Defining the “Special Military Operation”
Russian Studies Series 05/2022
Defining the “Special Military Operation”1
by Roger N McDermott & Charles K. Bartles2
Viktor Litvinenko “Sushchnostʹ kategoriy «voyna» i «spetsialʹnaya voyennaya operatsiya»
[The essence of the categories “war” and “special military operation”]”, Armeisky Sbornik, July 2022.
Vladimir Kvachkov, Otkrytoye pis’mo polkovnika V.V. Kvachkova ofitseram Generalʹnogo shtaba i Komandovaniya spetsialʹnykh operatsiy [An open letter from V. V. Kvachkov to the General Staff Officers and Command of the Special Operation], 28 March 2022.
Moscow insists on using the term spetsial’naya voyennaya operatsiya (“special military operation”) or spetsoperatsiya (“special operation”) to describe its campaign in Ukraine. The terms appear to be used interchangeably in both a colloquial context, and in the context of Russian military theory.3 Those familiar with Russian military theory are also interested in what exactly the term special military operation meant for the Russians, as there was no formal standing definition, or even commonly accepted meaning, for the term. This is somewhat baffling: Russian defense scholars and officers invest much time and effort in defining explicitly what exactly military terms mean for the Russian military and security communities. Thus, it was somewhat surprising that Russians began using this relatively obscure term to describe the invasion.4
Given the circumstances, little thought in the West has been given to what exactly the term means, with most Western mass media and governments understanding the term to be simply a euphemism for military invasion and war. Perhaps this view was best encapsulated by the humor of the website Urban Dictionary, which defines the term as “An Invasion. Especially one conducted by an authoritarian regime”; and “This isn’t an Invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. It is a Special Military Operation”, somewhat in jest.5
Most Russians were, and arguably still are, as confused about the term as their Western counterparts. But understanding what it may mean, and thus placing the operation into the hierarchy of Russian military strategy sheds light on Moscow’s intentions and goals, not to mention Moscow’s choice of forces used and possibilities for escalation. This essay reviews how Russian military theorists define and understand a special military operation in the context of Russian military theory.
Kvachkov’s Definition of “Special Military Operation”
Retired Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov was one of the first to provide a working definition of the term.6 On March 28, 2022, he published an open letter to the Russian General Staff and command of the special operation. The letter focuses on justifying Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and seems directed less at a military audience than to influence the Russian civilian population. Nevertheless, some insight may be gleamed from his description of the term:
What is the difference between a special military operation, its goals and objectives, and other operations of the Armed Forces and other troops of the Russian Federation? The main difference is that the course and outcome of a special operation are directly related to military-political goals and objectives, in contrast to the combined-arms offensive and defensive operations of operational and operational-strategic formations (during the Great Patriotic War －armies and fronts), as well as other independent and joint operations of branches of the Armed Forces and combat arms. This statement is also true for the strategic actions of the Armed Forces … Thus, military-political goals and tasks in special operations are lowered to the level of tactical actions of formations, units and even battalions (battalion tactical groups). The officially declared goal of the ongoing special military operation is the and denazification of Ukraine.7Kvachkov’s account is interesting because it notes that a “special military operation” differs from other combined arms operations of the Armed Forces in the way military force is used to achieve military-political goals. He proposes that the goals of a “special military operation” are achieved through a more direct approach, with the strategic aim being accomplished by a single decisive operation conducted by a combined arms formation.
