Vympel: The KGB’s Sword Abroad

Vympel, the KGB’s spetsnaz group for overseas action, was a unit forged, in the words of its initiator KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov, “without equal.” The following text outlines Vympel’s founding, the unit’s training process, and its general operational history.

The idea for founding a commando unit for the KGB belongs to the chief of Directorate S (Illegals) Yuri Drozdov, one of the men who directed the storm of Afghan President Hafizullah Amin’s palace. Returning from Moscow, he went to KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov and presented him with a plan to create a special-purpose group for carrying out operations during the “special period” – in short, a commando unit.

On August 19th, 1981, at a closed joint session of the CPSU Central Committee’s Politburo and the USSR Council of Ministers, the decision on creating a top-secret special-purpose unit in the system of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (FCD: Foreign Intelligence) was made. Thus came into the world the special-purpose group “Vympel” (Pennant). Structurally it was part of the Eighth Department of Directorate S, subordinated to the chief of the directorate, Maj. Gen. Yuri Drozdov, and the chief of the department, Maj. Gen. Nikolai Yefimov (subsequently Maj. Gen. V. Tolstikov). The decision for activating the group was made at the level of the Politburo, and it went into action only by the written orders of the KGB chairman. The official name of Vympel was the Separate Training Center (STC) of the USSR KGB FCD, and it was situated in Balashikha, just outside of Moscow. Commanders of the group were: Captain Evald Kozlov (1981-1984), Rear Admiral Vladimir Khmelev (1984-1990), and Colonel Boris Beskov (1990-1992).

KGB Maj. Gen. Yuri Drozdov, chief of Directorate S (Illegals).
KGB Maj. Gen. Yuri Drozdov, chief of Directorate S (Illegals).

For Vympel men were selected not only in the KGB, but also from the army and border forces. At first both officers and soldiers were taken, but then it was decided that the group should be made up exclusively of officers.

Vladimir Vasilchenko was at that time the chief of the combat operations department. He recalls:

For the first ‘draft’ into the unit, they gave us a very tough time period. That was dictated by the necessity of quick deployment of men to Afghanistan.

Approximately in February of 1982, 75 men came to us. It’s hard to remember now how many candidates we went through, but the selection turned out not bad.

They trained them for three months. There was no time for more than that. Already in April the first 123 men left for Afghanistan. And then we selected the second “assortment” longer and more scrupulously, essentially the whole remainder of 1982. Well, of course we trained them more substantively…

What should we understand under the word “substantive?” Operators were accepted into the unit accounting for their service of no less than 10 years – i.e. professionals were being trained. Consequently to make a new trainee a fully qualified special-purpose intelligence officer required five years. It took two years for a graduate of the Ryazan Higher Airborne School to be made into a Vympel operator.

“They taught them robustly in Vympel,” remembers General Drozdov.

General physical training, multi-kilometer marches along traversed areas, power exercises, jumping from heights from a half-meter to two-and-a-half meters, exercises for general development. Training in hand-to-hand combat not on soft mats, but asphalt. Shooting from everything that shoots: pistols, grenade launchers, machine guns of Soviet and foreign manufacture, special weapons, etc… Driving cars and armored vehicles. Explosives, including means of producing explosives from everyday chemicals. Training in radio work: free functioning on radio stations of any type both in closed text and with the help of Morse code. They studied cryptography, and they also mastered radio triangulation and eavesdropping devices.

…Aside from that, Vympel officers, as users, themselves participated in developing weapons and equipment and gave technical assignments to the constructors, who made special items according to their orders.

…Tactics for combat actions in small groups. Airborne, medical training, rappelling. Fundamentals of intelligence and counterintelligence activity. Analytical work. Surveillance.

The study of foreign languages and regional specialization. In “his” country, an officer of a special unit should not in any case be “unmasked.” And not only because of incorrect pronunciation… It was necessary to be freely oriented in everyday matters, not feel like a black sheep among the local population, know the history of the region, the national customs, national psychology.[i]

However, it soon became clear that the idea of training supermen was a utopian one. Then a three-year course of instruction was developed, and operators of a more narrow specialization began to be trained. First there were snipers, intelligence officers, and sappers, and then there were added mountain scouts, hang-glider pilots, combat swimmers, and parachutists.

The basic purpose of Vympel was intelligence actions deep behind enemy lines, work with agents, raids on strategic objects, the seizure of ships and submarines, protection of Soviet facilities abroad, fighting terrorist organizations, etc. Operators underwent combat experience in the commando units of Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and other nations; in Angola and Mozambique, they acted under the cover of military advisors.

In October of 1985 in Lebanon, Vympel operators freed two KGB officers from the Beirut residency, Oleg Spirin and Valery Myrikov (diplomat Arkady Katkov was killed by the captors), who had been seized by a Palestinian group. But Vympel gained its main practice in Afghanistan.

