Cossacks – the First Russian Spetsnaz


March 2, 2016

Military-Industrial Courier

Maxim Kustov

Translated from Russian by Kristina Kharlova

Who in Russia can be considered the forerunners of modern spetsnaz [special forces]? In the past century the Russian army had units that operated behind enemy lines, suddenly attacking and rapidly disappearing. Only such troops were usually cavalry. Light cavalry cannot be compared to modern scouts – saboteurs. Cavalry, as they say [in Russia], is not a friend of infantry. They have different tactics, different skills. The hussars and Cossacks from the troop of Denis Davydov in 1812 were different than the fighters of OMSBON in the Great Patriotic War and of “Cascade” in Afghanistan.

Sometimes the guard is considered predecessors of spetsnaz. Of course, the guards were part of military elite, but were intended for conventional open battles, and not for “small war” and special operations.

Probably the closest to modern spetsnaz were the famous Kuban plastuns. Ukrainian word plastun can be translated as “crawling”. The expression “to crawl plastun style” [on a belly] is common [in Russia], but not everyone knows where it came from.

Plastuns could not penetrate enemy lines on horses with the famous Cossack “lava”. They were not taught to keep the alignment and distance in the ranks, “without bowing to the bullets.”

But they knew how to creep, crawl, get close to unsuspecting enemy, silently stab or steal a guard. Plastun could lay for hours or sit in ambush, was a master of the dagger. A soldier of regular infantry was then armed with smooth-bore guns, firing very close. Plastuns preferred rifled long-range shtutser-guns.

Needless to say plastuns were fine shooters. After a particularly good shot, plastuns never praised their buddy, but praised the gun.

Plastun history begins in 1787, when by the decree of [the Russian empress] Catherine the Great, Zaporozhian Cossacks began to move to Kuban. Here, in the endless swamps of the river Kuban,  Ukrainian Cossacks had to clash with small foot squads of highlanders [Gortsi – the warriors of the Caucasus], sneaking in the Russian rear through the reed thickets.

In order to successfully counter such attacks, Cossacks had to master a fundamentally new tactic – not to chase the enemy on horseback across the steppes, but to become the hiking pathfinders, able to discern all the tracks in the endless swamps, to be able to fight in small groups of no more than 10 people. They defended their villages from attacks, and themselves went into hostile territory for scouting.

Since 1842, plastuns were officially recognized [by the state], and organized: sixty for each Cossack cavalry regiment and ninety-six for infantry battalion.

But for several decades the skills of foot Cossacks were not needed in the “big” wars. They would have nothing to do in Austerlitz or Borodino. Their only job was to defend their native villages.

That all changed during the Crimean war of 1853-1856. The siege of Sevastopol by the allied troops demanded the Russian army to change methods of combat.

Troops able to creep up unnoticed to enemy shooters were in demand – to  destroy them in a flash with melee weapons and disappear before the enemy had time to realize what is happening. Those who could unexpectedly attack enemy’s battery and disable the cannons were in demand. There were no soldiers in the regular army, accustomed to such a war.

That’s when the Kuban scouts were remebered. Two plastun battalions were urgently deployed to Sevastopol. Here they performed so well that the command urgently asked to send new plastuns. Recruiting of volunteers for two more companies in order to be sent to Crimea has begun.

Meanwhile plastun teams from regular marines and sailors began to form in Sevastopol. Kubans were extremely disappointed with this decision. “Katsapi [a Ukrainian/Cossack term for Russians/Moscovians] will not make good plastuns,” – they said. But they were quickly proved wrong. The famous sailor Koshka [Cat] was not the only scout hero, able to perform no worse than a real plastun. The formation of new plastun teams continued after the end of Crimean war.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x