This understanding of the “special military operation” is nested in Russian military theory and the Russian concept of military conflict: “war” is the most intense form of military conflict with other types of military conflict, such as a “special military operation”, being on the spectrum of military conflict, but less intense.8 With this in mind, achieving victory in what the Russians call “war” can require military, economic, and/or social mobilization, deep battle, physical encirclements, and multiple operations, and have military-strategic goals such as the total destruction of the enemy forces, occupation of the enemy’s homeland, eventually leading to the military-political goal of political capitulation. Achieving victory in lesser types of military conflicts, such as a “special military operation” may be achieved more simply through the application of a varying mixture of military and non-military (indirect) methods to coerce the enemy’s political-military leadership to accept unfavorable terms.9
In terms of the spectrum of military conflict, therefore, the most important difference between “war” and a “special military operation” is that the former requires multiple operations for strategic success, while strategic success for the latter can (in certain circumstances) be achieved by a single decisive operation. It should be noted that Russian military theory recognizes several different types of operations, but in relation to the “special military operation”, Kvachkov is referring specifically to operations conducted by combined arms formations, not strategic operations.10 Moreover, in certain circumstances a single operation can not only be decisive in terms of a political-military goal, but also of a relatively short duration such as an active phase of 10-15 days.11
In sum, Kvachkov’s understanding is that the “special military operation” differs from other combined arms operations due to the more direct way that the political-military goal is achieved, without the use of strategic operations at the highest level of state commitment. Kvachkov understands the “special military operation” applied to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine as a combined arms operation intended to rapidly achieve the military-political goal of “demilitarization and denazification.”
Litvinenko’s Definition of ‘Special Military Operation’
Though the “special military operation” is extensively covered in Russian mass media, there was no other discussion of theoretical aspects and where it might fit in Russian military strategy until retired Colonel Viktor Litvinenko published an article on the term in the July issue of Armeyskiy Sbornik (Army Digest). This is an important contribution, given the author and the publication: Litvinenko is a prominent and well-respected member of the Russian professional military-scientific community,12 and Armeyskiy Sbornik is the monthly journal of the Russian Armed Forces, covering a wide range of military issues primarily at the tactical and operational levels. Given his background, current position, and the well-known severe penalties for criticizing Russia’s military or spreading ‘fake news’, it can be safely assumed that Litvinenko’s definition and understanding of the “special military operation” is similar, if not identical, to other Russian military theorists and the Russian government’s view on the matter.
Litvinenko explains the term in a slightly different light from Kvachkov, but they both have largely similar understanding. Given the definitions previously discussed, Litvinenko posits that the special military operation” in Ukraine was intended to have distinct features, which make it a new category on the “military conflict” spectrum.13 Litvinenko even states that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) definition of the term is “a special operation of troops (forces) that involves the special actions of troops (forces) coordinated in objectives, tasks, place and time, carried out according to a single plan to achieve specified goals.”14
He further elaborates that this definition is closer to the Russian MoD’s concept of “military operation” than to the concept of “war”.15 The main difference between the two is that the goal of the special operation is to defeat only the enemy’s military. Therefore, the actions of the operation (strikes, battles, and the like) were carried out specifically to achieve this end within a specified period of time. This form of military action is more focused, and limited in nature, than the Russian concept of “war”. Litvinenko believes that the criteria for a “special military operation” might also apply to past military operations carried out by the United States, NATO, Russia, and others countries. For example, such operations would include Russia’s 2015 military operation in Syria and US operations in Yemen.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Litvinenko’s article, however, has less to do with the specific definition of the term “special military operation”, than the way he instead framed it in the along the spectrum of military conflict, admitting that the character of the conflict has changed. This suggests that Russian military theorists may think that despite the initial declaration of “special military operation”, the military conflict has since evolved into something different, and more intense: perhaps a “local war”, or even, as some Russian pundits have argued, a “regional war”.16
Litvinenko points out a number of reasons for this change relating to the various types of military aid being provided to Ukraine. His comments further Moscow’s narrative that Russia is not just fighting Ukraine but also the “collective West” by proxy: “the Ukrainian soldier is used as cannon fodder, while western diplomats convince the world that the West upholds peace and democracy, while at the same time supplying combat equipment and weapons to the Ukrainians, advancing their own interests by selling weapons.”17 This view was then also made by the senior national leadership, including Putin, at the Moscow International Security Conference in August 2022.
