Chapter 2. Spetsnaz and the GRU

It is impossible to translate the Russian word razvedka precisely into any foreign language. It is usually rendered as 'reconnaissance' or 'spying' or 'intelligence gathering'. A fuller explanation of the word is that it describes any means and any actions aimed at obtaining information about an enemy, analysing it and understanding it properly.

Every Soviet military headquarters has its own machinery for gathering and analysing information about the enemy. The information thus collected and analysed about the enemy is passed on to other headquarters, higher up, lower down and on the same level, and each headquarters in turn receives information about the enemy not only from its own sources but also from the other headquarters.

If some military unit should be defeated in battle through its ignorance of the enemy, the commanding officer and his chief of staff have no right to blame the fact that they were not well enough informed about the enemy. The most important task for every commander and chief of staff is that, without waiting for information to arrive from elsewhere, they must organise their own sources of information about the enemy and warn their own forces and their superior headquarters of any danger that is threatened.

Spetsnaz is one of the forms of Soviet military razvedka which occupies a place somewhere between reconnaissance and intelligence.

It is the name given to the shock troops of razvedka in which there are combined elements of espionage, terrorism and large-scale partisan operations. In personal terms, this covers a very diverse range of people: secret agents recruited by Soviet military razvedka among foreigners for carrying out espionage and terrorist operations; professional units composed of the country's best sportsmen; and units made up of ordinary but carefully selected and well trained soldiers. The higher the level of a given headquarters is, the more spetsnaz units it has at its disposal and the more professionals there are among the spetsnaz troops.

The term spetsnaz is a composite word made up from spetsialnoye nazhacheniye, meaning 'special purpose'. The name is well chosen. Spetsnaz differs from other forms of razvedka in that it not only seeks and finds important enemy targets, but in the majority of cases attacks and destroys them.

Spetsnaz has a long history, in which there have been periods of success and periods of decline. After the Second World War spetsnaz was in the doldrums, but from the mid-1950s a new era in the history of the organisation began with the West's new deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. This development created for the Soviet Army, which had always prepared itself, and still does, only for 'liberation' wars on foreign territory, a practically insuperable barrier. Soviet strategy could continue along the same lines only if the means could be found to remove Western tactical nuclear weapons from the path of the Soviet troops, without at the same time turning the enemy's territory into a nuclear desert.

The destruction of the tactical nuclear weapons which render Soviet aggression impossible or pointless could be carried out only if the whereabouts of all, or at least the majority, of the enemy's tactical nuclear weapons were established. But this in itself presented a tremendous problem. It is very easy to conceal tactical missiles, aircraft and nuclear artillery and, instead of deploying real missiles and guns, the enemy can deploy dummies, thus diverting the attention of Soviet razvedka and protecting the real tactical nuclear weapons under cover.

The Soviet high command therefore had to devise the sort of means of detection that could approach very close to the enemy's weapons and in each case provide a precise answer to the question of whether they were real, or just well produced dummies. But even if a tremendous number of nuclear batteries were discovered in good time, that did not solve the problem. In the time it takes for the transmission of the reports from the reconnaissance units to the headquarters, for the analysis of the information obtained and the preparation of the appropriate command for action, the battery can have changed position several times. So forces had to be created that would be able to seek out, find and destroy immediately the nuclear weapons discovered in the course of war or immediately before its outbreak.

Spetsnaz was, and is, precisely such an instrument, permitting commanding officers at army level and higher to establish independently the whereabouts of the enemy's most dangerous weapons and to destroy them on the spot.

Is it possible for spetsnaz to pinpoint and destroy every single one of the enemy's nuclear weapons? Of course not. So what is the solution to this problem? It is very simple. Spetsnaz has to make every effort to find and destroy the enemy's nuclear armament. Nuclear strength represents the teeth of the state and it has to be knocked out with the first blow, possibly even before the fighting begins. But if it proves impossible to knock out all the teeth with the first blow, then a blow has to be struck not just at the teeth but at the brain and nervous system of the state.

When we speak of the 'brain' we mean the country's most important statesmen and politicians. In this context the leaders of the opposition parties are regarded as equally important candidates for destruction as the leaders of the party in power. The opposition is simply the state's reserve brain, and it would be silly to destroy the main decision-making system without putting the reserve system out of action. By the same token we mean, for example, the principal military leaders and police chiefs, the heads of the Church and trade unions and in general all the people who might at a critical moment appeal to the nation and who are well known to the nation.

By the 'nervous system' of the state we mean the principal centres and lines of government and military communications, and the commercial communications companies, including the main radio stations and television studios.

It would hardly be possible, of course, to destroy the brain, the nervous system and the teeth at once, but a simultaneous blow at all three of the most important organs could, in the opinion of the Soviet leaders, substantially reduce a nation's capacity for action in the event of war, especially at its initial and most critical stage. Some missiles will be destroyed and others will not be fired because there will be nobody to give the appropriate command or because the command will not be passed on in time due to the breakdown of communications.

