1.0. What is Zaslon?
Zaslon “Barrier or Screen” is Russia’s most secretive special-purpose unit within the Russian external security service, Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (SVR). It roughly resembles the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) also known as MI6.
If the SVR is Russia’s CIA or MI6 then Zaslon is comparable to the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), the CIA’s high-security detail, or the even more secretive E-Squadron. The US Army’s Task Force Orange AKA intelligence support activity (ISA) conducted similar functions, supporting CIA intelligence officers in hostile environments. Incorrectly, some sources claim that Zaslon is the equivalent of the CIA Special Activities Center. Of course, culture and political systems impact doctrine of these organistations so it remains difficult to compare.
According to a Swedish Defence source, Zaslon was established on 23 March 1997 but became operational in 1998 with around 300 members. Most open sources rely on a Komsomolskaia Gazeta report on the 4th of March 1998. Several sources state that Zaslon is attached to the 7th Department of the Center for Self-Security (CSB) of the SVR.
“Zaslon” was mainly conceived to protect Diplomats and foreign operations conducted by the SVR. The Units’ responsibilities are as follows:
- Armed protection of Russian diplomatic missions abroad, primarily in hostile regional environments
- Protect high-ranking Russian officials on foreign trips
- Hostage rescue missions of Russian citizens abroad
- Evacuation of Russian citizens and civilians of other countries from warzones
- Protection of SVR employees during operational and intelligence work
- Retrieve sensitive documents and equipment from embassies in emergencies
- Protect host nation leadership (see Syria)
As mentioned countless times, information about Zaslon is scarce and the information that is out there is often wrapped in speculation and sprinkled with hyperbole. However, from time to time there are rare glimses into the murky corridors of the Russian security apparatus. On the 24th of December, 2018, the Current head of the SVR, Sergei Naryshkin gave a documentary film crew, a tour of the SVR headquarters in the Yasenevo district in Moscow.
The documentary footage (now removed) shows a group of SVR operators running close-quarter combat drills and other weapon manipulation exercises. This was an unprecedented look into the inner workings of the SVR. Although, it was highly likely a controlled disclosure. Furthermore, there is absolutely no mention of Zaslon, yet, it is possible to identify that these operators are almost certainly Zaslon, due to their equipment, trademark olive-coloured uniform and weapons of choice.
With the close support of Benjamin Schiff, Russian arms analyst and the founder of the Oxide Channel it was possible to identify what equipment Zaslon operators use. However, this is constantly changing due to the theatre and mission requirements. Further, most special operations units in the world have a wide range of choice of equipment, compared to conventional forces, making a standard-issue equipment list tricky.
- Blackhawk HPFU ITS V1 Olive Drab
- Truspec Olive Drab Green uniform
- Multicam on rare occasions
- AK-103 assault rifle
- AK-104 assault rifle
- Ak-74s assault rifle
- PP-19-01 Vityaz submachine
- Fort Goplit slick with Fort plates and Kevlar backer
- Fort OD Molle Defender 2
- Fort Grey pouches on velcro placards
- TOR Helmet by Classcom
- Western MICH 2000 helmet with SRVV helmet cover
- HSGI “AO” Chest rig
- HSGI Warbelt
- Low profile coyote defender armoured vest (for VIPs)
- Embassy of Russia patches
- SSRV patches on Fort vest
- ESS Turbofan goggles
- Mechanix gloves
2.0. Deny Zaslon Exists!
- The infamous Vympel, Alpha Group, and GRU Spetsnaz have reached almost mythical status due to depictions in cinema, video games, literature, and other media. Zaslon, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned by the Russian state, academia, or media. In most cases, it is actively denied by leadership.
- In 2002, during an interview, the head of SVR Sergei Lebedev stated that “The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service is not set today with tasks that would require the mentioned special forces. That’s why we don’t have them,”
- In 2006, Colonel-General Vladimir Zavershinskii. In an interview with Krasnaia Zvezda, the then-first deputy director of the SVR said that the Spetsnaz element within the SVR would be undesirable.
- In 2014, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin posted on Twitter a picture with him flanked on both sides by Zaslon operators. It said in the post: “Thanks to officers of the Zaslon unit for providing security in the territory of Lebanon and Syria.” The post was almost immediately deleted but not before some sharp open-source intelligence sleuths captured it.
3.0. Where is Zaslon when you need them?
After the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, on December 19th, 2016. A lot of security experts voiced their concerns. How was it possible, in broad daylight, on live TV, that a high-ranking Russian diplomat was so poorly protected?
“Well, because Turkish authorities did not allow armed Russian security to be deployed in the country.”
Explained an anonymous Zaslon operator in an interview with Rosbalt. The anonymous operative went on to say that Zaslon would have saved the Ambo. Furthermore, judging from sightings and social media posts about Zaslon, Turkey is hardly a security nightmare such as Iraq or Syria.
4.0. Escape from Baghdad
In 2003, On the eve of the US-led Iraqi invasion, 2 highly secretive Zaslon units were sent to Iraq and one separate unit to Iran. The units were tasked with protecting the embassy, diplomats, and sensitive materials. Interestingly, embassy protection was traditionally conducted by the Federal Border Service of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service. However, since Zaslon is an SVR unit, its mandate is considerably more expansive than that of traditional Embassy security.
