etc, and order-of-battle 1980
  • Operations in Afghanistan, and order-of-battle
  • Spetsnaz after the USSR: the turmoil of the 1990s. Tajikistan and Moldova, imitation units in post-Soviet states
  • Operations in Chechnya, the Chechen Spetsnaz
  • Modern Spetsnaz: increasing strength and importance
  • Naval Spetsnaz, and order-of-battle 2013
  • Special Weapons
  • Index

“A Very Dangerous Woman” — or, what makes a good spy?

budbergbook3dfront-2_med_hrA Very Dangerous Woman, by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield OneWorld Publications, 2015. $27.99 hardback, ISBN 978-178-0747-088. Also available on Kindle. Amidst all the hullaballoo about the Edward Snowden leaks and Chinese hackers’ regular breaches of supposedly-secure US government sites, it is worth reminding ourselves that the best information tend to come from human intelligence sources – good old spies. The best of them can juggle deception and commitment, securing access not only to files and figures but other people: to overhear conversations, act with initiative, ask questions, report on manner and nuance, and in general help us understand people, not just data points. They tend to give us the best stories, too, and the tale of Baroness Moura Budberg is a splendid one, not least as she herself was such an assiduous mythmaker. What emerges from this entertaining and well-researched book is a picture of a woman at once a big-game hunter of larger-than-life men (her bag included Robin Bruce Lockhart the spy, Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells the writers, and not one but two Baltic aristocrats) and also a devotee of a high life and a fast reputation. (more…)

South-Eastern Ukraine: the “Baked Alaska Conflict”

I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt

I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt

What can we call the miserable, simmering-occasionally-boiling-over war in south-eastern Ukraine? While writing something for a Serious Publication, I came up with the analogy of the baked alaska. For those of you who don’t know this delightful dessert, it’s ice cream on a cake base, covered with meringue which is then quickly cooked. Now, there is nothing delightful about the Donbass war, but the baked alaska does give us a useful simile even if one which, for wholly understandable reasons, the Serious Publication thought seems a little too light-hearted for such a bloody and miserable conflict.

I can’t see Minsk-2 or any other initiatives leading to a meaningful political settlement and the region’s reintegration into Ukraine for some time yet. But nor do I see a plausible “Crimean variant” with the Donbass incorporated into Russia. So, at heart, the conflict is already frozen.

At the same time, though, Moscow and its local proxies/puppets/allies (at different times, they have different roles, and we ought not to forget that they have a worrying degree of agency themselves) have adopted and will probably maintain a strategy of tension. At the borders of the region they control, we see constant small- and medium-scale attacks intended both to put pressure on Kiev and also as a form of political “reconnaissance by fire”. While a major offensive of the sort that would lead in all probability to an increase in the sanctions regime may be unlikely, if they see an opportunity for smaller-scale, local advances, they they can gladly exploit it. Again, I don’t see this changing.

Frozen at heart, decidedly hot at the edges: I give you the “baked alaska conflict.”

Russian Crime Today

arrestThe latest in an occasional series of longer articles of mine on Russian crime has recently been published. The articles, for RFE/RL’s Russian-language service, are then being published in English by the Henry Jackson Society. Last year, I wrote Crime and Crimea: Criminals as Allies and Agents, considering the extent to which organised criminal structures were involved in the Russian takeover and how they were affected by the annexation of the peninsula (here in Russian, here in English). This most recent piece, Tough Times for Tough People: Crime and Russia’s Economic Crisis, instead uses a series of individual cases to explore instead the impact of sanctions and hardship on organised crime inside Russia, both the losers and the winners (here in Russian, here in English). A third, future article will explore how corruption is changing.

A Perverse Thought: Finding A Silver Lining In Moscow’s Latest Nuclear Sabre-Rattling

Overcompensating a tad?

Overcompensating a tad?

At times, there is something of the predictably petulant teenager in Russia’s strategic responses. NATO lets it be known that it is considering pre-positioning US armour in the Baltic States (as I’ve said, this is “heavy metal diplomacy” aimed at reassuring the Balts and warning off the Russians more than because there is any serious expectation of war). And in knee-jerk response, Putin announces that

“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year.”

