Putin’s National Guard: What Does It Mean?

April 8, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about developments related to Russia and the broader region. This week, we asked what was behind Russian President Vladimir’s decision to establish a new military body, the National Guard.

Mark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs, New York University

galeottiThe creation of a National Guard has nothing to do with its ostensible role, strengthening the struggle against organized crime and terrorism. If anything, it will actually undermine Russian law enforcement, creating new budgetary and bureaucratic boundaries between investigators and enforcers.

Rather, this is a political move, the consolidation of public security forces under a single command tied directly to the Kremlin. Until now, the deployment of riot police and paramilitary security troops was the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Yet minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev – a career police officer, not a political policeman like his predecessor – has long been visibly uncomfortable with the role of Kremlin enforcer. Furthermore, of late there have been quiet but distinct expressions of concern from the MVD about being used to break up peaceful labor and political protests.

The National Guard is a mere reshuffling of forces that exposes the Kremlin’s fears.

So now that role is being withdrawn from the MVD and instead given to a new agency commander by one of President Putin’s most loyal and muscular henchmen, Viktor Zolotov. There can be little doubt that this is all about political security, not policing.

But security from whom? In many ways, this development is most important precisely for what it suggests about Kremlin worries. Creating such a force now implies the fear of public unrest, presumably around the September Duma elections which, after all, will almost certainly need to be rigged for the government to get the kind of mandate it requires. This gives the National Guard a few months to be stood up, ready for September. But it may also be intended to head off any thought of elite conspiracies against Putin.

Overall, then, while this move doesn’t actually create any new capacities – being rather a re-subordination of existing forces – it does represent a worrying sign about growing fears, even paranoias, in the Kremlin.

Alexander Golts, Military Analyst and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Ezhednevny Zhurnal

GoltsThe creation of the National Guard is Putin’s response to the threat of a domestic “color revolution.” The Kremlin believes that the threat is serious. Two years ago, Russian generals said that “color revolutions” are a new form of warfare used by the United States and the West. However, the Ministry of Defense did not show great enthusiasm in developing operational plans for the use of force in repelling this “threat.” Apparently the Russian military are well aware that countering “color revolutions” will inevitably lead to sending troops onto the streets of Russian towns. As a result, Putin decided to use as a tool the interior troops, which existed to suppress riots.

However, Putin did not trust these troops completely. Mostly likely he remembered the events of the coup in 1991, when the generals were scared of bloodshed. Therefore, he created new security body – the National Guard – on the basis of the interior troops. The National Guard is directly subordinated to the President. As a result, intermediate links in the chain of command (departments of the Interior Ministry) were eliminated.

The National Guard is headed by a bodyguard, whose role is not to protect the Russian people but one specific person.

The main thing is that Viktor Zolotov,  Putin’s former security chief, was assigned as the commander-in-chief of the new National Guard. In my opinion, it is crucially important that all his life this man was a bodyguard. This profession produces a specific psychology. Military personnel, security officers, and police officers are all indoctrinated with the belief that their task is to protect the people and the state. A bodyguard, on the other hand, is trained to see his job as not to save Russia or the public,  but a specific “protected person.”

In my opinion, it is pointless to look for explanations in other countries’ experience with this type of structure. Each state puts its own meaning into the term “national guard.” In the United States, it is an army and air force reserve, and also a power structure, subordinated to the governor of the state, who can use it to address the consequences of natural disasters and for riot control. Unlike in Russia, which created a rigidly centralized structure, reporting solely to the President, the National Guard in the United States is a factor in the decentralization of violence, of division of powers in the decision making over the use of force.

In Kazakhstan,  the national guard functions as a Soviet type of interior troops. In Georgia, it mainly assumes responsibility for recruitment into the armed forces. In Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, it acts as a presidential guard. In Ukraine, the national guard was reestablished in March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The aim was to integrate the volunteer battalions into a unified military structure. Thus, overall there can be only one conclusion from all these examples: the national guard is a parallel army, which sometimes complements the armed forces, and sometimes serves as an alternative to them. And often both, as circumstances develop.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone, and do not reflect the positions of their affiliated organizations.