Russia’s Spetsnaz forces are being annihilated in Ukraine, leaks claim

Hundreds of Russian commandos are being used as frontline soldiers, with poor results.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
Russian Spetsnaz troops march in Moscow in May 2021 celebrating the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

The Spetsnaz, the catchall term for Russia’s special operations forces, are the most elite troops the Russian Federation has. They are also getting destroyed in Ukraine.

That’s according to leaked documents tracking the war in Ukraine. Losses are so high that, given the time it takes to train Spetsnaz fighters, the United States believes it could take as long as a decade for Russia to make up for the losses from the last 14 months. The documents are dated from late 2022 to early 2023, giving a relatively up-to-date picture of the fighting. 

The problem is twofold, the leaked documents state. Russia is overusing its special operations forces, constantly putting them into combat, and as a result leaving many exhausted and understrength. And they’re also being put at the front line in direct combat. As a result they, like regular troops, are taking heavy casualties due to the brutal war of attrition going on.

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The heavy losses stem from tactics put into use early in the war. As part of the failed effort to quickly move and seize Kyiv, commanders ordered Spetsnaz troops to the frontlines, to accelerate expected Russian gains. The strong Ukrainian resistance stopped the Russian advance and turned specialized units into fodder. The choice of deploying Spetsnaz troops this way also meant that they were not able to do their more specialized work in scouting or attacking specific targets. 

Citing satellite imagery, the American report says that “all but one of five Russian Separate Spetsnaz Brigades that returned from combat operations in Ukraine in late summer 2022 suffered significant losses.”

Exact casualty numbers are unclear, but the report says that of the 900 Spetsnaz commandos deployed in one unit, only 125 returned from the fighting. 

The documents were among several leaked online over the past several months. This past week, the FBI arrested Air National Guard member Airman Jack Teixeira, who now faces charges under the Espionage Act.

Over the last year, Spetsnaz fighters have been confirmed to be fighting in the cities of Mariupol and Vuhledar, as well as in ongoing campaigns in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. 

Reports of heavy losses among elite Russian units is not new. In February reporters tracked huge casualties among the 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade, which was fighting at Vuhledar. However, the leaked report on Spetsnaz casualties offers a deeper understanding of how Russia’s special operations forces are faring in the war. 

Russian forces made a number of errors early in the war, which contributed to high casualties in their ranks. That included bringing and using many personal cell phones, which revealed their positions and let Ukraine score a number of deadly strikes against the invading forces. That, along with new weapons such as anti-tank rockets and artillery, helped Ukraine drive the Russian invasion back to the eastern and southern parts of the country, where the fighting has been at a standstill since the fall of 2022. 

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