Perversely and paradoxically I find something faintly reassuring about this. Bizarre? Let me explain.

First of all, Russia is updating its nuclear arsenal anyway. Putting aside whether these fabled BMD-beating missiles would anyway work as intended — the miserable development history of the 3M30 RSM-56 Bulava (SS-NX-32) is a cautionary tale against assuming Russia can deliver world-class technologies these days — this is essentially Putin repackaging existing deployment plans as if it were some new initiative. In other words, he hasn’t anything new to offer.

Secondly, nuclear weapons are that contradiction in terms, an unbeatable weapon that cannot be used. Unless Putin seriously intends to risk global thermonuclear armageddon (something that would have even his generals and cronies thinking twice), of which there is no credible hint, then they are essentially (a) to protect the homeland against existential threat and (b) for posturing. Given that there is no threat of any invasion (no, InfoWars, it is not the case that “Mounting evidence suggests US-dominated NATO heading for direct confrontation with Russia”), this is rather an attempt to worry the West.

Putin knows that using the n-word — nuclear — gets us sitting up and paying attention. But essentially, this is just a bit of martial PR, rattling a sabre that he cannot use and which will have no effect unless the West allows itself to be rattled.

How is this encouraging? In comparison with possible alternatives. Had Putin instead announced something that was both new and usable, such as moving a Spetsnaz unit close to the Estonian border, or offering a thousand scholarships to Russian-speaking Balts to come study in Russia (where they could be indoctrinated, recruited, and trained), then I would have been more worried.

US prepositioning in the Baltics: heavy metal politics and hostages to fortune

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

There is much about the present Russo-Western confrontation that is symbolic, even when it comes to the tanks rumbling around the Baltic plans or the Russian aircraft screaming past and sometimes into NATO airspace. Essentially, it is a combination of the macho posture of alpha male animals, trying to overawe their rival by any means short of the murderous, and the stately diplomatic dance of hint, demarche and denunciation, in heavy metal form.

Consider, for example, the likely deployment of heavy equipment in the Baltic states, a pre-deployment of enough kit for a full brigade. More than anything else, this is a piece of theatre intended to reassure the Balts that they would not be left high and dry if the big, bad Russians ever invaded, and warn Moscow that Washington is indeed serious about its obligations to its NATO allies.

In military terms, after all, it is harder to see this as serious. Why? All this hardware is pretty pointless without (a) the 5,000 or soldiers to go with it and (b) without the time to take the tanks and other pieces of kit out of storage and get them ready for action — even at the most basic level, they need fuel, ammunition and other consumables. Presumably if — and I don’t believe this would ever happen — the Russians ever were to invade the Baltic states, they would do so through a surprise blitzkrieg, as one of their massive military “exercises” on the borders suddenly reveals itself to be an intervention force. I can’t see Moscow feeling the need to give NATO fair warning and notice!

The sad truth is that the Baltic states are pretty much impossible to defend in purely military terms. The borders are open, the terrain is pretty flat, the settlements small. That in no way minimizes the determination of the Balts, and the Russians would have to expect subsequent bitter guerrilla warfare as patriots fight back from the woods or in the cities, but Moscow’s ability to take the region in the first instant is hard to question.

The corollary? It is that, in purely military terms, Washington is prepositioning a cache of modern weapons for the Russians to capture.

Of course, the point is that this is not what anyone expects to happen: if — again, let’s stress that if — Russia chose to step up its aggression against the Baltic states, it is almost certain to be through indirect, covert or deniable means, not a storm of armour and airpower. The calculation in Washington is that at least by pretending to make a serious military commitment to the Baltic states (and one which makes it certain and obvious that any Russian offensive will bring it into face-to-face contact with US soldiers), it deters Moscow from any such moves. And so we have another demonstration of the many ways in which if not war but military force can be the instrument for politics by other means.

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