The Russian news agency Rosbalt has on 20 December, 2016 published an interview with an alleged anonymous operative of the ultra obscure unit of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) called Zaslon (Barrier). The fact that Rosbalt is run by the wife of Viktor Cherkessov – ex Leningrad KGB and former member of Putin’s inner circle of siloviki- might perhaps give the story strong credence. The premise of the interview is that had the recently assassinated Russian ambassador in Turkey, Andrey G. Karlov, had protection of Zaslon he might still be alive. According to the alleged operative the Zaslon protection has been long overdue for the Russian diplomats in Turkey. He explains:
– Security threats against the embassy staff in Turkey started more than 10 years ago. At this time, many of the fighters who fought in the North Caucasus, came over to Turkey for a breather and medical care. They started to pose a significant threat. Soon they were joined by the representatives of various terrorist and extremist organisations and their sympathisers. It was more than 10 years ago that this matter was first raised, that the diplomats in Turkey must be protected by the Zaslon officers. But for that we needed the permission of the Turkish side, but all this time we never got one.
The anonymous operative goes on to claim that the bodyguard functions are performed by the diplomatic chauffeurs, but that “in 90% of the cases these are random individuals without any training and ability to protect diplomats from serious danger.”
And what were the reasons for this reluctance on Turkey’s behalf to let the Russian diplomats be guarded by the professionals?
– Zaslon officers bring along a large arsenal, which includes a variety of weapons and devices, from armoured cars down to various other pieces of equipment. If on duty, the officers are allowed to move around the city with weapons. The Turkish side was against having armed Russian officers stationed in their country. Although it would’ve been a small number of officers, whose sole function would’ve been to ensure the safety of our diplomats. Such opposition is not usually encountered in countries where there is a threat to our embassy employees.
The officer also claims that the biggest Zaslon operation to date was the evacuation of the Russian Embassy staff in Baghdad at the onset of the Western intervention in Iraq. According to the same anonymous officer, Zason is present in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and several other countries.
Zaslon operatives with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Baghdad, 2013.
Officially Zaslon does not exist. When one visits the official SVR website there is no mention of Zalson or any kind of spetsnaz (special forces) type unit at its disposal. On May 24, 2014, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, Tweeted a picture with a caption that read “Thanks to officers of the Zaslon unit for providing security on the territory of Lebanon and Syria”, only to delete it a little while later.
Unofficially, Zaslon was instated by the secret Presidential Decree on 23.03.1997, reaching the operational capability sometime in 1998. Apparently, the unit is attached to the 7th department of Center for Self Security(CSB) of the SVR. It numbers about 300 professionals with prior experience of special operations abroad. One known fatality was that of its officer Oleg Fedoseyev, one of three Russian embassy staff kidnapped and killed in 2006 in Iraq.
In some Russian publications, Zaslon has been described as a recon and sabotage unit, similar to KGB’s, now FSB’s, Vympel (Pennant) unit – a top tier FSB spetsnaz unit with clearance to act abroad. This is probably a reason enough for Turks not to be too keen on approving the Russian request.
The gear and equipment of Zaslon officers seems to be somewhat individual, which is often the case with units of this calibre, but from scarce pictures available online one can conclude that they rarely wear camouflage and seem to prefer olive green, khaki and black fatigues respectively. As expected, Zaslon operatives wear no official unit insignia. Instead, a patch with Russian Embassy written in English and official language of the host country with a Russian tricolour is preferred form of designation.
Zaslon officers also seem to share the spetsnaz penchant for the old 7.62×39 round versus the standard 5.45×39. Higher stopping power and penetration of the 7.62 over the 5.45, as well as wide availability of the former in the countries they operate in, might be some of the possible explanations for this practice.