Earlier this month, President Putin announced he was creating a new “national guard”. It would draw forces from existing organizations, particularly from the Interior Ministry, and would be responsible for combating terrorism and organized crime.
There’s obviously more to it than that, however. First, there’s no apparent need for another force to combat terrorism and organized crime, given that such tasks have long been assigned several other organizations including the police (formerly know as the militsiya), the troops of the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and even the Army. Second, the new force appears to have been assigned many of the “sharp end” SWAT units from the other organizations, specifically the large “Black Berets” Special Purpose Mobile Unit (OMON) which has forces in every oblast and city in Russia, and the smaller Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) which is a better trained elite paramilitary force. Third, by one estimate, the new Federal National Guard will be a very large force with up to 400,000 troops armed with tanks, artillery, and attack helicopters. And it will be accorded extensive powers to shoot without warning, examine vehicles, check documents, and detain suspects.
So what’s this really about? The best indicator of the new national guard’s purpose is that the commander is Viktor Zolotov. Zolotov began life as Putin’s personal bodyguard when Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and rose with him to head the presidential security detail before commanding the Interior Ministry troops and then being made First Deputy Minister of the Interior. In his new job, he has been elevated to a seat on Russia’s Security Council. So what Putin has done is create something like a personal army while defanging other forces responsible for public order.
Why he would want to do so is a matter for speculation, but it is consistent with other steps he has taken to consolidate his personal power. Putin undoubtedly worries about the internal opposition he continues to encounter. If there’s one thing dictators fear most, it is a palace coup by associates. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin was almost toppled from the presidency when Interior Ministry troops sided with his opponents in Parliament and the Russian army stalled for two days before coming to his rescue.
A reason for “why now” may be that there are Parliamentary elections looming this September. These would be the first elections to the Duma since 2011 when blatant fraud by the regime prompted three months of large demonstrations across the country. Putin may be taking the precaution of ensuring that, if he has to crack down hard on the population, he has direct command of all forces he may need.
Another reason “why now” is more ominous. If Putin is going to wrest back control of the Baltic states, he knows conditions will never be better than while Obama is still in office and before he is replaced by an American president made of sterner stuff. Since a successful attack will require both regular troops and paramilitary forces, Putin will not want to risk any troops baulking at orders to fire on civilians, as some OMON members did during Moscow’s failed attempts to suppress Latvian and Lithuanian independence movements in 1991.
Garry Kasparov titled his analysis of the Putin reign Winter is Coming.