Mr. Putin’s private army

April 6, 2016: General Viktor Zolotov (R), former head of the president’s personal security detail, has been appointed as head of the National Guard of Russia (source: dpa)
April 6, 2016: General Viktor Zolotov (R), former head of the president’s personal security detail, has been appointed as head of the National Guard of Russia (source: dpa)

In a surprise move, clearly aimed at bolstering his own personal power and security, President Vladimir Putin has announced the formation of a Russian National Guard. The new entity is to be created within the Ministry of the Interior (MVD) and its mandate will be to fight terrorism and organized crime. This, however, is a mere facade.

The true purpose is to create a private army whose loyalty will be to the president rather than to the state. It will be directly subordinate to Mr. Putin, bypassing the interior minister.

The new formation dramatically consolidates Russia’s capacity for domestic repression

The main reason to be wary of what is going on lies in the sheer size and firepower of the new entity. The backbone of the National Guard will be the MVD’s own troops, some with heavy equipment, including armor and artillery. To this will be added paramilitary troops from a number of other services, including the OMON riot police, SOBR (SWAT) rapid response forces and military police, as well as Ministry of Emergency Situations troops, Spetsnaz special forces and perhaps even elite airborne troops.

The size of this force may reach as high as 400,000 troops, more than half the estimated strength of the Russian army. It is expected to be 80 percent or more staffed by volunteer contract soldiers, well paid and highly motivated. One consequence of the deepening economic crisis has been that Russia’s elite forces no longer have any trouble finding young men willing to serve. Although less than half of the National Guard’s manpower is strictly military, with the rest mostly composed of police and security personnel, it is still a formidable force.

The new formation dramatically consolidates Russia’s capacity for domestic repression. A wide variety of military and paramilitary forces, created within different parts of the power structures, for the common purpose of maintaining domestic order, has now been concentrated under a single command and beefed up with units from the regular army. With the possible addition of marine Spetsnaz troops and airborne units, the National Guard would have both naval and air components, with the latter including both helicopters and airlift capability. Although the threat from terrorism and organized crime is quite real, the new National Guard does not seem an appropriate or likely response.

Two interpretations

The main question is why all of this is being done. If we discount the official reference to terror and organized crime, what is it that the Kremlin fears? There are two overlapping explanations, one bad and the other worse, which more readily account for the concentration of so much military force into one organization.

In one interpretation, the reorganization is a purely defensive move, aimed at warding off what the Kremlin views as a clear and present danger of social unrest, perhaps even accompanied by local armed rebellions. The more alarming conclusion is that preparations are under way for something even more sinister – namely, the introduction of full-fledged militarized despotism. In either case, the manner in which the decision was made public suggests that for Mr. Putin, personal motives were involved.

Naberezhnye Chelny, Feb. 12, 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R), who may be a loser in the reorganization of the security forces (source: dpa)
Naberezhnye Chelny, Feb. 12, 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R), who may be a loser in the reorganization of the security forces (source: dpa)

The announcement came on April 5, during a televised meeting between Mr. Putin and senior security officials in Moscow. There had been no prior discussion or leaks to the press. It is not known how many officials may have been privy to the plans, but the most likely assumption is very few. This level of secrecy and security is well in line with Mr. Putin’s increasingly isolated leadership style. His interest in public dialogue is shrinking fast, and his circle of close confidants is shrinking even faster.

Fortunate few

The remaining few who still enjoy the president’s trust and have frequent access are men from the security apparatus who have been his close associates since the early 1990s or earlier. They share the brotherhood of the secret intelligence community and an interest in physical sports like judo and ice hockey. The creation of the National Guard is a prime example of how such officials reach the highest pinnacles of power.

Present at the April 5 meeting were Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Federal Drug Control Service chief Viktor Ivanov, and Viktor Zolotov, the former commander of the MVD troops. The first two officials came away weakened. Mr. Kolokoltsev had ministry troops removed from his control, with a commensurate loss in prestige. Mr. Ivanov saw his fiefdom subordinated to the MVD, and his own stature reduced accordingly.

The clear winner was Mr. Zolotov, who now leads the National Guard and reports directly to the president. Besides commanding MVD troops, he was also Mr. Putin’s top bodyguard (as head of the Federal Guard Service) from 2000 to 2013 and his longtime sparring partner in boxing and judo. These are ties that bind. Mr. Zolotov is the archetype of the kind of official that retains regular access to the president. He now has ministerial rank and has been appointed to the powerful National Security Council.

The creation of the National Guard follows a pattern set in January 2011, when the Federal Investigative Committee (Sledkom) was created out of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Headed by Alexander Bastrykin, another longtime Putin loyalist who also reports directly to the president, Sledkom was transformed into a Kremlin attack dog, inspiring fear in the political opposition that began to emerge in the winter of 2011/2012.

