Vladimir Putin is building a new National Guard, a significant move in Russia’s competitive security realm, and a strong indicator that times are hard in Russia and Putin needs to guarantee his position, both from the masses and from the elite.
In another surprising announcement from the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin issued notice at the beginning of April that, in addition to the substantial number of agencies already dedicated to state security, he is now creating an independent National Guard. While the nominal responsibilities of this new organization appear to cover nothing that is not already handled by multiple agencies, this new services appears designed to play a significant role in Russian security. While it may appear superfluous, this new security service shows that Putin sees the need for greater protection from the possibility of internal discord. And, it also suggests that the current structure is not sufficiently organized for calming Putin’s other fear, that of dissatisfied political foes.
The new National Guard will be built with forces from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which does everything from controlling the country’s police services to maintaining a large force of riot police and Interior Troops (which are more similar to conventional soldiers than police forces). The stated goals of the new National Guard are to fight terrorism and organized crime and perform the functions of the riot police and SWAT teams. Additionally, the service’s head will not be subordinated to the Interior Minister, as is the case for the heads of existing ministry forces, but rather will report to Putin only.
With this new service, Putin is looking for a mechanism to protect himself from one of his greatest perceived threats to his regime: a revolution from the masses. The mass protests in Moscow following the blatantly rigged parliamentary elections in 2011 shook the foundations of the regime, dispelling the idea the people would blindly support Putin’s “managed democracy” as long as he was able to maintain economic prosperity. Together with the so-called “color revolutions” in Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the early-2000s, the 2011 Arab Spring in the Middle East, and the recent Ukrainian uprising – all cases of mass popular uprisings that have ushered in political change in countries around the world – the threat of a revolution preoccupies the minds of Russia’s elite. The most recent shock in Ukraine, with a close Putin ally pushed from power by popular protest, hit very close to home for Putin and his allies. With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in just a few months and with the Russian economy contracting, rising public discontent is a constant worry for those in power.
Of course, Putin never seemed to lack the necessary forces to put down protests, making the National Guard a seemingly unnecessary addition. However, from Putin’s perspective this new service fills a very specific gap. While existing powerful services were recently granted expanded power to use lethal force against civilians, it did not cover a service that employs riot police on the front lines with protestors. On the other hand, the current riot police, while a major force, are subordinated to a minister that is noticeably not considered part of Putin’s inner circle. By creating a new service, Putin places a newly empowered security service directly under his purview, while shrewdly avoiding placing too much power into the hands of one single service and preempting another perceived threat to his rule, that of a coup.
To quell a mass uprising Putin needs a force that he can rely on. As showed by the Arab Spring uprisings – during which two authoritarian leaders were toppled by public protest when their armies refused to shoot at protestors – without loyal security forces leaders can lose power. Putin must ensure his security forces will actually follow orders in case of such an event. Installing Viktor Zolotov, a trusted, longtime friend, as head of the new National Guard guarantees allegiance to Putin in a crisis. Additionally, the new force will be granted significant powers, including expanded authority to use lethal force and enter private premises when deemed necessary for national security. With a leader loyal directly to the Kremlin and permissive rules of engagement, Putin built a force that he can confidently expect to counter the risk of a mass protests.
But, a threat from the masses is not the only risk to Putin’s rule. For authoritarian leaders, coups are an all-too-real threat. These leaders have often dissolved the checks and balances that normally protect a leader in order to ensure their uncontested place at the top. Unfortunately, this lack of law and order makes an illegal coup all the more likely in such power-hungry environments, and the history of authoritarian regimes is full of them.
A coup to replace Putin is considered by some Russia watchers a key mechanism by which Putin could be displaced and thus is likely always on Putin’s mind. Putin has long kept Russian’s oligarchy and senior officials content by allowing them to use their positions to enrich themselves in exchange for their loyalty. However, the decline in oil revenue has limited the availability of public funds for elites to pilfer, and economic sanctions placed by Western nations in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has only added to Russia’s economic woes. Those elites now receiving less and/or who are dissatisfied with Putin’s policies could eventually decide that the current arrangement is no longer tenable.
The new National Guard, therefore, can also be seen as Putin “coup-proofing” his regime. Authoritarian leaders often establish multiple services with overlapping responsibilities in order to ensure that no one service gains too much power. The National Guard adds an additional balance against the Federal Security Service and the other services occupying the current security ecosystem.
The Russian president, therefore, seems to have accomplished two key objectives with this new move: strengthened counter-protest capabilities firmly in Putin’s grasp, and a reorganized security landscape to balance the power dynamics among Russia’s security bodies and further ‘coup proof’ Putin’s regime. While mass revolutions or coups may appear unlikely to outsiders, with a stumbling economy and elections on the horizon, Putin is taking no chances – the National Guard is proof of this.
Michael Dworman is a staff writer for Charged Affairs. He works in the Washington, DC area and graduated with an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. He can be connected with via Twitter @mikedworman.
Image: Order Police blocking the road in Moscow (credit: Evgeniy Isaev/Flickr).