Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017

Strelnikov’s Red Army Armored Train in Doctor Zhivago

Armored trains have a place in the popular imagination, having been featured in films such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Train (1964) and the James Bond thriller Goldeneye (1995). More fantastic armored trains are now encountered in popular video games and Japanese anime. Hundreds of these menacing iron giants armed with formidable naval guns once roamed the expanses of Eastern Europe and Asia, but today there are only four left in service; the Russian Defense Ministry’s armored trains Terek, Baikal, Amur and Don (like the cruisers of the sea, these cruisers of the rails are given individual names). The Terek is the Russian Army’s sole factory-made, purpose-designed armored train, the others having been converted from various civilian rail cars.

A Weapon Built for Russian Expanses

Russia has an extensive history of armored train use, largely due to the difficulty of moving large numbers of troops across the vast road-less regions of early 20th century Russia. Large numbers of armored trains were deployed on the mobile battlefields of World War One’s Eastern Front, but the Russian Civil War of 1917-22 saw a virtual explosion in their use, with over 200 in operation at one point.

Many of the White Russian trains passed into the service of northern Chinese warlords before falling into the hands of the Japanese after their 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Both Russia and Germany deployed armored trains on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Russian armored trains patrolled the wild east Siberian frontier during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960s and appeared again during the 1990 Nagorno-Karabakh War. During the most intensive phases of the Chechen-Russian War armored trains were successful in performing reconnaissance missions, de-mining operations and the escort of military trains carrying troops and equipment.

The defensive weaknesses of armored trains (vulnerability to ambush, derailment, capture etc.) were recognized early and by 1919 it was common for each Russian armored train to carry a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) that could be quickly deployed alongside train-borne tanks or other armored vehicles. With fire called in by forward observers deployed from the train, the armored train can provide powerful fire-support to drive away or destroy enemy forces. In modern times these raiding teams include BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and T-62 or T-72 tanks. While mounted on flatcars, the more vulnerable sides of these vehicles are protected by timber and sandbags. The tanks have a secondary role as tractors in the event of a derailment.

Armored trains may also use small railed reconnaissance vehicles known as draisines to scout the track ahead of the main train.  The trains typically carry the material and trained men necessary to quickly repair damaged track as immobility places a train in danger of ambush or capture.

French Armored Train on Counter-Insurgency Operations in Indo-China

Use in Counter-Insurgency

Modern armored trains are vulnerable to air raids or artillery strikes, making them suitable only for counter-insurgency operations where such capabilities are typically unavailable to insurgents. Armored trains were first used for counter-insurgency work by the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1848. Later armored trains were used on counter-insurgency missions by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against Partisans on the Eastern Front in World War Two and by the French against the Viet Minh in Indo-China. Their use enabled railway troops to secure important transportation links from sabotage and provide fire support to infantry and armor.

Though armored trains have become vulnerable to modern tank tactics and armor-piercing munitions, their rail support allows the trains to carry a weight in weapons and armor that would crush paved roads or have mobility difficulties on certain types of ground. Expendable flatcars (often loaded with sandbags) are typically deployed ahead of the train to absorb the initial impact of explosives or derailment.

Antiaircraft gun of the Armored Train Terek. The Baikal is to the left. This photo was likely taken at the Russian Armored Train base at Khankala, Chechnya. © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Modernizing Russia’s Armored Train Fleet

The return of the Russian Defense Ministry’s four armored trains to service after a brief retirement is part of an expensive program to modernize and expand Russia’s armed forces by 2020, though sanctions and economic difficulties have hindered implementation.  The trains were operated by Russian Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk) in the North Caucasus from 2002 to 2009, at which point Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov decided the trains had outlived their usefulness as the Chechen insurgency wound down. Serdyukov was sacked over corruption allegations in 2012 and his order to dismantle the trains was never carried out. His replacement, Sergey Shoigu, had seen the trains in action and decided to bring them back into service (International Business Times, August 28, 2015).

Armored train Terek © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

The four corps of ZhDk railway troops are under the authority of the Defense Ministry and are responsible for securing and repairing Russia’s railway network during military operations or natural disasters.

