photo Putin Zolotov

by Gordon M. Hahn

On April 5th Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a series of presidential decrees “transforming” the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) into a new “Federal Service of the Troops of the National Guard” (Federal’naya sluzhba Voisk Natsional’noi Gvardii or FSVNG) and transferring the MVD’s 187,571 Internal Troops to the FSVNG and renaming them the National Guard or NG (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51648 and http://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/1742654-echo/). Putin appointed his long-time associate Viktor Vasilievich Zolotov as FSVNG director (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51646). He appointed Zolotov to head the MVD’s Internal Troops in October 2014. Although the formal transfer of these troops to the new FSVNG will not be completed until the beginning of 2018, the transfer is de facto already taking place with the formation of the new federal service and the requirement that the MVD coordinate with Zolotov as the transition proceeds and Zolotov now reporting directly to the president rather than through MVD chief.

In making this reorganization, Putin has addressed several problems facing him this year. I emphasize ‘several’ problems, since many analysts tend to focus on one cause to explain events, falling into a bias trap formed by their area of specialization  of study or political or interpretative prejudices or both. In particular, Putin has acquired some robust insurance against political threats both from above and from below.

Putin’s move accomplishes at least six tasks.

First, Putin both consolidated and thus strengthened the troops responsible for ensuring domestic law and order. This reduces the potential for inter-departmental tension, violent conflict, and armed clashes possible in conditions of potential greater instability.

Second, Putin has garnered more capacity to suppress any possible unrest or ‘color revolution’ being hatched around the September Duma elections. He now has more direct control for operations that might be necessary to contain public protests. Opposition forces might attempt to repeat the protests of winter 2011 against the results of the December 2011 Duma election results and spark a ‘color revolution.’ The West’s ‘dual-use’ technology of democracy-promotion aims to create critical masses within non-democratic societies capable of engineering regime change. Whether regime change occurs by way of reform ‘from above’, negotiated ‘transition’, or revolution is of secondary to no concern. Therefore, the color revolution threat in Russia is real. One can expect that in times of near catastrophic U.S.-Russian relations, the desire of many in Washington and Brussles for a color revolution in Russia is even greater. Putin knows this and is preparing to act accordingly. Of course, there is also the possibility that the Kremlin would be faced by a genuinely indigenous revolt not tied to Western patrons or models.

Third, in the FSVNG and NG Putin also has an instrument to protect himself and his loyalists from a less likely, albeit, palace coup. The pressures on the Russian economy, real and perceived foreign policy threats requiring high defense and security expenditures, massive corruption, and the resulting, slightly growing potential for a declne in Putin’s authority inside the regime could split the regime. The guard is added insurance against a regime split, palace coup, or other elite machinations.

Fourth, Putin’s reorganization wrested all siloviki located in Chechnya from the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s hands. Putin likely conditioned his renewal of support for Kadyrov’s re-election was probably conditioned on the latter’s willingness to surrender to Moscow full control over all MVD, now NG troops and Chechen presidential guard units. Although the MVD transitioned mostly federal control with Putin’s formation of federal districts in 2004 and to full federal control with Medvedev’s reforms, the reality is that in Chechnya and to perhaps some extent in some other powerful Russian regions the local authorities retained considerable control over the MVD branches in their regions. In Chechnya, Kadyrov appeared to have nearly full control over the MVD bodies there. The Kremlin had little choice to at least contain Kadyrov’s ambitions in this way, if it cannot risk attempting to remove him, given Kadyrov’s audacity, volatility, unpredictability, likely crimes, and yet stabilizing role not only in Chechnya but in many ways across much of the North Caucasus. Instability in Chechnya would likely to destabilize other regions of the North Caucasus, especially if the instability in question is jihadist or otherwise religious or supra-ethnic.

Ironically, one upshot of Putin’s move is that it might reduce stability in Chechnya. The reform could entail a purge of former Chechen militants who were brought into the MVD’s Internal Troops in Chechnya, including those brought in when the Chechen MVD incorporated into its internal troops in Chechnya some of the battalions consisting of former militants organized by Kadyrov and ostensibly subordinated to the MVD. Will some of these return to militant or criminal activity, destabilizing the region? Will Kadyrov’s removal from full control over the deployment of internal troops in Chechnya and the need to communicate with Moscow slow down deployment in an emergency counter-terrorism operation? Will Kadyrov’s weakened position allow Moscow to arrest the suspected organizer of Boris Nemtsov’s murder – Ruslan Geremeev, the head of the ‘Sever’ (North) Battalion, formerly subordinated to Kadyrov through the Chechen MVD? If so, how will local Chechens, including Kadyrov, react?

Another irony is that with the NG’s formation and MVD’s reorganization, Putin has acquired a loyal presidential guard not unlike that Kadyrov has possessed.

