A Journey Through Russian Special Forces’ History and Future Grozny’s Russian University of Spetsnaz
Tucked away in the opening plains where the Caucasus Mountains finally meet the sprawling, almost infinite, flat landmass of Eurasia, the city of Gudermes stands in an alcove of Russia just shy of the Caspian Sea. Here, oil, sturgeon and centuries of bad blood transit eternally from East to West, and threats old and new persist in an uneasy lull. Here is where the current head of the autonomous Chechen Republic in Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov, built the Russian University of Spetsnaz, also known as the University of Special Forces, in a complex 22 miles east of Grozny. Grozny is the capital of this little republic, and as its name implies (formidable, menacing, threatening), it is a focal point of Russian state security and intelligence services and requires the attention of some the most proficient operators in the world. Ramzan’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the previous head of the Republic selected by Vladimir Putin to bring stability to the region after two wars, was assassinated in 2004 during a memorial parade in this city. The Kadyrov family knows firsthand the need for special training to maintain security.
The university Dean, Daniil Martynov, also serves as the deputy head of the Russian National Guard in Chechnya. Daniil Martynov served in the counter-terrorist unit of Federal State Security (FSB), known as A Detachment or Alfa Group. Martynov was formerly attached to FSB’s prestigious Centre for Special Operations, located near Moscow, until 2005. While with Alfa, he was deployed to Chechnya following the Second Chechen War.
The university acts as part classroom and part training site, bringing modern war-fighting tactics and scenarios to Russian military and law enforcement agencies. Classes include training for the personal protection detail of the Chechen head of state and SOBR (Special Rapid Response Unit) currently under the authority of the Russian National Guard. Some reports suggest that National Guard units train at the university to sharpen their skills prior to deployment to Syria.
The complex houses different specialty training areas, including urban, claustrophobic built-up cityscapes. Chechnya learned through their conflicts (1994-1996 and 1999-2000—counter insurgency operations lasting until 2009) the need to train in urban environments. The UN named Grozny the most destroyed city on earth during the wars. Modern urban warfare takes many forms and negates technical advantages one side may have. Movement and visibility are often limited. Clear lines of fire and proper identification melt away. Today, conflict in Chechnya and bordering regions is mostly made up of low-scale surgical strikes against radical Islamic terrorist organizations, relying heavily on special forces for which this university was founded.
Touring the University
I was lucky enough to visit this site, and to my knowledge, I was one of very few Westerners to visit in December 2018. I traveled across the globe to this Republic, which had very little in common with my home. Arriving in Grozny on a cold afternoon, I was directed to a black SUV for a drive to my housing arrangements. The next morning, the same crew collected me for transport to the special forces university. Touring the complex, I could see the urban combat training grounds. It was clear they had a number of structures reminiscent of previous combat operations conducted by Russian forces throughout history. Structures had multiple levels, subterranean spaces, underground crosswalks, over-road bridges, basements, classic Communist Bloc apartment towers and concrete brick upon concrete brick. The apartment bloc had an open-floor model on one floor, so that the walls may be moved to practice a specific layout. Three brick houses reminiscent of local 1950s and 1960s construction stood nearby. Another interesting observation was the incorporation of tunnels between buildings and spider holes between rooms. The instructor pointed out that the highest multilevel structure had the Mil Mi-8 Hip military transport helicopter mounted upon the roof’s edge. This allowed students to replicate fast roping prior to training off of a functional rotary wing aircraft. The rooms of the urban environment have cameras to observe the progress of the students and to allow the control room to modify the environment. I observed a SOBR group of the National Guard conduct room clearing and shield entry training, launching from outdoor shooting bays.
The university was founded by a private company and hosts domestic and foreign military customers to use the complex in a vast array of modern war-fighting scenarios. Highly skilled senior officers from the Russian military, police and National Guard with experience serving in tactical groups within Alfa, Vympel, the GRU and SOBR oversee the course programs and offer a wide spectrum of field experience. They were quick to show their proficiency and professionalism during my visit. There were 38 instructors at the time of my visit, though the program is seeking 70 instructors to keep unit class sizes small. On average, classes have up to 12 students, with six students per instructor.
New Training Developments
The university is currently constructing a maritime training area, complete with a concrete-contained lake upon which a ship will be placed for maritime, air assault, insertion and extraction training. Getting in and out quickly is critical for special operations that are launched from the land, sea and air, and this training zone will give broader training capabilities to the campus. Other specialty training areas include wooded and mountainous terrain near the facility; a deactivated airliner is also planned for training in hijacking scenarios. Off-site, students can practice on stationary or moving trains. The main building houses classrooms, bedrooms, a gym, a running track, an indoor shooting range and a pool designed for underwater shooting. The university is constructing a 1600m runway and several helipads. In the future, the university will have its own air traffic control tower and serve as its own airport for airborne operations. Three hangers will be built to house the aircraft and conduct maintenance.
The campus has a complete buggy fabrication shop, housed in three buildings. The in-house fabrication team modifies and repairs the Chaborz M-3 and the adaptable M-6 fast tactical light combat buggies, which can be rapidly configured for different operational requirements. The Russian Ministry of Defense has shown interest in acquiring these vehicles for the Russian Armed Forces, and they have already been deployed to the Arctic as well as to combat operations in Syria.
In the center of the campus, across from the main building, is the largest free-fall wind tunnel complex in Russia. At 5 meters wide, the tower and adjacent schoolhouse make up the largest parachute training center in Russia. The jump school on site is called DZ Grozny. The airborne school houses classrooms, packing/rigging rooms, shops, a cafe, a hotel with 63 rooms, saunas and a control room.
Offered Courses and Instruction
The university also provides courses on combat lifesaving and advanced first aid, as well as on explosives, demolition, tactical driving, dog handling and countless others.
The backbone of instruction is experience in combat and service with Russian special forces; however, the university seeks to implement a forward-looking methodical approach to instruction, taking the latest techniques on bio-mechanics and war-fighting. Once construction is complete, the university will accommodate a total of 500 people at a time. Officers hope it will be the Chechen version of the U.S. JFK Special Warfare Center and will provide comparable excellence in training for Russian security and law enforcement entities.