Having within its sphere an organisation like spetsnaz, and having tested its potential on numerous exercises, the Soviet high command came to the conclusion that spetsnaz could be used with success not only against tactical but also against strategic nuclear installations: submarine bases, weapon stockpiles, aircraft bases and missile launching sites.

Spetsnaz could be used too, they realised, against the heart and blood supply of the state: ie. its source and distribution of energy — power stations, transformer stations and power lines, as well as oil and gas pipelines and storage points, pumping station and oil refineries. Putting even a few of the enemy's more important power stations out of action could present him with a catastrophic situation. Not only would there be no light: factories would be brought to a standstill, lifts would cease to work, the refrigeration installations would be useless, hospitals would find it almost impossible to function, blood stored in refrigerators would begin to coagulate, traffic lights, petrol pumps and trains would come to a halt, computers would cease to operate.

Even this short list must lead to the conclusion that Soviet military razvedka (the GRU) and its integral spetsnaz is something more than the 'eyes and ears of the Soviet Army'. As a special branch of the GRU spetsnaz is intended primarily for action in time of war and in the very last days and hours before it breaks out. But spetsnaz is not idle in peacetime either. I am sometimes asked: if we are talking about terrorism on such a scale, we must be talking about the KGB. Not so. There are three good reasons why spetsnaz is a part of the GRU and not of the KGB. The first is that if the GRU and spetsnaz were to be removed from the Soviet Army and handed over to the KGB, it would be equivalent to blindfolding a strong man, while plugging his ears and depriving him of some other important organs, and making him fight with the information he needs for fighting provided by another person standing beside him and telling him the moves. The Soviet leaders have tried on more than one occasion to do this and it has always ended in catastrophe. The information provided by the secret police was always imprecise, late and insufficient, and the actions of a blind giant, predictably, were neither accurate or effective.

Secondly, if the functions of the GRU and spetsnaz were to be handed over to the KGB, then in the event of a catastrophe (inevitable in such a situation) any Soviet commanding officer or chief of staff could say that he had not had sufficient information about the enemy, that for example a vital aerodrome and a missile battery nearby had not been destroyed by the KGB's forces. These would be perfectly justified complaints, although it is in any case impossible to destroy every aerodrome, every missile battery and every command post because the supply of information in the course of battle is always insufficient. Any commanding officer who receives information about the enemy can think of a million supplementary questions to which there is no answer. There is only one way out of the situation, and that is to make every commanding officer responsible for gathering his own information about the enemy and to provide him with all the means for defeating his own enemy. Then, if the information is insufficient or some targets have not been destroyed, only he and his chief of staff are to blame. They must themselves organise the collection and interpretation of information about the enemy, so as to have, if not all the information, at least the most essential information at the right time. They must organise the operation of their forces so as to destroy the most important obstacles which the enemy has put in the way of their advance. This is the only way to ensure victory. The Soviet political leadership, the KGB and the military leaders have all had every opportunity to convince themselves that there is no other.

Thirdly, the Soviet secret police, the KGB, carries out different functions and has other priorities. It has its own terrorist apparatus, which includes an organisation very similar to spetsnaz, known as osnaz. The KGB uses osnaz for carrying out a range of tasks not dissimilar in many cases to those performed by the GRU's spetsnaz. But the Soviet leaders consider that it is best not to have any monopolies in the field of secret warfare. Competition, they feel, gives far better results than cooperation.

Osnaz is not a subject I propose to deal with in this book. Only a KGB officer directly connected with osnaz could describe what it is. My knowledge is very limited. But just as a book about Stalin would not be complete without some reference to Hitler, osnaz should not be overlooked here.

The term osnaz is usually met only in secret documents. In unclassified documents the term is written out in full as osobogo nazhacheniya or else reduced to the two letters 'ON'. In cases where a longer title is abbreviated the letters ON are run together with the preceding letters. For example, DON means 'division of osnaz', OON means a 'detachment of osnaz".

The two words osoby and spetsialny are close in meaning but quite different words. In translation it is difficult to find a precise equivalent for these two words, which is why it is easier to use the terms osnaz and spetsnaz without translating them. Osnaz apparently came into being practically at the same time as the Communist dictatorship. In the very first moments of the existence of the Soviet regime we find references to detachments osobogo nazhacheniya — special purpose detachments. Osnaz means military-terrorist units which came into being as shock troops of the Communist Party whose job was to defend the party. Osnaz was later handed over to the secret police, which changed its own name from time to time as easily as a snake changes its skin: Cheka — VCheka — OGPU — NKVD — NKGB — MGB — MVD — KGB. Once a snake, however, always a snake.

It is the fact the spetsnaz belongs to the army, and osnaz to the secret police, that accounts for all the differences between them. Spetsnaz operates mainly against external enemies; osnaz does the same but mainly in its own territory and against its own citizens. Even if both spetsnaz and osnaz are faced with carrying out one and the same operation the Soviet leadership is not inclined to rely so much on cooperation between the army and the secret police as on the strong competitive instincts between them.