Fifth, by removing the Internal Troops so it might concentrate on standard police functions, Putin has taken another step in reforming the MVD first begun during Dmitrii Medvedev’s reforms, which have produced a slight improvement in the conduct of police in relation to citizens. Indeed, according to Novaya gazeta, the currently ongoing recertification of MVD personnel will be completed by 2018, whereupon all remaining personnel will be transferred permanently to the FSVNG (www.novayagazeta.ru/politics/72605.html). Simultaneously, Putin compensates the MVD by abolishing the Federal Migration Service (FMC) and Federal Service for State Control of Narcotics and transferring their functions to the MVD. This also involves a certain streamlining, since the MVD staff managing state control of narcotics will be 30 percent less than that under the abolished department (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51649). Transferring the migration control to the MVD also makes sense since monitoring immigrants and visitiors to Russia has long been a function shared by the MVD and FMS.

Sixth, by promoting Zolotov, one of his most faithful and long-time associates, into the very top ranks of the siloviki organs, Putin further consolidated his control over the siloviki and overall state apparatus. In 1991 Zolotov worked in the personal protection service in the Kremlin under Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin and can be seen wearing the dark jacket standing behind and above Yeltsin’s chief bodyguard Aleksandr Korzhakov in the famous photograph of Yeltsin atop a tank declaring national resistance to the August 1991 hardline Soviet coup against USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev.

image Yeltsin coup tank Zolotov

Zolotov then served in the body guard service of then St. Petersburg mayor and Putin mentor Anatolii Sobchak before becoming St. Petersburg deputy mayor Putin’s bodyguard. The well-informed editor-inchief of Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov describes Zolotov as “extremely influential, extremely”—a person who “is not simply a member of his (Putin’s ) team but one who is personally loyal to him,… with whom (Putin) spends his free time, personal time. They played pool and went to meetings about which no one is to know, and answered directly for (Putin’s) safety in particular when he flew to Chechnya” (http://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/1742654-echo/).

Putin not only appointed Zolotov to head the new FSVNG and NG, but he also signed a decree making Zolotov a permanent member of Russia’s powerful Security Council (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51647). This was a personal, not an ‘ex officio’ appointment—that is, Zolotov was appointed to the Security Council; the position or officeholder of FSVNG director will not have the automatic status as a Security Council permanent member that several other high-ranking positions have. In addition, the FSVNG and Zolotov will be working closely with MVD and its chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and Zolotov now reports directly to Putin without, even just in theory, having to go through Kolokoltsev. Among the the FSVNG’s functions are the preservation of public order and security and implementing emergency situations. The decree stipulates that these two functions are to be carried out jointly with the MVD. Also, “operational subordination” involving the deployment of the mobile special OMON forces, the rapid response forces, special operations forces and aviation formerly belonging to the MVD will now be “established by the MVD with the agreement of the FSVNG director” (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51648). Two years ago there were Moscow rumors and Western analysts predicting that Kolokoltsev, who is considered a moderate reformer, was soon to be fired and replaced by Zolotov. Thus, Putin has moved one of his most loyal clients into the important Security Council and simulataneously into functions where he can keep an eye on MVD chief Kolokoltsev, a functionary who is not from Putin’s Petersburg and siloviki circles.

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Details from the Decrees on the FSVNG and NG

The presidential decree transfers the Internal Troops from the MVD to the FSVNG. These Internal Troops are now called the National Guard or NG. The FSVNG is part of the executive branch, which is headed by the president of Russia. It is led by a “Director,” and the service’s director is simultaneously the commander of the NG’s troops. The director will have six deputy directors, including a first deputy director who will simultaneously be Chief of Staff of the NG and a “state secretary/deputy director (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51648).

The NG comprises just a part of the FSVNG and its troop formations. Also transferred under the FSVNG are the departments of the MVD formerly carrying out the functions now transferred to the FSVNG, including: the rapid reaction forces of the MVD’s territorial sununits; the MVD’s OMON (mobile special forces); the MVD’s Center for special operational response forces and aviation; the MVD administrations and other sub-departments exercising federal oversight over weapons trafficking, personal protection and government personnel security guard service, including the MVD’s Center for Specially Designated Government Personnel Security Protection, and the federal state unitary enterprise ‘Okhrana.’ The rapid reaction forces and special operational forces and aviation remain under the MVD’s operational command, however. The FSVNG’s functions include: preserving public and security and implementing emergency situations jointly with the MVD; counter-terrorism and securing the legal regime counter-terrorist operations; counter-extremism; territorial defense; protection of important state sites and special convoys; assisting the Border Troops of the FSB in protecting the Russia’s borders; monitoring compliance with Russian laws on weapons, private security activity, and extra-departmental protection (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51648).

More information on the new service and Guard should be forthcoming once the Cabinet of Ministers determines the number of national guardsmen and drafts a statute as it has been instructed to do in Putin’s decree (www.kremlin.ru/acts/news/51648).