National Guard: the watchdog that could break the leash

With one of Putin’s closest henchmen as commander and 400,000 armed men on its payroll, the National Guard, created in 2016, is a serious new player among the siloviki. Commander Viktor Zolotov, nicknamed ‘Putin’s Doberman’, is the watcher of watchers in the divide-and-rule game of the Kremlin. But for how long? asks Mark Galeotti. Is Zolotov ready to comply with this role? Or is he able to provoke a siloviki-war? A mid-term review.

by Mark Galeotti

Vladimir Putin’s creation of the National Guard in 2016 was, rightly and understandably, regarded with a degree of anxiety by many within Russia, even within the security structures. At a stroke, this united almost 400,000 security personnel across the country into a new organisation directly responsible to one of Putin’s closest and most heavy-handed henchmen, adding a new player into the bureaucratic politics of Moscow. This Rosgvardiya became properly operational in the autumn of that year and now, a year on, it is possible to see that a move primarily intended to shore up Putin’s strength and control carries within it seeds for future problems.

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National Guards. Photo Kremlin.

On one level, one could ask what has really changed? The establishment of the Rosgvardiya did not create a single new security trooper. Instead, it simply took over several assets of the MVD, the Ministry of Internal Affairs: the Interior Troops, the OMON riot police, the SOBR SWAT teams, and the security guards of FGUP Okhrana, what had been the MVD’s own private security company. Indeed, 200,000 of the Rosgvardiya’s personnel are Okhrana employees, busy standing outside banks or watching for shoplifters in suburban malls, and ought not to be considered in the same light as the remaining 180,000 or so.

What they are all doing is also essentially what they were doing before April 2016. The Interior Troops sit in their garrisons and train, except when called on to provide extra manpower in case of public protests, sporting events and the like, or the rather more dangerous duties for those based in the North Caucasus. The OMON still patrol the streets and put down demonstrations. The SOBR still raid gangster hideouts and provide support for the police. They have new badges, a new title, a new website, but in essence it is business as usual. Much was made in June about the Presidential Decree ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of forces of the National Guard of the Russian Federation’ that allowed the president to subordinate military units to the Rosgvardiya, but this was simply an update of a 2005 decree that granted the same opportunities to the MVD’s Interior Troops.

A political statement

The media furore and even panic at the decree (with overheated claims that the guard had even greater powers than the infamous Oprichniki whom Ivan the Terrible used to murder and terrorise his enemies) underlines the extent to which the real value to Putin of the Rosgvardiya is essentially political.

First of all, rightly or wrongly, it makes a statement about the Kremlin’s will to maintain power. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev is a career police officer, not a former secret policeman like his predecessor, and though he from time to time makes ritual statements about ‘foreign interference’ in Russia’s affairs, he is not a hawk, and certainly not eager to see his men become the stormtroopers of repression. Indeed, many within the police apparatus were likewise concerned as they felt they were increasingly often being demanded to crack down on legal or at least harmless expressions of public unease and labour unrest. One Moscow-based police officer told me back in 2016 that several heads of OVDs – local police commands – had formally complained about being put into this role.

National Guard commander General Viktor Zolotov is a decidedly different character. A career security officer, first in the KGB, then its successor agencies, he is known for his maximalist and hard-line views. According to Sergei Tretyakov, a defector from the Foreign Intelligence Service, along with his former superior Evgeny Murov, he considered how to assassinate former presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, and even drew up a hitlist of people who might need to be assassinated to clear Putin’s path to power, until Zolotov bemoaned that ‘it's too many to kill – even for us’.

Victor Zolotov Kremlinfoto
Viktor Zolotov (left) and Georgy Poltavchenko (right), governor of St. Petersburg. Picture Kremlin

Whatever the truth of the matter, Zolotov’s aggressive approach in general is widely acknowledged. His open friendship with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov (Zolotov has in effect become the main ambassador between Grozny and Moscow) also contributes to his fearsome reputation. Likewise, his personal loyalty to Putin is also considered unimpeachable (and he’s also one of the president’s circle of martial arts ‘judocrats’). Putting 180,000 security troops and special police from the MVD under Zolotov’s personal authority, taking them out of a chain of command that included local police chiefs likely to have all kinds of personal ties with their communities, and a minister considered to be a technocrat and a professional rather than a zealot, is a powerful deterrent.

