Experts weigh in on President Vladimir Putin’s establishment of a National Guard in Russia, with a focus on what it might mean for the Kremlin’s approach to domestic security.
Viktor Zolotov (pictured), a close friend and long-time supporter of President Vladimir Putin, is appointed as commander of Russia's National Guard. Photo: RIA Novosti
When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard on Apr. 5, it immediately raised questions about Russia’s approach to domestic security in the run-up to parliamentary elections in September 2016. Ostensibly, the new security body will focus on fighting terrorism and organized crime, including illegal drug trafficking. However, as some experts point out, the creation of the National Guard could indicate that Putin is concerned with his political future.
The new National Guard will consist of troops and officials from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) and the Federal Migration Service (FMS). Yet, the fact that Putin appointed Viktor Zolotov, one of his closest friends and long-time supporter, as commander of the National Guard suggests that the Kremlin may be re-thinking its approach to security. Zolotov is a member of the Russian Security Council and is the ex-bodyguard of former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s boss during the beginning of his political career in the 1990s.
A number of experts agree that creating the National Guard is an attempt to centralize security enforcement under the control of one organization and, by doing so, consolidate the whole Russian security system. Experts from Stratfor, an American think tank, even argue the major goal of creating the National Guard is to save the Russian president’s life in case of a hypothetical coup d’état.
Mark Galeotti, professor at New York University and a specialist on Russian security, sees the creation of a National Guard as “a big deal.” He highlights that that the decision to create such a structure “comes from a small, tight circle around Putin” without even preparing the public in advance. This indicates that there are “big worries in a little circle.”
“There is no real reason for creating the National Guard out of the Interior Ministry troops and other forces unless you have a serious worry about public unrest,” he wrote in his blog, pointing out that the National Guard’s militarized security forces will “have little real role fighting crime or terrorism.”
“They are public security forces, riot and insurrection control and deterrence assets,” Galeotti argues.
However, Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, argues that any assumptions that Putin is afraid of protests and people’s indignation are not grounded in reality. He says that Putin is likely attempting to build a new security enforcement system, which will be under his own purview, because currently Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu controls Russia’s armed forces, while the Interior Ministry is under the supervision of Vladimir Kolokoltsev.
“He [Putin] wants to have his own armed forces, which he controls himself,” Gozman told Russia Direct. “And he appointed his closest friend, probably, because he trusts him most. It is a matter of personal connection. I don’t think that it [the creation of the National Guard] aims at curbing the indignation of people, who will take to the streets. There are already enough tools [to prevent protests].”
Galeotti echoes this view as well. The National Guard “will be directly subordinated to the government, without a minister in the way, with Zolotov at its head, then it is even more clearly a personal, presidential Praetorian force, under a maximalist loyalist,” he explains. “This may not only be a force to keep the masses in check, but also the elite.”
In addition, Galeotti sees the establishment of the National Guard as an attempt “to retain a degree of balance between the various security agencies.”
At the same time, Tatyana Stanovaya, director of the analytical department of the Center of Political Technologies at Carnegie Moscow Center, believes the Kremlin’s stance to create the National Guard stems from its concerns with political protests, which might be provoked by economic crisis.
“The Kremlin is eager to reassure itself with a powerful enforcement tool for riot prevention,” she wrote in her column on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “There is a certain degree of fear of protests during times of crisis.”
She also believe the Kremlin is driven by the fear of increasing political instability amidst its confrontation with the West. According to the Russian authorities, the West is looking for “an opportunity to change the regime in Russia and weaken the state by dividing it into separate territories.”
“There is a strong political will to strengthen the pre-emptive control over the situation in the country,” Stanovaya clarified.
Meanwhile, Sergey Markov, a member of Russia’s Civil Chamber, attempted to understand the potential fears of those in power. According to him, only those representatives of Russia’s opposition, who seek to provoke unrest and overthrow Putin, should be afraid of the National Guard.
“That’s why the authorities create special institutions, which could help to prevent such a result [a coup d’état],” Markov told Russia Direct, claiming that those who orchestrated the Euromaidan protests in 2013-2014 might be eager to export such unrest to Russia.