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Dr. Tor Bukkvoll – “Russian Special Operations Forces in Crimea and Donbas”

Released 14 April 2022.

In this podcast, Tor Bukkvoll revisits his 2016 Parameters, article and examines Russian Special Forces and their potential use in Ukraine today.

Click here to read the original article.

Episode Transcript: 

Stephanie Crider (Host)

Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

Conversations on Strategy welcomes Dr. Tor Bukkvoll, author of “Russian Special Operations Forces in Crimea and Donbas,” featured in Parameters’ 2016 summer issue. Bukkvoll is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. He’s a specialist on Russia and Ukraine, particularly in the areas of defense and security policy.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1: Tor Bukkvoll)

 

(Host)
Thank you so much for joining me, Tor. I’m really glad you’re here. We’re here to talk about your 2016 article, which opens with this sentence: “This article investigates the roles special operations forces (SOF) have fulfilled in Russian warfare against Ukraine—both in Crimea and in Donbas.” Please give us some background. Russian Special Operations Forces in Ukraine in the past—what do we need to understand here?

(Bukkvoll)
So what we need to understand, in terms of the role these forces have played in Russian policy towards Ukraine, is that they played a major—maybe the most important—role in the annexation of Crimea. And then, secondly, they played an important (but not so important) role in the warfare in Donbas. There may have been Russian Special Operations Forces in Ukraine, also, prior to the events of 2014. But I think it makes sense to start with the annexation of Crimea, because these forces played such an important role there. And that was, first of all, in terms of the so-called SSO, which in Russian stands for Sil Spetsial’nykh Operatsiy. This is a relatively new Russian special operations force that was firmly established in 2013 but had been built up for a number of years before that.

What you should know is that in Soviet times, special operations forces tended to be more like what in the West would be called light elite infantry. So, the famous Spetsnaz forces that we heard so much about, they are more like the US (Army) Rangers than the US special operations forces like (First US Special Forces Operational Detachment) Delta and the (US Navy) SEALs and so on. But this new force, SSO, was particularly built on the example—or was supposed to be—the Russian “Delta Force.” Specifically, the Russian military referred to “Delta” when they talked about SSO.

And in Crimea, this SSO force, they started their annexation by taking over the buildings or the parliament and the government in Crimea. And then they occupied those buildings for 24 hours—basically, it seems to me, from the sources I’ve seen, to check out what the Ukrainians would do at that time. Would they try to stop the annexation, or would they not? And the Ukrainians, for a number of reasons, did nothing or very little. And that became the first step in the annexation of the whole peninsula.

And the SSO continue to play a big role here in cooperation with Spetsnaz GRU, which is the special operations forces of the Russian military intelligence. These are the “Rangers” forces I talked about before that then worked in tandem with the SSO to take over most of the Ukrainian military infrastructure on that peninsula. So this operation, taking place on 27th of February 2014, is today one of the most important operations that Russian Special Operations Forces have ever done. And President (Vladimir) Putin even named the 27th of February as the day of special operations forces in Russia for the years to come.

That’s a relatively long answer on the role they played in the annexation of Crimea. Then later, special operations forces also played a significant role in the warfare in Donbas. So the warfare in Donbas from 2014 and onwards was partly a local initiative, but also very much a Russian government and Russian military initiative.

In the warfare in Donbas that took place up until the current war, special operations forces did basically two things. They trained and fought together with the local forces. That’s the one thing.

And then they also had the more special tasks. The empirical data for these is a little bit uncertain, but it seems that the special operations forces of the GRU also had as their job to liquidate commanders of the different units of the anti-Kiev opposition that the Russians did not like anymore. So, in the beginning, there were a lot of local commanders in Donbas that were kind of marionettes for the Russians. But then, gradually, these commanders became more and more dissatisfied with the line coming from Moscow. Russia just needed to get rid of them and put in other commanders of the rebellion, and that seems also to have been a job of the Spetsnaz GRU.

So that’s broadly what they did both in Crimea and later in Donbas.

(Host)
How might Russian special forces be playing a role in what’s happening in Ukraine now?

(Bukkvoll)
Yeah, so it’s early to say. I mean, the empirical data we have so far are very scattered, scarce—and you don’t know really what to believe. Russia has closed down everything that consisted of independent reporting. Ukraine has much more of that. But at the same time, Ukraine is a party to the conflict, so you can’t really trust those sources  either. The first answer will be that we don’t know much.

But we know a couple of things. For example, we do know that the initial Russian aggression against Ukraine was supposed to happen very fast and with little use of kinetic force and that Russia expected Ukraine to fall, basically, in just a matter of days.

