The mystery that is Zaslon

Russian security guard in Iraq with a freed hostage, or a Zaslon operator? No way of knowing...

Russian security guard in Iraq with a freed hostage, or a Zaslon operator? No way of knowing…

There is quite a cult that has grown up around Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces, with books, movies and exposes both serious and farcical alike. Names such as Alpha and Vympel have become well known. Indeed, some could almost be considered franchises: as far back as the 1990s, veterans of the Alpha spetsgruppa had set up  private security firms, trading on their unit’s formidable reputation (see, for example, Tsentr-Al’fa). The one exception appears to be Zaslon (‘Screen’), a very shadowy unit established, by what accounts we have, in 1998 as a special forces unit for the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). Trained to operate abroad, in everything from hostage-rescue to assassination missions, it continues to shun publicity. Even while researching my forthcoming book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991 (yes, consider that a plug: out in August and available for pre-order), I was unable to find anything much on it in Russian and foreign sources alike, even a unit badge. They seem to deploy wearing civvies or the uniforms of other units, including embassy security details.

Now I hear a hint that a Zaslon team (the whole unit only seems to number some 280 or so operators) has been or is about to be deployed to Syria (I report on this here, for Blouin). That implies that Moscow either anticipates serious threats to its nationals (not just the embassy, but also numerous civilian and military advisers working with the Syrian government) or else, readying for an endgame, it wants special forces operators on the ground to spirit out Russian or Syrian officials and/or incriminating documents (as they reportedly did in Iraq) or high-tech equipment they don’t want falling into rebel and thus Western or Iranian hands… Watch this space.

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7 Comments

  1. AK

     /  May 13, 2013

    The latter seems to be unlikely, as the Syrian Arab Army has been making good gains in the past few months.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  May 13, 2013

      Honestly, I think the ease with which the Israelis penetrated the much-vaunted Syrian air defense system has shocked Moscow (though it really shouldn’t). There is a sense that Assad is powerful but brittle; sure, he may well hang on, but it’s not a sure thing.

      Reply
  2. I keep hearing stories from one particular guy (who yes, is still active privately, but was with a special operations unit USASOC) that the Zaslon and some of the even more low-vis GRUs operating just outside places like Erbil (yes, Erbil) and then up past the border into S.W Syria almost near the coastal areas, are actually somewhat engaging the US SOF advisement and SOLOs (SOF liaisons) directly. And that even word of this had reached the SOC FWDs in Lebanon? It would be great to find out of it this is true or not….as it would make a big difference to our OGA and those in the GRS who protect them if they need to worry about some kind of upcoming escalation with these GRUs trying to make a play at the squirrels (OGA Ground Branch folks…sorry for the jargon. It rubs off talking to these guys, plus I’m writing a documenting of an account of a group of fmr NSW-turned PMCs in Mexico so…I hear it alot, you could say during casual conversation about ISIL and Syria). Anyways, any way to get more on this?

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  December 8, 2015

      I’ve certainly heard nothing about any Russian SF, let alone Zaslon, operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. Frankly, I doubt they’ll be operating in Iraq at all (that’s Quds Force territory), and in any case Zaslon is not a battlefield force. Their typical missions are very-high-importance, very-high-threat security missions, and covert intel/snatch/assassination missions typically in urban environments. Like the rest of the SVR, they don’t really operate in the real wild and wooly environments, that’s very much the GRU’s patch. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were some GRU assets, either Spetsnaz or else agents within the local community, watching the SOC FWD, but nothing that is likely to lead to kinetic activity.

      Reply
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