Professor Mark Galeotti, formerly senior lecturer in international history at Keele University, is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs, New York University. His is a former Foreign Office advisor on Russian security affairs, and for 15 years (1991-2006) wrote a monthly column on this for Jane's Intelligence Review. His first Osprey book, Elite 197: Russian Security and Paramilitary forces since 1991 came out in August. In this blog post, Mark talks about his experiences whilst writing the book.
Like so many of my generation, I was the kind of nerdy kid who frequented the library to scour the Osprey military history titles. With perhaps depressing predictability, I grew up to be the kind of nerdy adult who buys them instead. Although I have a fair share of books under my belt—about a dozen so far, not least as my day-job is as Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs—it was therefore a particularly special pleasure to write my first Osprey, Elite 197 Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991, which is released this month. It isn’t just that this is an Osprey, and a project on which I was privileged to work with Osprey legend Martin Windrow and brilliant artist Johnny Shumate, but it was also a chance to dig into the detail of a collection of units I have been following off-and-on for years.
Nonetheless, there were some interesting challenges. First of all, there are so many of these spetsgruppy—“special groups—across Russia. Military Spetsnaz special forces were off the agenda for this particular book, but even so there are numerous police forces, rapid response teams, paramilitary units and auxiliary forces to be considered. Ranging from the “Kadyrovtsy,” the pro-Moscow Chechen government’s rebels-turned-stormtroopers, through the Federal Drug Control Service’s commandos through to the “second army” of the Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are a million police and almost 400,000 other personnel in more than two hundred distinct units. Inevitably, I could only cover those I thought most important and most interesting.
As well as being numerous, these forces are also often more varied and even informal than their Western counterparts. In the 1990s, when the Russian government was in near-permanent crisis, often anything went. I was never able to get proof and a photo, so it didn’t make it into the book, but I heard multiple accounts of a Siberian town whose police SWAT team were sponsored by the local bottling plant and had advertising on their bullet-proof vests! Since then, oil and gas revenues have helped stabilize the economy but even so, Russians often display a weird and wonderful mix of uniforms, camouflage, weapons and kit that goes well beyond the level of customization that most special forces allow their operators. Especially when writing the art notes for the colour plates, I had to strike a balance between showing the usual look and load-outs of these men (and women) and giving some sense of the variations that you’ll also find.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Cold War may be over, but the Russians still are rather less open and more secretive than a researcher of their security forces may like. There’s one photo that I wish could have made it into the book, of a Federal Guard Service officer with AKS-74U assault carbine, but I had to delete it from my camera when he and his gun insisted. There is the shadowy spetsgruppa “Zaslon” (“Screen”) that is meant to be the Russian answer to the UK’s equally-shadowy Increment, a special forces unit assigned in support of foreign intelligence. Just as MI6 isn’t saying if it has a bunch of SAS operators in its pocket, so too the Russian SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) doesn’t admit that Zaslon exists… even though it almost certainly was sent to Syria.
Nonetheless, the book comes out on 20 August and I look forward to hearing people’s responses. Johnny has done a wonderful job in my opinion of turning my pages of art notes into accurate, dynamic and colourful—in every sense—plates. And given that, as the Putin regime creaks and groans under the pressure of a rising opposition movement, the security forces are only being expanded and developed, these guys may well find themselves playing a key role in Russia’s future, as they have in its past.