The most important operation in all of this was the plan to take the airfield in Hostomel, north of Kiev, to bring Russian airborne forces to that airfield, and then to use that airfield as a springboard to go into the very center of Kiev and capture or even take out the political leadership of the country. And this was done by the airborne forces—or this was attempted by the airborne forces—and especially with the airborne forces’ own 45th Spetsnaz special operations forces brigade. So what they tried to do in Hostomel was to bring in Spetsnaz from the 45th brigade with helicopters to the airfield, take control of the airfield. Then the rest of the airborne forces or other parts of the airborne forces would follow on and land bigger troops with planes on the airfield. And then they would take Kiev from there.

And it’s quite interesting. I found an article from one of the progovernment newspapers in Russia that actually described the whole operation and presented it as a victory. Obviously, that article had been written before the operation took place, assuming that everything would be OK. But then it wasn’t. Because the Spetsnaz that took the airfield, they lost the airfield; the airborne forces couldn’t land. And from there on, everything seems to have gone a bit south for the Russians.

So that’s an important part of special operations forces used in this war. We know that they tried something similar also with other airports. And we should also mention that this attempt to take Kiev through the airport at Hostomel—that operation is very similar to, for example, how the Soviet Union took over control of Prague in Czechoslovakia back in 1968, and also somewhat similar to what the Russians did in Pristina, in Kosovo, in 1999.

But I think, apart from that operation, the Spetsnaz in this war have basically been working in what in Ukrainian is called “DRGs”; that’s diversionary and intelligence-gathering groups. So they dress in civilian clothes and enter the different Ukrainian cities to do sabotage missions there and to bring intelligence back to the main forces.

I think that’s more or less what we know about the role of Russian Special Operations Forces in this war at the moment.

(Host)
You made several points at the end of your article. There’s two of them that I was hoping we could talk about today. The first one is that we don’t want Russia to export its SOF model to other countries. What are your thoughts on that?

(Bukkvoll)
I wouldn’t say that Russia has done this a lot. Actually, the SOF model to some extent is—at least in the beginning and especially with the SSO—they tried to imitate your model. But they did help Ethiopia establish special operations forces in 2002 and 2003. That was probably more of a somewhat commercial endeavor; basically, the Ethiopians were ready to pay for this, and that was money that the Russians could use.

But I think a more somber and problematic example is the cooperation between the SSO—the Sil Spetsial’nykh Operatsiy, this Russian “Delta Force”—and the Tiger division of (Bashar al-)Assad in Syria. Again, it’s hard to get details, but it does seem like the SSO has had a special responsibility for training, and also fighting with, Assad’s Tiger division in Syria. And that Tiger division seems to have been one of the most brutal of the Assad forces in that war.

So I think this is something really to look into, if it’s possible to find more data on that. And I’m also thinking here, in this respect, that one thing is that Russia is using special operations forces to train forces like Assad’s Tiger division, but there you may also have the effect that the extreme brutality we’ve seen in the civil war in Syria—especially with this Tiger division—may also have a kind of an influence back on the Russians. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russian Special Operations Forces, as a result of what they have done in Syria, come back home, let’s say, more brutal and less disciplined than when they left. We don’t know this for certain, of course, but it is imaginable that will happen.

I think those are the two main examples: the Ethiopia mission, which was more commercial, and then the Syria mission, which has been much more important and also sinister in a way.

(Host)
I’d like to bring up another point here. Unless there’s regime change, Russia’s relationships with many countries look like they will be be challenging for years to come. What are your thoughts here?

(Bukkvoll)
It depends on whether we have a regime change in Russia or not. But even if we have a regime change in Russia, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a Russia that is more easy to deal with than the one we have at present. So I am fearing a very difficult period for both the West and many other countries in how to deal with Russia. This is especially in terms of willingness to challenge both the West and to challenge other countries, which is obviously very strong at the moment. And I think we’re going into a different world than the one we had before the 24th of February this year.

But another side of this is that they are not doing a good job in Ukraine. They are losing a lot of military capability. They may continue to lose a lot of conventional military capability simply because if they continue the war—and if the Ukrainians continue to fight as well as they have done so far, and we continue to provide them with weapons—we might actually grind down their Russian military capability to a significant degree. And also, if the sanctions continue after this war is over, it’s going to be difficult for Russia to have the money to rebuild that military capability quickly.

So in terms of your question, I think that we should be very concerned, on the political side, in terms of Russian willingness to challenge the West. It will be very difficult for us. On the other side, the war in Ukraine may actually make Russia somewhat of a weaker military power then it used to be before the war in Ukraine started.

(Host)
I appreciate your time and your thoughtful analysis on this topic. Thanks, Tor.

(Bukkvoll)
Thank you.

(Host)
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