A counterweight

Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that massive protests are imminent, or even that the MVD would have failed to obey orders to control and suppress them, even if they did. There is a bubbling mix of labour unrest, local civic activism and nationally-coordinated protest which hints at growing social and political pressures. However, the strikes tend to be sporadic, wildcat and local, the activism directed at very specific grievances able to be addressed if need be, and the fate of Alexei Navalny’s fledgling national campaign still uncertain. If the sole aim of creating the Rosgvardiya was to keep order on the streets, it was an over-reaction at best.

On the other hand, what it has done is further complicate the already-Byzantine politics of the security sector, and for Putin there is safety in complexity. In many other areas of bureaucratic management, Putin has been streamlining, doing away with multiple, competing power bases or at least elevating one figure or institution to dominance.

At one point last year, Putin was clearly toying with creating an intelligence super-agency, the Ministry of State Security, which would presumably have been dominated by the Federal Security Service (FSB), his own old service. Ultimately, he backed away from the idea, although according to Moscow sources it is still ‘on his desk’ and might be revived after the 2018 presidential elections. When it came down to it, while creating a single super-agency might make security and intelligence work more effective and less duplicative, it would also create a monster that could in theory be both kingmaker and kingbreaker.

So in the security realm, Putin continues to rely on the old tactics of divide and rule. It is likely a mark of his growing separation from the bulk of the elite, and maybe even concerns about the ultimate loyalty of the existing service chiefs, that was behind his decision to give Zolotov his own private army. Any kind of political coup in the future would now have to involve or somehow neutralise not only the existing agencies, but the upstart Rosgvardiya, too – and with the Interior Troops having an elite force, the so-called ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, based in the outskirts of Moscow, they have the muscle to make a real difference.

Mugging the MVD

Of course, though, individuals and institutions have and develop their own agendas, they are not simply counters on a board. Something that has become clear this past year is the extent to which, by creating a new player in the bureaucratic game, Putin has also created new rivalries, ambitions, and tensions.

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Logo of National Guard

The first victim of the formation of the Rosgvardiya was, of course, the MVD. It lost various assets, that may not seem a particular problem – after all, the OMON and the Interior Troops still deploy when needed, no matter what badge they now wear – but it brings all kind of practical problems. Now, when police deploy alongside OMON, who is in overall charge? When officers are under threat, the kind of situation in which the SOBR would be called out, can they call them direct? And does the MVD need to reimburse the SOBR for their time? Speaking to MVD officers last year, these were the kind of very real questions they had about a decision that had clearly been made with no consultation. Kolokoltsev, who has been a steadying figure at the MVD, was embarrassed and undermined by the surprise decision, which clearly demonstrated how little influence he has in the Kremlin.

Finally, transferring FGUP Okhrana to the National Guard deprived the MVD of a source of revenue that was useful in filling all kinds of gaps. It provided a little money to fill strategic needs not covered by the budget, it opened up scope for officers to supplement their salaries through moonlighting as guards, and it also represented an opportunity for a little judicious embezzlement, especially by local commanders. The impact on the MVD as a whole is limited (in 2015 its profits were 200 million rubles, just over 0.02% of the ministry’s total budget), but the smaller-scale consequences quite serious. By making it harder for police to find legal extra income, for example, at a time when their real incomes are shrinking, it has encouraged street-level corruption, a problem which had actually been at last being tackled. But fear not: the Rosgvardiya is also making inroads into the corruption business, too: already, the commander of its Moscow region, has been dismissed for his alleged role in a major bribery case.

Facing off with the FSB

From a political perspective, more serious is the way the Rosgvardiya is likely increasingly to challenge other security and law-enforcement agencies, such as the Investigative Committee (SK) and, much more serious, the FSB. After all, this is how Russian security politics work: empire-building comes as standard.

First of all, the National Guard is looking to develop some kind of intelligence-gathering and analytic capacity. Otherwise, as one officer told me, they would be stuck forever in a situation in which ‘we know how to kick down doors, but we need to be told which doors’. The purpose of having such a function – to begin to work out whose doors to kick down – would precisely free the Rosgvardiya from otherwise being dependent on the FSB and other agencies for tasking.

