On Sunday, Russian state-run television ran a segment showing what appears to be one of Russia’s most elite military units fighting in Syria, putting an often secretive Special Operations detachment in the limelight, albeit briefly.
Footage of Russian troops in Syria is extremely uncommon. The nine-minute segment is composed of various clips, some of it focused on training, likely in Russia, while other parts take place in Syria. The unit is probably Russia’s Special Operations Command, or KSO, a group akin to the U.S. military’s elite Delta Force that has existed for only a few years.
While Russian Special Operations forces are commonly known as Spetsnaz, those troops often operate attached to large units, acting more as elite infantry detachments than anything else. The KSO is different, according to Michael Kofman, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, because it is a dedicated military Special Operations unit, created after the Russians had watched the U.S. military’s success with its own Special Operations Command over the past two decades.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently against the Islamic State, U.S. Special Operations forces have taken advantage of their small numbers, high-tech communication gear and extensive training to achieve battlefield successes often reserved for conventional forces many times their size. Having gleaned this lesson from their American counterparts, the Russians are now implementing such forces for the first time Syria.
But much like Russia’s lone and problematic aircraft carrier — the Admiral Kuznetsov — steaming off Syria’s coast, the KSO is also another way for Russia to demonstrate its burgeoning post-Soviet defense capabilities in a combat environment.
“Russia is demonstrating a nascent capability similar to what we have in the United States,” Kofman said of the video. “Special Operations forces are a tool of national power and there are very few countries that can field units like this.”
While the KSO is billed as a command, it is only one unit and is composed of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 of Russia’s best troops that hail from traditional Spetsnaz and airborne units. According to Kofman, the KSO is relatively junior, and its first operations involved security for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and shortly after helping secure Crimea’s parliament building with 50 or so troops when Russia helped annex the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014. As a byproduct of Russia’s military reforms that began in 2008, the KSO has benefited from individual equipment upgrade programs that have provided Russian soldiers with modern communications gear and weapons.
In the video that ran Sunday, some of the Russian Special Operations troops can be seen with red-dot weapon sights, thermal imaging devices, laser range finders, and modern bolt-action sniper rifles, including what appears to be a late 2000s Austrian SSG-08 rifle (this rifle was documented in August in Syria by an independent arms research group). Also, one of the Russian soldiers is wearing a Peltor noise-reducing communication headset. Peltor is owned by the U.S.-based company 3M. Its gear is also a staple for U.S. Special Operations troops.
While modeled similarly to the West’s elite military units, one of the key differences between the KSO and say, SEAL Team Six, is that the KSO was not created to conduct counterterrorism missions, Kofman says. Instead, the KSO focuses on more traditional Special Operations missions, including disrupting enemy forces, coordinating and calling in airstrikes and collecting battlefield intelligence.
In the video, the Russian Special Operation officer who goes by “Col. Vadim” discusses these types of operations, adding that Russian Special Operations units also target enemy commanders and support Syrian government forces during key operations.
A Col. Vadim Baikulov was awarded Russia’s highest honorary title known as the Hero of Russia in March for “special missions in Syria,” according to the Interfax news agency. Open-source intelligence researchers from the Russia-based Conflict Intelligence Team have also pointed to Baikulov as the Col. Vadim from Sunday’s video.
The Russian Ministry of Defense first discussed the KSO’s operations in March when the Syrian military took the ancient city of Palmyra back from the Islamic State, even singling out one soldier’s death after he reportedly called in airstrikes on his own position after being surrounded by fighters from the militant group. On Monday, the Islamic State retook Palmyra from Syrian government forces.
Though well-outfitted, Russian Special Operations such as the KSO, are faced with the same difficulties that plague their western counterparts when operating away from larger friendly forces, including the availability and skill of search-and-rescue units. U.S. Combat Search and Rescue will often position in hostile territory to support aircraft and Special Operations Units. In November 2015, when a Russian Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish F-16 after it had crossed into Turkey’s airspace, Russian rescue teams had difficulty finding one of the crew members, losing a helicopter in the process.
With Russia slow to announce its war dead, it is unclear how many troops the KSO has lost since Russia officially entered the Syrian conflict in fall 2015 when Russian aircraft started conducting airstrikes in support of embattled Syrian government forces. Open-source investigations have attempted to prove that KSO soldiers have indeed died in Syria, while other media outlets have highlighted the deaths of Russian contract soldiers in the country.
Andrew Roth contributed to this report.