From a Western lay perspective, the Russian’s use of the term “special military operation” is simply a euphemism for “war” But this is not the understanding of Kvachkov, Litvinenko, and likely most Russian military theorists – indeed there is an important distinction in the Russian view, with implications for our understanding of Russia’s activities, particularly in terms of the scale of Moscow’s military (and wider state) deployment. For both Kyachkov and Litvinenko, a “special military operation” falls on the spectrum of military conflict below the level of “war”.
Here, the use of the term “operation” is key. In general, they believe that “war” required multiple combined arms operations for strategic success. To them, the “special military operation” was special because of the intention to be a single combined arms operation with the aim of achieving strategic success. This does not downplay or mitigate any Russian responsibility for the invasion. Rather, it describes how Russian military theorists view these events on the spectrum of military conflict.
There are two implications. First, given this understanding of the nature of a military operation, Putin’s declaration about its purpose, and the general debacle for Russia that was the early days of the invasion, it appears that Moscow genuinely envisaged a single, large operation to achieve the goals of “demilitarization and denazification” in a relatively short period of time.
Second, Russia’s inability to quickly achieve the military-political goals of the operation (demilitarization and denazification) meant that the “special military operation” failed. Consequently, though it has not been declared openly, the view of Russian military theorists appears to be that the “special military operation” has now escalated to become what many Western observers declared in February, a “war”. The regime’s insistence on the use of the former term is likely for political reasons: an admission that the country was now at war would mean the special military operation was a failure.
Nevertheless, invoking the term, “war”, not only raises the level of intensity of military involvement, but also the capabilities and the goals. While events in Ukraine may look like “large-scale combat operations” or “war” to a Western audience, the distinctions raised by different terminology in the context of Russian military theory can assist with understanding how Russians interpret red lines, escalation, victory, and defeat.
1 (back) This article is an extracted version of content from the authors’ unpublished study: “An Assessment of the Initial Period of War: Russia-Ukraine 2022” written under the auspices of the United States European Command’s Russia Strategic Initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US Government, NATO Defense College or NATO.
2 (back) Roger N McDermott is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, Research Associate, Institute of Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (MECACS), University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC, Non-Resident Research Fellow, International Center for Defense and Security, Tallinn, Estonia and guest lecturer on Russian military strategy, Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr in Hamburg, Germany. McDermott is also assistant editor, Journal of Slavic Military Studies. He is the author of the book: Russia Enters the High-Tech Battlespace, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, 2022.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles K Bartles is an Army Reservist assigned to the USNORTHCOM/NORAD J2. Chuck is imagery (35A1D) and space operations (FA40) officer that has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and has served as a security assistance officer at embassies in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. He is also an analyst and Russian linguist at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
3 (back) For the purposes of this report the special military operation is used, but the latter term is also used when directly quoted from Russian sources.
4 (back) C. K. Bartles, Review of “Defining Russian Military Science”, Russian Studies Series 3/21, NATO Defense College, Rome, 20 July 2021, www.ndc.nato.int/research/research.php?icode=705
5 (back) Definition and example as provided by Urban Dictionary, 26 February 2022. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=special+military+operation.
6 (back) Vladimir Kvachkov is a retired GRU Colonel and GRU Spetsnaz brigade commander who is a Frunze (combined arms) academy graduate and veteran of several conflicts to include Afghanistan (1983), Azerbaijan (1990), Tajikistan (1992). Despite Kvachkov’s impressive service record, his notoriety comes not from his military service, but from his post retirement activities. These activities have included some dabbling in politics: he is an ardent Russian nationalist and strong proponent of Russian Orthodox Christianity. But his most notable actions have been his criminal activities. In 2005, Kvachkov was allegedly involved with an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Anatoly Chubais, a prominent Russian politician who led Russia’s privatization program in the 1990s. Kvachkov was tried and convicted for involvement in the plot, but the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal in 2010. Subsequently, Kvachkov has been arrested, tried, and convicted for several different crimes related to armed sedition and terrorism. On February 19, 2019, Kvachkov was released from prison by court decision, and has since avowed to resume his political activities and run for political office.
