May 24, 2024

© Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russian spetsnaz forces participate in a parade rehearsal in Moscow.

The war in Ukraine has gutted Russia’s clandestine spetsnaz forces, and it will take Moscow years to rebuild them, according to classified U.S. assessments obtained by The Washington Post.

The finding, which has not been previously reported, is among a cache of sensitive materials leaked online through the messaging platform Discord. U.S. officials attributed their assessments to Russian commanders’ overreliance on the specialized units, which have been put to use as part of front-line infantry formations. Those formations, like the Ukrainians, have suffered massive numbers of dead and wounded.

Typically, spetsnaz personnel are assigned the sorts of stealthy, high-risk missions — including an apparent order to capture Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky — for which they receive some of the Russian military’s most advanced training. But when Moscow launched its full-scale invasion last year, senior commanders eager to seize momentum and skeptical of their conventional fighters’ prowess deviated from the norm, ordering elite forces into direct combat, according to U.S. intelligence findings and independent analysts who have closely followed spetsnaz deployments.

The rapid depletion of Russia’s commando units, observers say, shifted the war’s dynamic from the outset, severely limiting Moscow’s ability to employ clandestine tactics in support of conventional combat operations. U.S. officials believe that the staggering casualties these units have sustained will render them less effective, not only in Ukraine but also in other parts of the world where Russian forces operate, according to the assessments, which range in date from late 2022 to earlier this year.

© Obtained by The Washington Post/Obtained by The Washington Post
This image is part of the leaked classified material that was circulated in a Discord chatroom and obtained by The Washington Post. The Post informed the Pentagon that this imagery would be published with this story. The document shows satellite images of the 22nd Separate Spetsnaz Brigade’s motor pool in southwestern Russia. The images were captured, from left to right, in November 2021 and November 2022, showing a depleted force following their return from Ukraine last summer.

The hollowing of these units appears to be evident in satellite imagery featured among the leaked materials. Before-and-after photos — showing a base used by the 22nd Separate Spetsnaz Brigade in southern Russia, according to the document — reveal that “all but one of five Russian Separate Spetsnaz Brigades that returned from combat operations in Ukraine in late summer 2022 suffered significant losses.”

The slide includes two overhead images, one taken in November 2021, months before the invasion began, and another captured a year later. The former shows a bustling motor pool teeming with vehicles; the latter reveals what U.S. officials concluded is a state of extreme depletion months after the brigade’s return home with fewer than half of the Tigr tactical vehicles it had before the deployment. The 22nd and two other spetsnaz brigades suffered an estimated 90 to 95 percent attrition rate, the assessments say.

Compounding Russia’s problems is the loss of experience within its elite forces. Spetsnaz soldiers require at least four years of specialized training, the U.S. documents say, concluding that it could take as long as a decade for Moscow to reconstitute these units.

The documents do not say how many spetsnaz troops are estimated to have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, but the materials, citing intelligence intercepts, assess that one unit alone — the 346th — “lost nearly the entire brigade with only 125 personnel active out of 900 deployed.”

U.S. intelligence analysts tracked every spetsnaz unit that returned home to southern Russia from Ukraine — except for one: the 25th Spetsnaz Regiment. Severe personnel and equipment losses, the documents say, “could explain why there is no clear [intelligence] signature of their return to garrison.”

The U.S. government assessments dovetail with analysts’ observations. Rob Lee, a Russia military expert and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that because Russia’s motorized rifle infantry soldiers proved ineffective, commanders have sought to compensate by pushing elite airborne units, naval infantry and spetsnaz to the front, including in the failed bid to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and for campaigns in the east and south.

There was an immediate consequence to that strategy, Lee said. Russian commanders, having burned through the best-trained fighters, forfeited the valuable skills those troops possess, including intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, from the start of the invasion through last fall.

“That affected the rest of the war because Russia lost all these key capabilities up front that they couldn’t easily replace — both equipment-wise and talent-wise,” he said. “That affected what they could and couldn’t do.”

Just days into the war, spetsnaz troops arrived in the eastern city of Kharkiv in small numbers and without much support from conventional troops, Lee said. Many of them were killed or captured, he noted. Several of their specialized vehicles were destroyed, videos and photos show.

A similar situation played out in Mariupol in the south, Lee said, and in the eastern Donbas region, where fighting often took place in wooded areas where regular Russian motorized rifle units had difficulty operating. Spetsnaz forces have also operated in the coal-mining town of Vuhledar in the Donetsk region, Lee said, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have battled each other for months.

A soldier who served in Vuhledar with Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade told The Post that while he could not confirm his unit faced spetsnaz, that was probably the case because they carried advanced body armor along with high-end night vision and thermal optics. Those enemy troops operated in small units, this soldier said, conducting traditional reconnaissance and infantry missions. He spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of recent operations.

The apparent death of a spetsnaz brigade commander in Vuhledar in February further illustrates the scope of problems facing Russia, Lee said. If such a senior military leader “is that far forward, there is probably something not quite right. Either losses are too heavy in that unit, or they’re being used in a way they’re not supposed to be used,” he added.

Russia’s expenditure of its elite troops will have cascading effects, the documents say, including a loss of some ability to train paramilitary groups in unconventional warfare tactics, “which Russia has used to advance its interests abroad.”

It’s clear that spetsnaz troops are a finite resource that can’t be easily replenished, Lee said. What’s not clear is whether conventional Russian commanders have learned from what’s happened in Ukraine or how best to use these elite forces. “It’s going to be a while before there is a full understanding of how they are adapting,” he said.

There are signs online of the 22nd Separate Spetsnaz Brigade’s activity in Ukraine. One video from last summer appears to show members of the unit’s sniper section moving through buildings, using high-end equipment out of reach for many Russian regulars.

Other images lack the same bravado. Photos purporting to show a young captain in the 22nd, Alexei, circulated in March 2022 along with images of a granite memorial to soldiers killed before the war was even two months old. Alexei’s name is inscribed at the top.

Samuel Oakford in Washington, Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Evan Hill in New York contributed to this report.