There is no sign yet that the Defense Ministry trains will be re-joined by the Russian Interior Ministry’s sole armored train, the largely improvised Kozma Minin, which served in the Caucasus in the periods 1994-2002 and 2011-2012 before being sent for a technological overhaul in 2013. The Kozma Minin operated separately from the Army’s trains, carrying out missions for Interior Ministry forces.

Diagram of the Baikal and Amur armored trains: The Baikal (top) features 1) cover platform 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) radio station 7) headquarters 8) jammer; the Amur (bottom) features 1) freight car 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) sleeper car 7) radio station 8) jammer 9) headquarters 10) freight car 11) freight car, 12) crane 13) cover platform© Politrussia.com

The Defense Ministry’s overhauled armored trains now include an electronic warfare wagon capable of jamming enemy communications and radar. New tactical protocols now allow the trains to operate in tandem with helicopter support, a potentially lethal combination for insurgents operating anywhere close to the railway system (Sputnik News.com, August 15, 2016). Russia’s armored trains have also been fitted out with anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh M4K system, which uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled IEDs at a distance of up to 20 meters. Firepower is now provided, not by naval guns, but by powerful, rapid-firing twin 23 mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns (MK.RU, August 12, 2016). These guns are protected by shields and their crews have access to armored shelters on both ends of the gun-car. Heavy use of camouflage nets helps reduce the visibility of the armored trains as targets.

Armored Train Baikal © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Amur and Baikal undertook intensive drills in Volgograd, Krasnodar, North Ossetia and Crimea in August 2016. One of the high points of the exercise was the construction by railroad troops of a 1300-foot long pontoon bridge over the Volga capable of supporting the armored trains (Russia Today, August 17, 2016; Video of the operation at Vesti.Ru, August 17, 2016).

Russia is also re-introducing military trains equipped with the new MS-26 Rubezh light intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), armed with multiple nuclear warheads (the whole system is known as “Barguzin”). An earlier version of these missile trains was deployed from 1984 to 1994, but the enormous weight of these missiles damaged the rail system and the entire project was shut down in 2005, partly due to strategic weapons treaties (Russian Beyond the Headlines, May 17, 2016).  The new, much lighter missile trains will be disguised by the inclusion of normal freight cars and wagons in the train to prevent their easy detection from space (Independent, November 23, 2016).

 

Update: Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary, February 15, 2016

The Western-led military coalition operating against the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq continues to wrestle with the implications posed by having Hezbollah as an active but entirely unwanted ally in the campaign. (1)

Hezbollah in SyriaHezbollah Position in Syria

Some indication of how the West intends to deal with the movement considering its designation as a terrorist group by many NATO partners was given in the text of the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) agreement to “cease hostilities” in Syria.(2)

Intended to be implemented within days, the agreement, which falls well short of a monitored ceasefire, allows for continued attacks on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra “or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.” (3) Hezbollah is clearly excluded as a continuing target as it is not a UNSC designated terrorist organization. This carefully worded document indicates the West and its ISSG partners will continue to ignore the presence of Hezbollah in the ground war against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra rather than address the diplomatically difficult but nevertheless essential formation of a policy to deal with the Sunni extremists’ leading opponent on the battlefield. The continued absence of such a policy only invites uncontrolled military interaction that could easily and quickly expand the conflict.

In the meantime, Jordan is leading an ISSG effort to identify terrorist organizations active in Syria, but given the incredible variance among ISSG partners as to who or what actually constitutes a terrorist organization, these efforts are not likely to bear fruit.