Training at the KGB's Balashikha special facility.
Training at the KGB’s Balashikha special facility.

The FCD’s spetsnaz operated in Afghanistan as part of the KGB’s special-purpose detachment Kaskad, created by resolution of the CPSU Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers on June 18th, 1980. The detachment had a dual subordination – to Moscow Center and to the KGB representation in Afghanistan, which was headed by Gen. Viktor Spolnikov and then Gen. Boris Voskoboinikov. From July of 1980 up to April of 1983, four units of Kaskad served in Afghanistan. The commander of the first three Kaskads was Col. Aleksandr Lazarenko, and the fourth was led by Col. Evgeny Savintsev, both officers of the Eighth Department of Directorate S.

Kaskad’s mission was: rendering assistance to the security organs of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in detecting and interdicting subversive activity of the counterrevolutionary underground, bandit formations, and terrorist groups, i.e. carrying out in full measure intelligence activity, hunter-killer actions, and special operations. In April of 1983 Kaskad-4 was replaced by a different unit of Vympel – group Omega (commanded by Col. Valentin Kikot). Its assignments were human intelligence operations in Moscow Center’s interests, combat and special operations, and advisory-instructional work in units of Afghan state security. In April of 1984 Omega’s operators returned to Moscow. Until the year 1987, 94 officers of Vympel were in Afghanistan and 61 operators gained combat experience as part of their probationary period.

During the second half of the 1980s, spetsnaz group Vympel became “too big for its own britches.” “The Afghan experience,” it’s stated in a book dedicated to the 15th anniversary from the day of Vympel’s founding, “intensive training, a drive to find out contemporary achievements in the sphere of the operational art, and a politically motivated consciousness of internationalist duty pushed toward the expansion of foreign ties, whether in probationary form or in an advisory-instructional role.[ii]

KGB officers in Afghanistan. Photo: Viktor Rudenko
KGB officers in Afghanistan. Photo: Viktor Rudenko

First and foremost, Vympel officers who had passed through the harsh school of Afghanistan as part of the intelligence-commando detachments Kaskad and Omega were sent to Laos, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique. In these countries Soviet advisors and instructors could transfer their combat experience to the local security organs and adopt the latter’s experience fighting armed opposition as well, with consideration of unique geographic and operational conditions.

The opinion exists that the Soviet Union imposed its advisors and instructors to developing countries, but this is far from the case. It is known, for example, that the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Comrade Le Zuan, being on a short-term visit to Moscow, had a conversation with Yuri Andropov about strengthening the Vietnamese state security organs. “Our men have no arms and no minds,” complained Le Zuan to the KGB chairman. It’s also well-known that Mozambique’s president Samora Machelle personally sent a telegram to Andropov with a request to “dispatch to the country advisors on fighting banditry and instructors who would train detachments for combat operations.[iii]

From a publication of journalist and intelligence officer M. Ilyinsky (Vek, 7 August, 1998), we learn that in Vietnam in the residencies of the KGB FCD and GRU, there were around 10 specialists with knowledge of the local language.

A group of Vympel officers actively worked in Mozambique: N. Denisenko, Y. Kolesnikov, A. Suzdaltsev, V. Cheremisin, V. Finogenov, and others. In Angola, there served A. Mikhailenko, P. Suslov, V. Kikot, K. Sivov, V. Ukolov, and also instructors from the KGB’s Officer Corpus Qualification Course Y. Penkov, Y. Semenov, V. Smyslov, and A. Yevglevsky. 35 Vympel officers underwent probationary time in Vietnam. In Laos and Nicaragua several dozen men each fulfilled their probationary period.

Soviet officers’ advisory-instructional activity proved to be mutually beneficial. And so, for example, at the Vietnamese base of Dokong, Vympel operators taught the local special units the art of driving “Proteus” underwater vehicles, flying hang-gliders, and much else. The Vietnamese also taught Soviet officers Ho Chi Min-Do fighting techniques and methods of conducting guerrilla war in the specific conditions of Southeast Asia. In Nicaragua the Vympel operators learned the little-known but extremely effective art of “flash” shooting. From Laos, they received useful information on the peculiarities of operational-combat activity and matters of survival in the jungle.

Unfortunately, this experience helped the spetsnaz operators very little in matters of survival in a different jungle – that of politics.

[i] Болтунов М. “Вымпел” – диверсанты России. М, 2003. С. 19.

[ii] Вымпел. Группа специального назначения КГБ СССР. М, 1997. С. 126.

[iii] Там же. С. 129.

Work Translated: Колпакиди, Александр Иванович. Ликвидаторы КГБ. Спецоперации советских спецслужб 1941-2004. — М.: Яуза; Эксмо, 2004.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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