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.
In Syria, Zaslon was involved in diplomatic security and advising the Syrian armed forces. It also was also part of a rescue operation of Russian nationals in Libya after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, where the convoy was nearly struck by an IED. Additionally, sources claim Zaslon personnel are stationed in Afghanistan, Algeria, and Sudan and probably traveled this week to Venezuela to support diplomatic staff there.
Interestingly, the training and specialties of Zaslon include, but are not limited to: hostage rescue, reconnaissance, assassinations, and sabotage. It is therefore understandable that the Turkish government has been reluctant to let Zaslon operate within its borders. Furthermore, it can be observed that it is highly unusual that a unit with that much training and secrecy is only employed for diplomatic security. To make a clumsy but illustrative parallel, it would be similar to using the SAS or the CIA’s Special Operations Group (SOG) to guard diplomatic personnel.
Pictures of Zaslon are rare but its officers generally can be recognized by the following attributes:
- Uniform is generally in khaki, olive or black
- Prefer the 7.62 over the 5.45, probably due to the availability in the operating environment
- Officers do not wear official unit badges or insignia but prefer the Russian flag patch
While Zaslon is rarely mentioned in print, this is changing. Russia is actively expanding its sphere of influence. Sudan and Venezuela are both teetering on the edge with popular uprisings, and unlike in the old adage, the revolution will not only be televised but also shared on social media. More and more information will be gathered on this mysterious unit. Watch this space.