Canada is the only coalition state so far to declare a policy on military interactions with Hezbollah in the region, simply stating that there will be no cooperation under a “no contact” policy. Ottawa has withdrawn its CF-18 fighter-bombers from the anti-Islamic State coalition as the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau backs away from meaningful military commitments alongside Canada’s allies in favor of a “sunny ways” policy that does not involve killing terrorists or even depriving them of Canadian citizenship. Ottawa has announced plans to deploy 100 Canadian troops in Lebanon to act as advisers in the fight against the Islamic State organization. These behind-the-lines advisers in Lebanon and others in Iraq are intended to replace the Canadian bombing mission.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan was adamant that the advisers will work only with “the legitimate government of Lebanon,” but not with Hezbollah. Sajjan appeared to be unaware that Hezbollah parliamentarians and two cabinet ministers are part of “the legitimate government of Lebanon.” Although his statement is consistent with Canada’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, it remains that it is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese Army that is doing the vast bulk of Lebanese fighting against Islamic State forces, meaning the new advisory mission will have little impact and be an ineffective replacement for bombing runs on Islamic State targets. Those Lebanese Army units that are involved in anti-Islamic State activity along the Lebanese-Syrian border tend to operate joint patrols with Hezbollah, suggesting Canadian troops operating under Canada’s “no-contact” policy with Hezbollah will be restricted to advising rear-echelon formations.

Hezbollah’s campaign against Sunni extremists in Syria has received an important statement of support from Lebanese Christian presidential candidate Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander who noted that the Lebanese Army was simply not strong enough to defend Lebanon without Hezbollah’s assistance (Gulf News, February 7, 2016). Aoun is relying in some degree on Hezbollah support for his presidential candidacy (by constitutional requirement, Lebanon’s president must come from the nation’s Maronite Christian community), but is growing frustrated with Hezbollah’s somewhat leisurely promotion of his candidacy amidst suspicions in some quarters that Hezbollah would prefer to have no president at all.

Recent musings by Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, on the possibility of a formal alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah were dampened by Russian officials, though the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan conceded: “In the hypothetical sense, [Velayati] is correct: if Hezbollah is doing what we’re doing, then we are principally allies” (Sputnik News [Moscow], February 3, 2016). Russia is still attempting to assure Israel (with whom it signed a defense agreement in September when the Russian intervention in Syria began) that it has no intention of strengthening Hezbollah with heavy weapons, but it clear that it is Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian ground-air coordination on the battlefield that has enabled the Syrian regime to make major strides against both extremists and Western-backed “moderate” rebels in recent weeks.

If the Saudis decide to intervene in Syria militarily in favor of the Sunni rebel groups supported financially by the Kingdom (as they are threatening to do, possibly with military support from Turkey and a number of Arab nations), clashes with Hezbollah and Syria’s Iranian advisers will be inevitable, finally transforming the simmering Sunni-Shiite feud into a full-blown battlefield confrontation. If the “cessation of hostilities” agreement fails, as it seems it must, the potential for massive escalation in Syria holds dire consequences for the entire Middle East.

Notes

1. See original article, “Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State,” Terrorism Monitor, January 22, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=988
2. ISSG members include the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.
3. “Statement of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/12/syria-cessation-of-hostilities-full-text-of-the-support-groups-communique.

Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus

Andrew McGregor

May 14, 2013

In an effort to control “banditry” and rebel activity in the North Caucasus region, Russia’s Interior Ministry is returning its sole armored train to service on the often dangerous rail lines of southern Russia. The main mission of the armored train Kozma Minin, which has spent some years sitting in a rail-yard, will be to counter the insurgents’ mine attacks on Russian rail lines. The Kozma Minin is expected to join several other Ministry of Defense armored trains returned to service in the North Caucasus in 2010 (see EDM, February 23, 2010).

Armored Train Kozma MininWW II’s Armored Train Kozma Minin

The original Kozma Minin was a World War II armored train named for a Russian merchant who helped Prince Dmitri Pozharsky defend Russia against a Polish invasion in the early 17th century. Completed in February 1942, the original Kozma Minin was a formidable fire platform, with two covered wagons each having two T-34 tank turrets and six 7.62mm machine guns. Two open armored wagons each contained one M-8 rocket launcher and two 37mm anti-aircraft guns. An armored locomotive and several flat-bed cars completed the train.

