Russia’s Ghost Soldiers: Inside Zaslon, The Enigmatic ‘Undiplomatic’ Special Unit

The Classified World of Zaslon, Russia's Elite Security Unit.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

Zaslon, which translates as “Barrier or Screen,” is a highly classified special unit under Russia’s external security service, the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (SVR). 

If SVR is Russia’s CIA, Zaslon is the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), a high-security detail, or the even more secretive E-Squadron.

According to some reports, Zaslon is similar to the CIA Special Activities Centre. Certainly, the beliefs of these institutions are influenced by culture and political systems, making direct comparisons difficult.


Zaslon was created by a secret decree of Russian President Boris Yeltsin on March 23, 1997, and commenced operations in 1998 with approximately 300 personnel within the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) structure. A.S. Kolosov was the unit’s first commander. The information comes from Komsomolskaia Gazeta, dated March 4, 1998. Numerous sources indicate that Zaslon is affiliated with the SVR’s 7th Department of the Center for Self-Security (CSB).

The unit “Zaslon” is compared to the “Special Training Centre” that existed under the First Main Directorate of the Committee for State Security of the USSR in several media sources, particularly in Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK). Special Training Centre was established to perform special operations outside the frontiers of the Soviet Union.

“Zaslon” was primarily designed to safeguard diplomats and foreign operations carried out by the SVR. The unit’s duties include:

  • Guarding Russian embassies in challenging regions.
  • Ensuring the safety of high-ranking Russian officials when they travel abroad.
  • Evacuating Russians and foreign civilians from war zones.
  • Safeguarding SVR personnel during intelligence operations.
  • Retrieving important documents and equipment from embassies in emergencies.
  • Protecting the leadership of host nations, such as in Syria.

There are a few details about Zaslon, leading to guesswork when reporting about the agency. Sergei Naryshkin, the head of SVR, allowed a rare look into offices in 2018. A restricted video showed training drills done by operators, most likely Zaslon, who could be identified by the special gear they were using. There was no direct mention of Zaslon.

An unidentified member of the unit’s combatants also discussed the difficulties of their work in an interview with a Russian publication, “Rosbalt.”

As per him, “numerous “minor” incidents occur. For instance, suppose the ambassador’s vehicle is involved in an ostensibly unintentional accident; the objective is to coordinate a swift retreat while maintaining formidable cover. Occasionally, ambiguous individuals begin to congregate around the diplomat. The combatant explained that in such circumstances, it is impossible to manage without displaying weapons and making it apparent that the ambassador is completely covered; any attempt to attack him will result in the death of the attackers.

The “Zaslon” consists of individuals stationed throughout Europe and the volatile regions of North Africa and the Middle East. In an incident during the late 1990s, Russian embassy personnel were abducted in Bulgaria. Special forces identified terrorists, their relatives were located, and the radicals were persuaded to release the hostages, which they did immediately.

Among the most notable operations in history is “Breakthrough,” which was executed in Iraq throughout the 2003 conflict. It was the responsibility of the “Zaslon” fighters to evacuate every Russian diplomat. Without incident, the operation was a success; no Russians were injured. Russian intelligence had already established a presence in Baghdad, according to an article by Igor Korotchenko titled “Russian Intelligence Already in Baghdad.” The expert hypothesised that the “Zaslon” may have been tasked with additional special missions besides the evacuation, such as acquiring the archives of Iraqi intelligence services.

The unit recruits fighters who are very good at exercise and speak many languages. In-depth mine engineering, small guns, and psychological training are some of the skills that an employee of the Seventh Department must have. Fighters from Zaslon have job skills like gardeners, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics. When not working, troops ensure embassies and permanent missions can run their businesses. This saves a lot of money for the state budget that would have been used to maintain buildings and stops “random” people from getting into the protected area without permission. This practice also helps to make it seem okay for Zaslon fighters to be on diplomatic trips.

Special ops units, like Zaslon, have diverse equipment choices, unlike standard military forces. They don unique uniforms, including Blackhawk HPFU ITS V1 in Olive Drab and Truspec Olive Drab Green, occasionally opting for Multicam.

Armed with AK-series rifles like AK-103, AK-104, AK-74s, and PP-19-01 Vityaz submachine guns, their weaponry is diverse and adaptable.

Zaslon employs Fort Goplit slick or OD Molle Defender 2 armour with Fort plates and a Kevlar backer for protection. Helmets of choice include TOR and Western MICH 2000.

Identifiable by the Embassy of Russia and SSRV patches, Zaslon operators use ESS Turbofan goggles and Mechanix gloves, showcasing attention to detail and specialised equipment in their missions.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, in 2014, shared a photo on Twitter, standing between Zaslon operators, expressing gratitude for their security efforts in Lebanon and Syria. Although quickly deleted, eagle-eyed open-source intelligence enthusiasts managed to capture the post.