There have been suggestions that it would take over the MVD’s ‘counter-extremism’ Directorate E, but this would require a change in the law, and is unlikely (especially because the FSB already indirectly dominates it). These rumours may have simply been floated in order to start a discussion, not least by outspoken former journalist and parliamentarian Aleksandr Khinshtein. In October 2016, he was made an adviser to Zolotov, responsible for ideology and information operations, and he has been pushing for the Rosgvardiya to start policing Russia’s social media and information space. This again is unlikely, but the service has now set up a team to monitor social media to predict public protests, identify ringleaders and disrupt their communications.

It is unlikely to end there, though. In July, Lt. General Evgeny Fuzhenko, head of its Main Organisation and Mobilization Directorate, announced that it would shortly be creating new research and development units, staffed by its own servicemen, to assess and build new weapons systems and other kit, as well as information technologies. In part, as with FGUP Okhrana, this is likely to establish revenue streams, but the latter reference again implies that the National Guard is jumping onto the latest bandwagon in the Russian security world and getting into defensive and offensive cybersecurity.

A future threat?

This would definitely intrude further into territory largely occupied by the FSB. Whether or not Putin’s intent was to create a rival to keep it in check, this is certainly the main axis of potential conflict within the security realm at the moment. Yet this is nothing new. When Putin established the Federal Anti-Drug Service (FSKN) in 2003, it was more about creating an operational counterweight to the FSB than anything to do with narcotics. The FSKN was eventually abolished in 2016, but that same imperative was also a key factor behind the creation of the independent SK in 2011.

Rehearsal of National Guards. Picture Wikimedia

The FSKN-FSB conflict became destabilising, and Putin eventually had to step in to end it by siding with the latter. SK director Aleksandr Bastrykin never had the strength or mandate (or, often, desire) to launch a sustained challenge. So Zolotov might be today’s watcher of the watchers, but for how long? Back in 2016, an MVD official bitterly characterised him as ‘Putin’s Doberman, now trying to walk on his hind legs’. The question is, how long before he is house-trained or becomes just as much of a threat?

The first danger is that Zolotov or his subordinates – who, in the style of Putin’s Russia, will likely seek to predict and pre-empt their boss’s will – over-react to some local actions and either force a more generalised crack-down or spark wider dissent. At the end of 2016, Altai Region commander Colonel Aleksandr Maul, memorably called the Rosgvardiya a ‘consolidated fist’ that was ready to smash the ‘fifth column’ and ‘revolutionary ferment’ in the country. Even more crass was deputy chief General Sergei Melikov’s boast that it was ‘the heir to the NKVD’, Stalin’s murderous secret police. This could just be flamboyance, or even a deliberate ploy to deter dissent, but it cannot help but raise concerns about the restraint and constitutionality of the people at the head of this service.

Even if this does not lead to violence, Zolotov and his men clearly have a vested interest in talking up the ostensible threat of the CIA-backed ‘colour revolutions’ that are such a staple of the nationalists’ fantasies. The Russian media has noted that this year this alleged threat has become a staple of Rosgvardiya talking points, further pushing the official discourse towards a common position of embattled paranoia, in which even extreme measures of repression become justifiable.

The second danger is precisely of a new ‘siloviki war’ – the term siloviki refers to all the ‘men of force’ within the armed and security agencies – if the Rosgvardiya becomes too ambitious. The obvious enemy is the FSB; already it has not helped that the man who killed two people in a Khabarovsk FSB office in April was able to get a gun because of neglected Rosgvardiya background checks. While this is unlikely to emerge this side of the 2018 presidential elections, unless Zolotov is unexpectedly aggressive, ultimately insiders and outside observers alike are seeing as inevitable some kind of political showdown between the FSB and the ‘red berets’ of the National Guard. This is the inexorable logic of dog-eat-dog bureaucratic politics under Putin: today’s balancing force is tomorrow’s destabiliser, today’s guardian is today’s problem. Will some day Putin be creating some new force, precisely to watch the National Guard?


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