“Former Russian Intelligence Officer Released From Prison,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 19 February 2019,
O. Falichev, “Духовные университеты полковника Квачкова [The Spiritual Universities of Colonel Kvachkov],” Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer, 9 April 2019, https://vpk-news.ru/articles/49517
R. Finch “The Transformation of Colonel Kvachkov” OE Watch, June 2019, https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-past-issues/281809/download
7 (back) V. Kvachkov, Otkrytoye pis’mo polkovnika V.V. Kvachkova ofitseram Generalʹnogo shtaba i Komandovaniya spetsialʹnykh operatsiy [An Open Letter from V. V. Kvachkov to the General Staff Officers and Command of the Special Operation], 28 March 2022. http://www.ooc.su/news/otkrytoe_pismo_polkovnika_v_v_kvachkova_oficeram_generalnogo_shtaba_i_komandovanija_specialnykh_operacij/2022-03-31-111
8 (back) Voyna [War], Encyclopedia of the Russian Ministry of Defense (online), https://encyclopedia.mil.ru/encyclopedia/dictionary/details.htm?id=12849@morfDictionary.
9 (back) C. K. Bartles, Review of “Preparation and Conduct of Military Actions in Local Wars and Armed Conflicts”, Russian Studies Series 03/21, NATO Defense College, Rome, November 2018. https://www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=564
10 (back) The Russian definition of “operation” is essentially a set of coordinated and interrelated missions conducted to achieve strategic, operational or operational-tactical tasks in a theater of military operations (teatr voyennykh deystviy), strategic (operational) direction or in a certain area (zone) in a specified period. Operations can be categorized as global strategic operations, strategic operations in a theater of operations, strategic operations in one or more strategic directions, operations and formations of the armed forces (fleets, flotillas, army corps, air and air defense armies) in one or more operational directions.
11 (back) S. Batyushkin, Podgotovka i vedenie boevykh deistvii v lokalnikh voinakh i vooruzhennykh konfliktakh [Preparation and Conduct of Military Actions in Local Wars and Armed Conflicts], KnoRus, 2017, p. 20.
12 (back) Viktor Ivanovich Litvinenko is a retired artillery colonel, candidate of military sciences, and associate professor (docent) of the Missile and Artillery faculty in the Military Educational and Scientific Center of the Ground Forces of the Combined Arms Academy of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. He is a veteran of Afghanistan, and commanded the 1074th artillery regiment of the 201st motorized rifle division. Litvinenko has an impressive publication record consisting of 8 monographs, over 300 articles, and 12 textbooks and manuals. Litvinenko’s textbooks and manuals are staples for many cadets studying at various Russian military academies.
13 (back) V. Litvinenko “Sushchnostʹ kategoriy «voyna» i «spetsialʹnaya voyennaya operatsiya»
[The essence of the categories ‘war’ and ‘special military operation’]”, Armeisky Sbornik, July 2022.
14 (back) Formy primeneniya Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii [The main forms of employment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation], Encyclopedia of the Russian Ministry of Defense (online), https://encyclopedia.mil.ru/encyclopedia/dictionary/details_rvsn.htm?id=14014@morfDictionary.
15 (back) Russian military theory defines a “local” war as a military war between two states in which limited military-political goals are pursued; and a “regional” war as a military conflict of several nations or coalition of nations pursuing military-political goals with regular and/or irregular forces in a specific region. Voyna, Encyclopedia of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
16 (back) A. Stepanov, “Posledneye interv'yu Ol'gi Kachury: Fashistov budem bit', nikogo ne sprashivaya [Olga Kachura's last interview: We will beat the Nazis without asking anyone]”, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 3 August 2022. https://rg.ru/2022/08/03/poslednee-interviu-olgi-kachury-fashistov-budem-bit-nikogo-ne-sprashivaia.html
17 (back) Litvinenko, pp.17.