The Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated on December 19th, 2016 by Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş in Ankara. Scenes of the assassination are still fresh in most people’s memory as it was televised how Mevlüt shot the ambassador in the back and started circling the body, screaming in Arabic and Turkish. The next day, the Russian news agency Rosbalt published an interview with an anonymous officer of the ultra-secret Zaslon unit. He claimed the ambassador’s life could have been saved if operatives of Zaslon had been there, but that the Turkish government did not allow them to deploy in Turkey.
Zaslon (Barrier or Screen) is a highly-secretive unit, which falls under the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (SVR), Russia’s civilian foreign intelligence service. Yet, when trying to find any information on the SVR website, there is not a trace or mention. According to Russia expert Mark Galeotti, Zaslon was unofficially established in 1997 by a secret presidential decree before it became fully operational in 1998. According to several sources, the unit is attached to the 7th Department of Center for Self Security (CSB) of the SVR. The more familiar Vympel and Alpha Group have reached almost mythical status because of films, books, and other media. Zaslon, on the other hand, is almost never mentioned by the Russian state, media, or academia.
There are rare glimpses, such as the Rosbalt interview or the almost-immediately-deleted picture posted on Twitter by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. It reads: “Thanks to officers of the Zaslon unit for providing security in the territory of Lebanon and Syria.”
Zaslon has around 300 active members deployed in several theaters around the world. Until now, it was confirmed that Zaslon operated in Iraq, mainly during the early days of the invasion. Zaslon was tasked with the evacuation of Russian diplomatic personnel, recovering sensitive intelligence products, and recovering Russian technology.