Russian Special Operations Forces

Emulation and Military Change in Russia

October 23, 2020
Emmanuel Dreyfus

Launched in 2008 in the wake of the Five-Day War with Georgia, Russia’s “Novyy Oblik” military reform has been extensively studied and analyzed. With Moscow’s growing reliance on its military might as a foreign policy tool—first and foremost in its post-Soviet “comfort zone,” but also in other regions such as the Middle East and Africa—interest in Russia’s armed forces, logically, has been on the rise. Military emulation, defined as “importing new tools and ways of war through imitation of other military organizations” by Theo Farrel and Terry Terriff in “The Sources of Military Change,” is a particularly relevant framework through which one can evaluate the changes that have occurred within the Russian armed forces since the late 2000s. As the military emulation framework is generally used to describe emulation between states that are allies or in coalition (e.g. NATO), analyzing military change in Russia through this framework is all the more appealing, as Russia obviously cannot be considered an ally of the Western states it emulates. Also, the military emulation framework is particularly well-suited to analyze military changes in Russia, where a long-established tradition of emulating foreign militaries exists, from Peter the Great to Trotsky. Finally, the role of foreign influences in shaping today’s Russian armed forces remains understudied.

Numerous changes and innovations were brought to the Russian armed forces since the launch of the so-called “Novyy Oblik” reform in 2008, including the Special Operation Command (SOC), developed between 2009 and 2013, the Military Police (MP), created in 2012, and so-called private military companies (PMCs). While PMCs are not part of the Russian armed forces per se, including them in the broad field of military change makes sense, considering their growing role in Moscow’s military interventions.

These structures possess three common features. First, their extended use both in Ukraine (SOC and PMCs) and in Syria (SOC, PMCs and MP) confirms their operational value. Second, officials from the Russian defense establishment describe them, particularly the SOC and the MP, as “innovative.” However—and this is the third feature—a closer look reveals that these structures were in fact not created from scratch and all exemplify military emulation. Special purpose units operated for decades in the Soviet Union and later in Russia before the SOC was set up in 2013. Dedicated units performed duties traditionally associated with military police during the Russian Empire and later during the Soviet period, and before the Military Police was created in 2012, there were five disciplinary battalions within the Russian army. Finally, the use of non-state fighters in military operations is anything but new in the Russian model of warfare—this was a common feature, for example, of the Transnistrian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts during the early 1990s. Rather than being mere copies of Western models, these structures combine foreign practices with unique domestic traditions.

In March 2013, while announcing the creation of the SOC, Valery Gerasimov, the Russian General Chief of Staff, stated that “having studied the formation, training and use of the special operations forces of the leading countries of the world, the Defense Ministry's administration also began creating them.” A thorough investigation of Russian military periodicals confirms that over the past thirty years, there has been keen interest in the Russian defense community in Western countries’ special forces; primarily those of the U.S. Oleg Martyanov, a Russian colonel who took part in the development of the SOC and who first commanded this structure when it was still in its nascence, epitomizes this trend: between 2010 and 2012, he published several articles dedicated to various U.S. special forces in Zarubezhnoe Voennoe Obozrenie, a military journal published by the Russian Ministry of Defense. In addition to this “distant learning,” the mil-to-mil cooperation between Russia and the U.S. that took place in the context of the Obama-era “Reset” provided the Russian side with numerous opportunities to “directly” study U.S. best practices in the field of special operations. In May 2012, a joint counter-terrorism drill with units from the U.S. Special Operation Command and the Russian 45th Spetsnaz Regiment of the Airborne Forces was organized in Fort Carson, Colo., and two months later, then-Russian General Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov paid a visit to the USSOCOM in Tampa, Fla. Finally, Russia’s melding of U.S. practices with unique domestic traditions has produced a mixed result. Although the Russian SOC features some characteristics borrowed from the USSOCOM (e.g. a strong focus on joint operations), it is not, properly speaking, a command and looks much more like the Delta Force in terms of size and missions.

The same logic prevails for the MP. In April 2010, commenting on the decision to create a dedicated MP, then Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov declared: “We are weighing this plan. But we have not yet found a structure that will suit us. We are studying the experience of foreign countries.” In July 2012, Nikolay Makarov explicitly stated that the U.S. experience in the military police sphere would be used to develop the Russian MP, and in the same year, a delegation of the newly-created MP visited the U.S. Army MP school. Initially, the MP was created to address discipline issues in the Russian armed forces. But in Syria, MP units have been fulfilling much broader tasks, including peacekeeping activities such as supporting the implementation of local ceasefires brokered by the Coordination Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides and delivering humanitarian aid to local populations. Moreover, several units of the MP deployed in Syria, particularly the Chechen battalions, are in fact mostly staffed by personnel from the GRU and other security services. These battalions feature striking resemblances in their ethnic staffing and in their “peacekeeping missions” to the Muslim Battalions deployed in the context of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. As with the SOC, while Russia has acknowledged that it has emulated U.S. practices in creating the MP, the resulting organization looks markedly different than may have been expected and has taken on roles that are not traditionally associated with military police—in Russia, the U.S. or otherwise.

Finally, the rise of so-called PMCs presents similar characteristics. Over the past twenty years, there has been growing interest within the Russian defense community in the perceived role of PMCs in Western military interventions, as confirmed by a review of the Russian military periodical and official documents, where PMCs are primarily seen as a tool used to trigger color revolutions and regime change, and by debates over possible regulation of PMCs. But structures seen in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, like Wagner, wrongly labelled as PMCs in the author’s view, are not a mere product of the emulation of Western practices. Although presenting some external similarities with their Western counterparts, they are actually a long-standing feature of Russian warfare, i.e. the use of irregular combatants in the combat field.

The creation of the SOC, the MP and the development of PMCs are partly inspired by Western models through extensive studies of foreign practices and military cooperation, and partly stem from centuries-old Russian military traditions. Underlining the search for greater effectiveness, identified as a driving factor of military emulation by Kenneth Waltz in his “Theory of International Politics,” is paramount. It is equally important to distinguish characteristics generated by the observation of Western models from specific Russian domestic practices. Academic considerations set aside, such distinctions are essential to better grasp what’s actually happening in the various conflicts where Moscow is involved.


Emmanuel Dreyfus

Emmanuel Dreyfus is a doctoral candidate at the Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, where he conducts research on Russian military reforms.

Photo by the Russian Defense Ministry, shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.