Unlike its namesake, which might be described as a battleship on rails, the modern Kozma Minin is the battle cruiser of military trains – lightly shielded but highly mobile. While Russia’s other armored trains have been used to provide fire support for military operations in the Caucasus as well as rail security operations,  the armament of the Kozma Minin is intended for a defensive role that will allow the train to conduct mine-clearing operations, line maintenance and other defensive roles.

Armored Train Modern Kozma MininThe Modern Kozma Minin (Yuga.ru)

The Interior Ministry’s version of the Kozma Minin was built by a Volga-Vyatka OMON unit in 1994 from old railway platforms, railway ties, scrap metal and whatever other suitable materials might be found. The covered wagon of the train was painted in a brown and green camouflage pattern and most of the train was covered in well-worn camouflage netting, giving the entire train the appearance of a relic from a much earlier war. Despite its improvised and ramshackle construction, the Kozma Minin soon became the pride of Interior Ministry troops based in the North Caucasus, continuing its important work in the North Caucasus until it was retired to a rail-yard in 2002. Several cars of the train were marked with the acronym “OMOH,” the Cyrillic version of OMON (Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya or Special Purpose Mobile Unit), the common term used for Interior Ministry units.

Before undertaking its new tasks, the Kozma Minin is being fitted with modern anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh (Cane) M4K system, made public in 2009. The mine-disabling system uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled explosive devices, operating effectively at a distance of up to 20 meters.

Providing the new system works, it will be a vast improvement over the train’s old mine-prevention procedures, which involved the train moving at a walking pace in suspect areas behind combat engineers with mine-sniffing canines.  Measures are also being taken in the reconstruction to improve the safety of train personnel, which was usually provided for in the old train not so much by “armor,” but by an improvised mixture of sand-bags and timbers.

For armament, the Kozma Minin relies on two quad-barrel ZPU-4 air defense machine guns and ten hard-mounted AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers and machine guns.The ZPU-4 is a modification of the original ZPU, brought into Soviet service in 1949 and one of Russia’s most popular arms exports since. Mounted on a pick-up truck, the weapon was widely used by both sides in the Libyan Rebellion.

Additional firepower is provided by a BMP-2 (an amphibious infantry combat vehicle) chained to a flat-bed car with sand-bags to protect the wheels. The BMP02 is equipped with a 30mm 2A42 autocannon, a 9P135M anti-tank guided-missile launcher capable of firing a variety of anti-tank missiles and a 7.62mm machine gun. Ministry of Defense armored trains usually include one BMP-2, but also mount one to two T-62 tanks with a more powerful 115mm cannon.

The rebuilt Interior Ministry train is expected to be based either at Mozdok in North Ossetia or, more likely, at Khankala, a rail station east of Grozny in Chechnya where armored trains belonging to the Ministry of Defense are stationed. Khankala is also home to a Russian military base hosting the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division.

When finished, the train will transport Interior Ministry supplies and personnel in addition to providing rail security, much as it did in its earlier incarnation. The overhaul of the Kozma Minin is expected to be finished by December 1, 2013 and will cost an estimated $635,000.

Sources:

Izvestia, April 10, 2013; Gennady Zhilin, “Baikal, Terek and Co.” http://sovietoutpost.revdisk.org/?p=61; Dkvartal.ru, April 11, 2013, http://ekb.dkvartal.ru/news/bronepoezd-kozma-minin-v-chechne-budet-proveryat-zhd-puti-236716848

This article first appeared in the May 14, 2013 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor

Is Russia Sending a Detachment of the Black Sea Fleet to Syria?

Andrew McGregor

June 28, 2012

Despite a recent flurry of contradictory reports, it appears that a detachment composed of ships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet and possibly the Baltic Fleet is preparing for deployment to the Russian naval port at Tartus, Syria. The date for their departure has not been finalized and appears to be dependent on developments in the Syrian insurgency, but the ships are reported to be ready to leave on four hours’ notice (Nezavisimaya Gazeta Online, June 20). Preparations appeared to intensify following an unannounced visit to Moscow on June 14 by the Syrian Defense Minister, Brigadier Dawud Rajihah (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 19).

