Vladimir Putin has seen through the creation of the Russian Guards, who will answer directly to the president. Is he motivated by fighting terrorism or crushing the opposition?
On Wednesday, Russia's parliament quickly voted in favor of forming a new police force. The vote puts into law a surprising change to policing that had been suggested by President Vladimir Putin in early April.
The force was originally to be called the National Guard, but some considered that name a poor choice. For some it was "too Western." Others criticized it for being too closely related to the National Guard of Ukraine, founded two years ago to pursue separatists in the country's east and branded "punishment commandos" by Russia. In a subsequently published version of the bill, the force was referred to as the National Guard as well as the Rosgvardiya, translating to Russian Guards or Russia Guard.
The new force is to be organized along the lines of the security troops of the Interior Ministry. It is an armylike police force similar to those that have been deployed domestically since Soviet times. Moreover, agencies such as the Special Police Mobility Unit will be integrated into the new force. Observers estimate that the new force will consist of somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 men. Thus far, no official numbers have been released. The most substantial change is that the new force will be directly subordinate to the president.
Putin has named his longtime confidant Viktor Zolotov director of the Russian Guards. The position is equivalent in rank to that of an army general. The 62-year-old Zolotov previously served as deputy director of the Interior Ministry and commanded the ministry's troops. The renowned Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta once described Zolotov as "the man closest to the Russian president." Just like Putin, Zolotov worked for the KGB in Soviet times. In the 1990s he was responsible for the personal protection of Saint Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and his vice mayor: Putin. When Putin became prime minister in 1999, Zolotov served as his top bodyguard; when Putin was elected president in 2000, Zolotov was then promoted to the leadership of the presidential security services, where he served for over 10 years.
"The president has created an organization that is tailor-made for him," Margarete Klein, of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told DW. She said that, although there may not be open power struggles in Russia, there is a certain "pluralism of the elites." Putin has thus "secured himself direct access to the force."
No warning shot
Putin justified the formation of the new force by saying that Russia faces new challenges. The draft bill for the creation of the Russian Guards put forth defense against terror and the protection of strategic facilities as the force's primary tasks, but also charged Putin's new police with the "guaranteed protection of an emergency government." That would mean that the Russian Guards could be used against the opposition - for example, to break up demonstrations and protests. Officers can shoot without warning; the force can conduct house searches and shut down communications networks.
Many observers point out that a number of these tasks are not new for police in Russia. "It is unclear exactly why the old structure should have been deemed insufficient," the Russian journalist and blogger Alexander Plushchev told DW. Since Putin came to power, Pluschev said, there has "never been any doubt about the authorities' ability to nip any protest in the bud."
One theory put forth is that the Russian Guards are to be deployed in the event of protests following parliamentary elections this fall and the presidential election in 2018. Such protests seem conceivable in light of the country's deteriorating economy, even if most Russians support Putin.
"I think the most important reason for the Guards' creation is concern about some type of 'color revolution' in Russia - or at the least about riots and mass protests," Klein said. The term refers to such uprisings as the Rose Revolution in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution.
Up to now, Klein said, Russia's elite squads, such as the Special Police Mobility Unit, have been "thinly spread across the country and had much less personnel." The domestic troops consisted mainly of conscripted soldiers who were less professional. "The new reform puts pressure on this part of the internal troops to become more professional," she said.
A second possible explanation for the creation of the Russian Guards is that the new structure is designed to protect Putin from an attempted putsch from within his ranks. That possibility has long been speculated about, though there has never been any evidence to substantiate it.
The Novaya Gazeta has posited a third possible explanation: The Russian Guards are intended to weaken Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen leader has built up a police force that answers to him alone in Russia's constituent republic in the northern Caucasus. That force would now be integrated into the Russian Guards.