The clear winner was Mr. Zolotov, who now leads the National Guard and reports directly to the president

Defensive purpose

Returning to the question of the National Guard’s purpose, the defensive interpretation starts from the premise that a deepening economic crisis may erupt into social unrest. Such fears are clearly grounded in real developments. The plunging price of oil has thrown Russia’s economy into a recession, which may potentially turn into depression. Analogies are increasingly being drawn with the deeply troubled 1990s. In 2015, the number of Russians living below the official poverty line increased by 3.1 million, to 19.2 million. There have been isolated outbreaks of violence, and the risk of riots in the rustbelt cannot be discounted.

While it is understandable that the Kremlin is concerned, experience suggests that the more probable outcome of rising poverty will be resignation and alcoholism, together with an intense desire to emigrate by the entrepreneurial class. Even before the creation of the National Guard, the Kremlin had at its disposal enough disciplined troops trained in crowd control to contain any localized protests.

A more likely motivation is that Mr. Putin fears an orchestrated threat to his regime. He has long demonstrated conviction that the recent series of “color revolutions” that brought regime change in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were inspired and supported by foreign intelligence services. He has witnessed American-led military interventions depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Last year, in Syria, Mr. Putin clearly decided on military intervention to prevent President Bashar Al-Assad from going the same way. He may be apprehensive of being set up as the next in line. It is telling that in Russia’s most recent security strategy document, color revolutions have been elevated to a security threat.

The more specific fear is that upcoming elections, first to the State Duma in September 2016 and then to the presidency in 2018, could trigger a popular movement similar to the 2014 “Euromaidan” uprising that brought down Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Doubtful loyalty

The new National Guard is clearly designed to enhance the Kremlin’s capability to counter such threats. It contains elements that are specialized in crowd control. The guards will have extraordinary rights to use firearms, detain and question suspects, enter homes and inspect documents and vehicles. Working together with the already dreaded Sledkom, they can be safely relied upon to ward off any threat from below, at the cost of driving the most active part of the population into emigration.

It is debatable, however, whether even this enhanced capability is sufficient to explain why Mr. Putin launched such a dramatic overhaul of the country’s security structures. In a more sinister scenario, the president’s main fear may be a palace coup orchestrated within the elite. In this event, the loyalty of such key agencies as the army General Staff or even the Federal Security Service (FSB) could be in doubt.

Past experience supports such fears. Both during the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, and during the October 1993 insurrection against Boris Yeltsin, regular army commanders were reluctant to get involved. Above all else, military professionals abhor two things: urban combat and being ordered to fire on civilian compatriots.

With Mr. Zolotov at the head of his own personal praetorian guard, Mr. Putin can rest assured that if he were to cry havoc, there would be no hesitation about letting loose the dogs of war. Russia’s president now has at his disposal an army that can be deployed without going through the Ministry of Defense, bypassing the constitutional rules that apply to use of the country’s armed forces. One of Russia’s most seasoned military analysts, Pavel Felgengauer, made the classical analogy explicit: “It reminds me of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. We see an aging emperor appointing his bodyguard chief of everything.”

In a more sinister scenario, the president’s main fear may be a palace coup orchestrated within the elite

This interpretation is supported by the conspicuous absence of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Shoigu has a track record as a highly capable bureaucrat. After a 21-year stint as minister of emergency situations, he took over the defense portfolio in 2012. Military successes in Crimea and Syria have enhanced Mr. Shoigu’s popularity, and he has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mr. Putin. It would not be far-fetched for the Russian president to fear his defense minister may prove less than reliable if the regime were plunged into crisis.

Tanks for everything

The Ministry of Defense, however, remains committed to enhancing the capabilities of the regular armed forces. It orders frequent drills aimed at fighting a major war. Its forces have demonstrated their skills both in rapid deployment and in combined arms operations. Tanks have not gone out of fashion, and the nuclear forces are being modernized and pampered. There are even plans to build a new aircraft carrier.

Having thus shored up his domestic defenses and his war-fighting capabilities, Mr. Putin is obviously bent on continuing his assertive foreign policy against NATO and the West in general.

Meanwhile, European governments have become so obsessed with the refugee crisis and the risks of Brexit and Grexit that they have little attention to spare for formulating a policy to counter the Kremlin’s increasing militarization of domestic and foreign affairs.

Despite sanctions and economic hardship, and notwithstanding numerous setbacks in Ukraine, Mr. Putin probably believes he is playing a winning game. His next moves are likely to bring the same element of surprise that has become routine in his relations with the West. The outlook is not good.

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