The Russian Defense Ministry had earlier described American reports that the large amphibious warfare ship (LAWS) Kaliningrad of the Baltic Fleet was being sent to Syria as “disinformation… aimed at further escalating the situation in Syria…” adding that “the only true piece of information in these reports is that the LAWS Kaliningrad is indeed part of the Baltic Fleet” (RIA Novosti, June 19). Nevertheless, a source in the Russian Navy headquarters told Interfax-AVN the same day that the Kaliningrad would depart for Tartus “in a few days” (Interfax-AVN, June 19). The Russian Defense Ministry had also denied reports carried by American media sources to the effect that Russian ships had already departed for Syria by June 15 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta Online, June 18). Pentagon reports that U.S. satellite imagery revealed the BDK (Bolshoy Desantny Korabl – large amphibious landing ship) Nikolay Filchenkov was heading for Tartus earlier this month appear to have been incorrect, at least so far as timing is concerned. Loaded with military hardware, the ship left the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol (on lease to Russia) on June 21 bound for the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk rather than Tartus, but was due back in Sevastopol on June 25 (CNN, June 16; RIA-Novosti, June 21).

BDK Nikolay Filchenkov

Despite the denials, a Russian media source specializing in defense issues claimed its sources had confirmed that the large landing ships Nikolai Filchenkov and Tzar Kunikov and the SB-15 rescue tugboat of the Black Sea Fleet together with units of a Russian Marine brigade were prepared to leave for Tartus once the Nikolai Filchenkov returned to Sevastopol (Interfax-AVN, June 20; June 19). Aerial protection of the ships has been guaranteed by Major General Vladimir Gradusov, deputy commander of the Russian Air Force (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 19).

The Tartus facility was established in 1971 at a time when the Soviet Union had similar facilities in the Syrian port of Latakia and the Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Mersa Matruh. Today, only the facility at Tartus remains. Officially, Russia does not call the Tartus a naval base, but rather a “Navy Sustainment Center” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, June 19). Under the official name of the Russian Federation Navy 720th Logistic-Support Station, the strategically important Tartus facility provides repair, refueling and re-provisioning services for Russian naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Following a dredging program that began in 2009, the floating maintenance station (the PM-138), floating docks and workshops at Tartus can handle even the Russian Fleet’s largest ships, such as the Soviet-era aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which visited Tartus in January. [1] The station is leased from Syria at a cost of $2 million per year, with payments made in both cash and arms (Komsomolskaya Pravda Online, June 15). Tartus is also said to act as the receiving port for Russian arms shipments, like that allegedly delivered by the MV Professor Katsman in sealed containers on May 26 (Interfax, June 4).

If Moscow remains committed to its opposition to foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis, any Russian military mission would likely be limited to a primary task of evacuating Russian citizens and personnel, with the option of a secondary task of defending Russian installations at Tartus. The floating PM-138 can actually be moved offshore if threatened.

The Kaliningrad

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has estimated there are approximately 100,000 Russian citizens in Syria, many with Syrian wives and families (Vedomosti Online, June 22). With such numbers, it is certain that a naval evacuation would prioritize diplomatic and military personnel in its calculations. The number of Russian stationed at the Tartus naval facility is estimated at no more than 100 (Vedomosti Online, June 22).

Though a website sympathetic to the Syrian insurrection had announced the Free Syrian Army (FSA – the main armed opposition group) intended to attack Tartus and had already infiltrated troops for this purpose, the FSA’s Colonel Malik al-Kurdi described such speculation as “irresponsible talk” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 18).

Units of Russia’s Naval Infantry (Morskoy Pekhoty – colloquially known as “Marines”) under the command of Hero of Russia Colonel Vladimir Belyavskiy are reported to be ready to board all three Baltic Fleet ships on the receipt of orders (Interfax-AVN, June 19).  Colonel Belyavskiy received his award for commanding Russian Marines of the Black Sea Fleet in a desperate engagement with Chechen mujahidin at the Tezen-Kale Gorge in February, 1995. [2]

The Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva, was scheduled to visit Tartus earlier this month, but its voyage was cancelled for reasons apparently related to the Syrian crisis (Interfax-AVN, May 23). The Soviet-era destroyer Smetlivy, which was to be relieved by the Moskva, was instead ordered to extend its cruise in the Mediterranean (Interfax, May 18). A Black Sea Fleet spokesman reported that security for the Smetlivy was provided in Tartus by a counterterrorism unit of Russian marines (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 19).