After the 2016 assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, security experts expressed dismay at the apparent lack of protection for a high-ranking diplomat on live TV. An anonymous Zaslon operator, interviewed by Rosbalt, explained that Turkish authorities had prevented armed Russian security from being deployed. The operator contended that had Zaslon been allowed, the ambassador’s life could have been saved. Contrary to perceptions, observations and social media posts about Zaslon suggest that Turkey, unlike Iraq or Syria, is not a security nightmare.

Tragedy and Lessons: Zaslon’s Iraq Mission Failure

Just before the US invaded Iraq in 2003, two super-secret Zaslon units went to Iraq and another unit to Iran. Their job was to guard the embassy, diplomats, and important stuff. Usually, the Federal Border Service of the FSB handles embassy security, but since Zaslon is from SVR, Russia’s spy agency, they have a bigger role. Zaslon operatives teamed up with Iraqi intelligence and, unlike CIA or MI6, didn’t have to be covert. 

After the war, Zaslon operators were assigned to gather vital information to shape the new Iraqi government. They were to spot and control Russian political parties, groups, and people connected to Saddam. And finally, find and bring in Iraqi intelligence officers and agents worldwide.

On June 3, 2006, an armed group calling themselves the “Shura Mujahadeen Council” ambushed two Zaslon operators and three other embassy employees in Baghdad. Tragically, Zaslon operator Vitaly Titov was shot and killed while the militants captured the remaining four.

Later, on June 19, 2006, the Shura Mujahadeen Council issued a demand for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and the release of Chechen combatants from prison within forty-eight hours. Oleg Fodseev, the other Zaslon operator, and his companions met a grisly end two days later when they were beheaded and executed in front of a camera.

Both Zaslon operators received posthumous awards, the Order of Courage, in 2006. Fodseev’s body was discovered in 2012 and laid to rest in Moscow. His killer, sentenced to death in 2010, was convicted based on evidence found during a raid on his residence, including videos and pictures of the gruesome executions.

This incident marked Zaslon’s first public failure, drawing parallels with the CIA’s situation in Benghazi. Valuable lessons were learned, though at a considerable cost. These lessons now influence operations in regions such as Syria.

Zaslon in Syria: Guardian and Operative

In 2012, a Zaslon unit guarded SVR chief Mikhail Fradkov during his visit to Damascus, Syria. Sources suggest Zaslon operators were in Syria from May 10, 2013, to protect Bashar al-Assad and recover important documents and materials in case of a regime collapse.

During Russia’s direct intervention in Syria in September 2015, a Zaslon detachment, distinct from the GRU military intelligence, was present. At its peak, around 230-250 men, including Naval Spetsnaz and Special Operations Command operators, were involved. Unlike the GRU and KSO, Zaslon works independently.

GRU stands for “Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije” in Russian, which translates to Main Intelligence Agency. It is the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia.

KSO stands for “Komandovanie Spetsial’noy Operatsii,” which translates to Special Operations Command in Russian.

The Zaslon unit is known to be based in the Russian Embassy located on Omar Ben Al Khattab Street, near Russian GRU officers. It serves to protect Russian and Syrian officials, engage in training missions, and possibly support the Syrian Mukhabarat. Like Iraq, Zaslon’s proximity allows access to sensitive materials if the regime falls.

Securing Afghanistan: Zaslon’s Vital Role

In 2021, Afghanistan faced turmoil as Western powers withdrew, and the Taliban swiftly took control. In such situations, assets like Zaslon become crucial for Russia’s embassy in Kabul. Zaslon’s role is to safeguard high-ranking embassy staff, intel officers, and important materials, making their presence in Kabul logical. Notably, there were additional sightings of Zaslon operators during Russia’s State Duma elections. A September 19, 2021, photo shows a Zaslon operator guarding a ballot box in the Russian Embassy.

Illuminating Zaslon: Veil Lifted

Despite Russia’s attempts to keep Zaslon, its most secretive unit, under wraps, information about the unit has surfaced online through open-source reporting and online investigations. This transparency is attributed to the prevalence of smartphones and social media platforms. There have been instances where even Russian officials unwittingly exposed the identity of Zaslon operators through their own online activities. While Russian officials continue to deny the unit’s existence, the knowledge shared online has allowed for identifying Zaslon training videos and equipment, to the point that some can recognise a Zaslon operator based on their distinctive vest. However, when details about Zaslon become too exposed, it hampers the unit’s ability to operate effectively in hostile environments, leading to mission failures and the need to learn painful lessons.


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