After besieged Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka strode from his helicopter gripping an assault rifle on August 23, some watching may have felt a flash of deja vu. It was the same distinctive model of gun Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was frequently photographed with and the favored weapon of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The weapon Lukashenka brandished was a Soviet-made AKS-74U, a lighter, stubbier variant of the AK-74 assault rifle in use by military forces around the world. The specialized AKS-74U was first made in 1979 and is less powerful and less accurate than the AK-74, due to its short barrel.
The "S" and "U" in the name of the AKS-74U -- standing for "skladnoi" (folding) and "ukorochenny" (shortened) in Russian -- hint at the prime design motivation. The AKS-74U is around half the length of the AK-74 and was made as a personal self-defense weapon, especially for armored-vehicle crews who needed a gun with more penetration power than a pistol and something small enough to be maneuvered inside the cramped quarters of a tank or armored personnel carrier.
The appeal of the AKS-74U for bin Laden is believed to be largely in the symbolic value of the weapon. During the jihadist insurgency against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the super-modern gun was initially impossible to buy on the black market, therefore its ownership by jihadis was seen as a kind of "scalp" indicating victory over a Soviet soldier. A practical advantage for fugitive terrorist leaders such as bin Laden and Baghdadi is that the gun is relatively easy to conceal when compared to other, nearly meter-long, Soviet assault-rifle designs.
But with ample space, an obvious eagerness to show off his weapon, and an entire modern arsenal at his disposal, why did Lukashenka pick up a decades-old weapon known for limited range and accuracy? The answer may be found in Lukashenka's military history. In the early 1980s Lukashenka served as the deputy commander of a Soviet motorized infantry company and was probably issued an AKS-74U. It's possible the Belarusian president's weapon of choice is a personal keepsake from the Soviet Union.