Zaslon operatives worked closely with their counterparts in the Iraqi intelligence services. Unlike the CIA or MI6, Russian intelligence operatives didn’t have to work covertly. The operatives are also tasked with acquiring sensitive intelligence on Iraqi assets.
The publication lays out 3 main activities for the Zaslon operators:
- Acquire sensitive intelligence to later influence the Iraqi post-war government.
- Identify and manipulate Russian political parties, groups and individuals that were on Saddam’s payroll.
- Identify and recruit Iraqi intelligence officers and agents around the globe.
On June 3, 2006, 2 Zaslon operators together with 3 other Embassy employees were ambushed by an armed group called themselves the “Shura Mujahadeen Council”. One Zaslon operator, Vitaly Titov, was shot and killed at the market in Bagdhad, while the 4 others were taken by the militants.
On Jun 19, 2006, militants of the Shura Muhadeen Council demanded the release of Chechen fighters from prison and the complete pullout of Russian forces from Chechnya within 48 hours. Two days later, the other Zaslon operator (Oleg Fodseev) together with his colleagues were beheaded and shot in front of a camera.
Both Zaslon operators were posthumously awarded the Order of Courage (Russian: Орден Мужества, Orden Muzhestva) in 2006. Fodseev’s body was found in 2012 and buried in Moscow. His killer was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 after videos and pictures of the gruesome executions were found during a raid in his house.
This was Zaslon’s first public failure, somewhat similar to its CIA counterparts in Benghazi. When militants stormed and killed the US Ambassador to Lybia and several GRS members. In both cases, lessons were learned albeit at a heavy cost. These lessons are now implemented in theatres like Syria.
5.0. Damascus Cover
In 2012, a Zaslon unit escorted the chief of SVR, Mikhail Fradkov, during a visit to Damascus, Syria. According to some sources, a group of Zaslon operators was deployed in Syria as early as May 10, 2013, both to protect Bashar al-Assad and high-ranking government officials, but also to recover sensitive documents and materials in the event of a collapse of the Syrian regime.
In Syria, the presence of a Zaslon Unit is evident during Russia’s direct intervention in the conflict in September 2015. This detachment operates independently from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (Russian: Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije) (GRU), military intelligence. Mark Galeotti, a Russia security analyst, stated the following:
“At the peak of the deployment, there was an otryad (detachment, the Spetsnaz equivalent of a battalion) of 230-250 men, probably drawn from several units, including Naval Spetsnaz from the 431st Naval Reconnaissance Point (or brigade). There was also a team of operators from the newly formed Special Operations Command (KSO), mainly snipers (or rather counter-snipers) and scouts. Indeed, the Conflict Intelligence Team, a civilian group that investigates Russian operations abroad..”
The GRU and KSO operate closely with the Syrian Ministry of Defence in Damascus, unlike Zaslon.
The Zaslon unit is based in the Russian Embassy on Omar Ben Al Khattab Street, located not far from Russian GRU officers in Defence. The unit can be used to protect Russian officials and buildings, or their Syrian counterparts, and also participate in training or mentoring missions (it seems that the Zaslon unit supports the Syrian Mukhabarat, the infamous secret services of the Damascus regime). Much like the situation in Iraq, Zaslon is close enough to the fire to get access to sensitive materials and personnel from its Syrian counterparts if the regime falls.
6.0. Zaslon Shows up in Afghanistan
2021 was a turbulent year for Afghanistan due to the retreat of most western powers from the country and the lighting fast takeover by the Taliban. In such cases, strategic assets like Zaslon are paramount for Russia’s embassy in Kabul. Since Zaslon operatives are mandated to secure high-ranking embassy staff, intel officers and intelligence materials it is only logical they would show up in Kabul. However, there were more sightings of Zaslon operators in Kabul such as during the State Duma elections in Russia. Below, there is a picture of a Zaslon operator protecting a ballot box in the Russian Embassy on 19 September 2021.
Zaslon in Ukraine?
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 there were no mentioned pictures or chatter of Zaslon involvement. Updating this in January of 2023, there are still no mentions of them. While this could be due to the secretive nature of Zaslon and the SVR at large, unlike let’s say the GRU or the FSB. However, it is likely due to the fact that the Russian government sees occupied terratories in Ukraine such as Crimea as “Russia”. So, Zaslon would have no jurisdiction inside “Russia”. Further, Russian intelligence services are fiercely territorial so it would make more sense that the FSB and in particular GRU would enjoy more power and presence in Ukraine.
8.0. From Zaslon With Love
Zaslon may be Russia’s most secretive unit, but there are enough pieces of information floating online to make at least a silhouette. Maybe, even more so than their Western counterparts. Open Source reporting and online sleuths identified, successfully, Zaslon training video’s and equipment. To the point that it is now possible to ID a secretive Zaslon operator just by the vest, he is wearing! Even if Russian officials keep denying the unit’s existence, social media and the prevalence of smartphones continues to shed light on Zaslon. Sometimes, it is those same officials that do the identifying and when it is out it is out. Zaslon’s needs that smoke “screen” to operate in these hostile environments and when that smokescreen clears too soon, missions fail and painful lessons are learned.
Special thanks to Benjamin Schiff and please check out the accompanying video on the Oxide Channel.
This article was first published in February 2021