Russian top secret battle — one against 40
For a long time battle of Akerabat was a top secret. In September 2017, sensational news hit Russian and world media: Syrian army, with support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, recaptured the city of Akerabat from terrorists. Town considered to be geographical center of the country and one of the most difficult regions to carry out combat missions. The province of Hama, in which Akerabat is located, has become the second most difficult test for Syrian and Russian military forces. The first and hardest test was passed during the liberation of Aleppo, which was captured by militants and kept under their control for several years. Dense development was one of biggest obstacle in liberation of northern capital of Syria and required extreme carefulness and precision.
Solving the Akerabat problem made it possible to secure gas and oil fields of Palmyra, one of the largest energy treasures of Syria, and the Aleppo — Khanasser — Itria — Salamiya — Hama highway, connecting the central part of the country with its remote areas.
Hama has become a real test ground for militants. Here for the first time since 2015, killer drones attacked the government army. An equally important task for the government army was breaking of two large groups of terrorists, in which the “akerabat part” of the terrorists inevitably will be surrounded.
The key role in the liberation of Akerabat was assigned not only to the Syrian “Tigers” under the command of Suheil Al-Hasan, but also to other special forces — the Syrian Republican Guard of Issam Zahreddin, as well as the Russian Aerospace Forces. Russian aviation worked in close contact with soldiers of the Spec Ops, a unique unit subordinate only to the country’s top military leadership. From the point of view of the combat mission, the operation to liberate Akerabat by the special forces with help from Russian Aerospace Forces was quite an ordinary task.
But the militants, who imposed slavery and forced local population work for the benefit of the “state” with a black flag, showed fierce resistance. The military was opposed by well-trained terrorists who arrived in Syria from Raqqa, Mosul and some other Iraqi cities, where they stole tons of heavy weapons, including tanks and missile systems. In the early morning on August 16, 2017 intelligence had spotted terrorists in one of that area and a Special Operations Forces combat group was forced to move there. Usual tasks of the special forces of the Ministry of Defense included observation and precise target designation, however, shortly after arriving of the Russian special forces and a few soldiers of the government army, terrorists launched ground offensive.
The special forces officers who studied this battle after the declassification of all the data and circumstances came to the conclusion that Russian special forces had almost no chance of repelling the attack. The commander of a special forces company of military intelligence, reserve captain Vladimir Prudnikov, explained that a small fire group is good for an ambush, but it is extremely difficult to defend with the numbers they had.
Tactics are always based on the circumstances, but in this case, enemy had numbers. There were almost ten times more militants than special forces. It’s extremely difficult to crush such attack with small forces — it was possible to disperse the enemy and block him from taking the height at which the special forces were entrenched. It all become possible only thanks to excellent physical and combat training of Russian soldiers.
In the first few seconds that “wall of fire” was going on the Russian special forces and the Syrian military, the government troops of the SAR were suppressed by fire and decided to withdraw. Realizing the severity of the situation, Russian special forces, without proper knowledge of combat situation, entered the battle.
The entire combat group, including the commander and deputy, was seriously injured in a few minutes of the battle. The only one who survived and could act was corporal Denis Portnyagin. One of the most experienced soldier of the Special Operations Forces combat group, despite his young age (Portnyagin at the time of the events was barely 28 years old), took command of the combat group. As former special forces officers said: Even an experienced soldier has almost no chances for a successful outcome of the battle. The deputy commander of the reconnaissance company, senior lieutenant of the reserve Andrei Lazarchuk, noted that the corporal from the MTR had one in a million chance to survive.
Corporal Portnyagin made the best decision in that situation. This is usually called “perimeter defense”: he took a machine gun and began methodically work on the enemy. As a result, he cut off the first wave of attackers, after that had a little time to help the wounded and report on what had just happened.
But miracles, as you know, are rare especially in the battle. After some time, militants reached Portnyagin — one bullet hit the helmet, the second flew exactly into the machine gun, from which the corporal fired back from the terrorists. The situation threatened certain death not only for Portnyagin, but for the entire battle group as only grenades remained. Mathematical chances of Portnyagin to repeat the fate of the senior lieutenant of the SSO Alexander Prokhorenko, who died a year before the battle of Akerabat took place, were extremely high.
It is tough to say what exactly motivated Denis Portnyagin to prepare to grenade himself, but the unwillingness to surrender to the enemy is called “logical and balanced” by all commandos.
Well, let’s just say, there have been operations when each soldier carried a grenade with him. If the situation is hopeless, you can always blow yourself up and “take” some militants. Actually, the story of Major Roman Filipov, who blew himself up after his plane was shot down and he wounded was surrounded on the ground, confirms that it’s better to destroy yourself than surrender to the enemy.
Special forces officers unanimously affirm: Denis Portnyagin acted not only competently, but also extremely coolly, strictly according to rules of combat training. As a result of competent and confident combat work, he was able to do the main thing — to gain some priceless time. An hour later, artillery shelled land between the wounded special forces, who held grenades in case an enemy appeared, and the militants. As it turned out later, raid was summoned by Portnyagin himself, who understood the chances of one person against 40 terrorists. In a short time between the shelling of the positions, another special forces group with heavy weapons and two armored personnel carriers approached the battlefield. The militants were “pinned” to the ground with large calibers and the evacuation of the wounded comrades from Portnyagin’s group began.
Ten minutes later, two Su-25 fighter jets that were on duty neighboring sky appeared over the place of the massacre. Realizing the futility of the struggle and shuddering under the blows of reinforcements, terrorists abandoned wounded and killed, and fled from combat zone. None of the combat group, including Portnyagin himself, died that day.
Clearing of the battlefield showed that Denis Portnyagin alone (other sources claim that with the help of an artillery strike) “ground” three waves of attackers and eliminated 14 terrorists. For a unique (in every sense) battle on December 28 of the same year, corporal Portnyagin was awarded the Gold Star medal and the title Hero of Russia. The rewarding of the hero was personally conducted by President of Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who was informed about all the circumstances of the hardest battle.
But the star of the Hero and appreciation among colleagues is not the only thing Portnyagin received. Two days later, on August 18, 2017, the Syrian army, with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces encircled militants near the city of Akerabat. Secured strategic height, made possible to close the ring, and the Akerabat group of militants, as planned, ended up besieged. By the beginning of September 2017, the “akerabat pot” or, as military calls it, “akerabat pocket” was completely cleared of militants, a significant part of Syria, where hundreds of thousands of civilians lived, was now completely freed from terrorists. Although the operation to free Akerabat is called the “ordinary operation” of this war, its real importance and value is much higher than it was commonly believed.
According to open sources, Portnyagin continues to serve in the Special Operations Forces to this day.
Translation and audio: Danielius Karkozas