Di Michelangelo Freyrie
While the world’s attention is focused on the final stages of the Aleppo siege, Moscow has already started to plan its next moves against the Syrian rebels. As reported by major Russian news outlets, the Ministry of Defense is set to send two elite battalions, Zapad (“West”) and Vostok (“East”), to guarantee the “protection of Russian military installations in Syria”. The forces however share an interesting track record, suggesting that the units will have a much more active role in its Syrian deployment than what official records seem to suggest.
Zapad and Vostok were first formed in 1999 as special companies comprised of Chechens loyal to Moscow and militants that had deserted the ranks of the National Guard during the 1994-1996 war. During the Georgian war of 2008 the troops were under the direct control of the GRU (military intelligence) operating on the forefront of the Russian advance in Southern Ossetia. Although efficient in fighting the guerrilla, the units proofed to be a liability in peacetime, resembling more a paramilitary mafia ring than a special force. After the escalation of power struggle between the Yamadayev family, which at the time controlled the Vostok company, and Chechenia’s president (and Putin’s ally) Kadyrov in late 2008, the Ministry of Defense disbanded the two formations, putting an end to a conflict that had killed much of the local leadership, including most of the Yamadayev family.
Despite having been technically reformed as military police battalions in November, both the destination and the rapidity of transfer to Syria (sometimes during December) heavily implies that there was no great change neither in the personnel nor strategy of the battalions. The mountainous region around the Russian base in Latakia shares a similar topography with the Caucasus region, where the units saw the most of action, and is an ideal platform to launch attacks both on the rebel’s Southern Front and Idlib in the north, one of the last opposition’s strongholds still standing. It’s still unclear how this will affect the power dynamics back in Grozny, and if the international community will accept the “cover” as MP the troops will be deployed as. Members of Vostok and Zapad are well-known to human rights activists for their involvement in murders and kidnappings both during the “real” war and the gang war that has plagued Chechenia in the last two decades.
This is not the first Middle Eastern deployment of Vostok and Zapad: in 2006 they both were part of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, which gives them a great advantage when compared to regular units of the Russian army, often lacking any knowledge of the harsh Lebanese-Syrian mountains.