A spokesman for the Russian military recently commented, “An officer of Russian special operations forces was killed near Palmyra while carrying out a special task to direct Russian airstrikes at Islamic State group targets. The officer was carrying out a combat task in Palmyra area for a week, identifying crucial IS targets and passing exact coordinates for strikes with Russian planes. The officer died as a hero; he drew fire onto himself after being located and surrounded by terrorists.”
The Western media immediately picked up on the story, hailing the Russian “Rambo” who went out in a blaze of glory fighting ISIS savages. But in truth, this is clearly nothing more than yet another dual-purpose Russian information operation. First, let’s take a look at the kit captured by ISIS from the killed Russian SOF operator.
Armament Research writes, “This particular example is fitted with a range of post-manufacture accessories, including an adjustable buttstock, a CAA fore end with multiple accessory rails, top accessory rail, and alternative pistol grip. The rifle is also fitted with a suppressor in place of the distinctive muzzle brake, and an IWT 640 ‘Haron’ thermal weapon sight with backup CQB red-dot sight. The weapon and its magazines have been painted in a camouflage scheme…the equipment is consistent with that issued to and acquired by Russian special operations forces (SOF) in recent years, including items documented in service with Russian SOF in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
Social media posts claim that the above soldier is the Russian soldier in question, named Denis Tukhmanov. The flag in the background would indicate that he was a member of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) Special Operations force.
Although SOFREP has no reason not to believe that this Russian soldier fought and died bravely, if the Russian government’s claims about him calling in an air strike on his own position after being surrounded was true, you would expect his equipment to actually look like it had been blown up. Instead, his gear looks like it is in almost-perfect condition, minus some grit and dust, which you would expect when working in Syria.
The Kremlin’s narrative that their Russian Rambo called in an air strike on himself serves two purposes. First, it makes Russians look tough to both domestic and international audiences. Second, it serves to cover up the real circumstances under which this soldier was killed. We don’t know what those circumstances are—perhaps no one does—but they were likely less heroic and more mundane than the Russian government would like us to believe.
This narrative plays well to Americans who respect supposed Russian strength, the bizarre cult of Putin worshipers that has sprung up in recent years, and also to the Russian people. Stories of the plight of Russian people are deeply ingrained in their culture; note the suffering and sacrifice embodied in the works of Russian literature by writers like Dostoevsky.
The Russian government is far from alone in floating out fictional narratives about special operations Forces. Americans are treated to an almost daily influx of controlled leaks from the White House and the Pentagon. Although Russia just repeats lies until they are accepted as fact, Americans prefer sweeping Hollywood narratives like “Zero Dark Thirty,” which serve as propaganda vehicles for the United States government.
An American example in Syria would be a Delta Force raid that took place last year. The press told us about a daring kill/capture mission in which American commandos killed an ISIS terrorist leader, even as he threw his wife in front of the bullets, then rescued a Yazidi sex slave. The Delta operators also found an “intelligence treasure trove.” Later, we were even told about deadly hand-to-hand combat that allegedly took place on the objective.
Many of these reports began coming out the moment Delta arrived back from the mission. Considering they would conduct a four-hour after-action review to conclude a mission like that, it is uncanny that CNN’s Barbara Starr seemed to have the whole story before the operators themselves even did. The narrative we were pitched was very close to the one that the American public was sold about SEAL Team Six’s mission to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
The British are also quite good at these types of propaganda operations. Over the last year, The Mirror has published a slew of phony stories about heroic SAS missions in Syria. We’re told that these old chaps take sniper shots from a mile away, killing ISIS terrorists just as they are about to execute civilians, and all other manner of nonsense. In this case, it is the SAS that is leaking these fake stories to British tabloids, an attempt to rehabilitate their image after some candidates died on the Brecon Beacons march—a part of SAS selection—back in 2013.
As long as special operations forces are used by politicians to try to make themselves look good and chalk up some cheap PR wins in the press, both Russians and Americans should be skeptical about the tall tales being pitched to them on a day-to-day basis.