While a unilateral intervention by Russia in Syria appears to be out of the question for now, the possibility of Russian participation in a UN-authorized multinational force remains open. There is also speculation that a peacekeeping force under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO – a military alliance of seven former Soviet states, including Russia) might have a role in Syria. Various elite Russian military formations are reported to be receiving training for such an eventuality, including the 15th Combined Arms Brigade in Samara and the Pskov 75th Air Assault Division, which has previous experience with peacekeeping in Kosovo and in combat operations in Chechnya and Georgia. Also mentioned as likely participants in such a force are the Chechen Vostok and Zapad battalions of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which participated in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and more active operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 15). [3]

The view of Tartus as strategically vital to Russia’s defense is not unanimous, however. A new report from the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (described as having close ties to the Russian defense community) downplayed the strategic importance of the Syrian naval facility, suggesting that Tartus was “more of a symbolic rather than practical value to the Russian navy,” whose loss “would have no significant effect on Russia’s naval capabilities” (Financial Times, June 26).

Notes

1. The Russian designation for ships of this type is Tyazholyy avianesushchiy raketnyy kreyser, “heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser.” 

2. See http://rusnavy.com/history/branches/bv/belyavskiy.htm.

3. For Vostok and Zapad activities outside Chechnya, see Andrew McGregor, “Chechen Troops Accompany Russian Soldiers in Lebanon,” Chechnya Weekly, October 26, 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/publications_details.php?volume_id=416&issue_id=3902&article_id=2371588, and “Peacekeepers or Provocateurs? Kremlin-Backed Chechen Troops Raise Tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” North Caucasus Weekly, December 6, 2007, http://www.jamestown.org/chechnya_weekly/article.php?articleid=2373839.

This article first appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Former Deputy Commander Describes Work of Russia’s Alpha Counter-Terrorism Unit

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2011

The former deputy commander and 15-year veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa counterterrorist unit, Sergey Goncharov, has shed some light on various controversial operations carried out by his former unit in a wide-ranging interview carried by a Russian magazine (Itogi, October 10). Goncharov is currently head of the Alfa Veteran Association which has engaged in anti-Yeltsin political activism in the past but is mainly concerned now with providing protection to Russian “VIPs.”

Alfa’s participation in incidents such as the January 1991 massacre of Lithuanian civilians in Vilnius has left some Alfa veterans open to prosecution (see Rian.ru, July 22). Nonetheless, Goncharov maintains that Alfa Group does not act as an enforcement team for politicians: “We have never been afraid to disagree with decisions imposed from above. And when some kind of TsK [Central Committee] member, who has never held anything other than a hunting rifle, orders us to resolve a problem in a particular way, he needs to be politely sent away. And they have been sent away.”

Goncharov defended the Alfa Group’s role in the 2002 Nord-Ost Theater crisis (in which 129 hostages were killed by poison gas released by Russian Special Forces) and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis (in which 334 hostages and 21 security men were killed in a bungled rescue operation): “Both operations are black marks on both the unit and on the history of Russian antiterrorist efforts. Nonetheless, in the first one, in my opinion, the tactic that was selected was the only possible solution to avoid an enormous loss of life. Of course, it is a great pity that hostages were killed and died from [gas] poisoning, but the use of the so-called “laughing gas” was just about the only solution available at that time… The use of the gas allowed us to enter the auditorium and with precise sniper fire neutralize the terrorists, without incurring huge losses [to Alfa forces]. But at Beslan actually there was no assault. There the guys saved the children, and did not kill the terrorists. They drew fire on themselves as they covered the students with their own bodies.”