The recent series of mass protests in various Russian regions have differed significantly from each other in their goals. For example, residents of the Republic of Ingushetia demanded a referendum on changing the borders of their republic, speaking out against the secretive decisions of the authorities (see EDM, April 9). In contrast, in Arkhangelsk Oblast, locals protested against the construction of a giant landfill, where Moscow is planning to bury its waste (see EDM, January 23). Yet, despite the obvious differences between the two above examples, these instances of public protests share one important similarity: local police did not show much zeal in their efforts to disperse the demonstrators. In Ingushetia, the minister of internal affairs of the republic was dismissed (Kommersant, March 28). While in the case of Arkhangelsk, riot police from neighboring Vologda Oblast had to be brought in because local police refused to crack down on their fellow residents (Newsru.com, April 7).
Interestingly, the several-year-old Russian National Guard (Rosgvarida) also proved unreliable, even though it was specially created to suppress civilian demonstrations. In fact, some Rosgvardia members routinely post videos on social media, complaining that the state does not fulfill its social obligations (Zona.media, April 8).
In the wake of this concerning development for the authorities, the Kremlin has decided to switch to “heavy artillery.” Recently, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that coordination centers for crisis management and martial law will be created in all regions (RBC, April 9). The first such center will open in Tula Oblast, where Vladimir Putin’s former chief bodyguard Alexei Dyumin currently serves as governor. This means that the state’s power structures (siloviki) will effectively begin to “coordinate” regional policy, with the Ministry of Defense playing the main role in this “coordination,” although civilian authorities have not officially given permission for such an arrangement. In any case, at present no lawful decree on these structures can be found on the Kremlin’s official website. Perhaps, for now at least, it is being implemented based on an oral or “unofficial” order.
Regional authorities have, to date, largely refrained from making official comments regarding the crisis coordination centers in question. And in general, the Russian media has reported scant details about them. This suggests that the specifics are most likely confidential. Yet, the central government in Moscow recently released some information that hints at the configuration and function of the coordination centers. Specifically, RBC quotes a press release from the Ministry of Defense stating that these coordination centers will be created following the example of the National Center for Defense Management—a military structure established in 2014 and subordinated to the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Its main task is the coordination of information flows between military structures and regional executive authorities (RBC, April 9).
Ultimately, the secrecy surrounding the new initiative has raised the alarm for some regional politicians and public leaders. For example, Mikhail Matveyev, a deputy in the local Samara Oblast legislature, recently asked “If the state is not preparing for either martial law or dictatorship, then why are such centers necessary?” In the same vein, Alexei Baskov, a political consultant from Yekaterinburg, posed another question: “According to the constitution, the nature of the Armed Forces should reflect external aggression, but what external aggression can happen in the internal regions of Russia?” Baskov answered his own query saying, “The ‘fifth column’ frightens the Kremlin to such an extent that most of the power is going to the siloviki charged with suppressing it” (Davydov.in, April 10).
Meanwhile, Kirill Nikolenko, a political analyst from Vladimir Oblast, believes that this initiative serves to create another “vertical of power,” this time organized beneath the minister of defense. Under these conditions, governors, who already hold little autonomous decision-making power, will not decide anything at all moving forward (Davydov.in, April 10).
According to the independent military observer Aleksandr Golts, the Kremlin is creating a “parallel military government” in Russia. No one in Russia is defending constitutional federalism anymore, as the objectives of the “defense of the country” justify any intervention by siloviki in local government (Newtimes.ru, April 10).
The strengthening of the role of the military in today’s Russia is further evidenced by the creation and growth of youth paramilitary organizations (such as “Yunarmia”) (Meduza, October 5, 2017). Of course, such groups date all the way back to the Soviet Union (e.g. Pioneers, Komsomol); but although those Communist-era youth organizations were quite ideological, they nonetheless lacked the distinct military-centric character of contemporary formations (see EDM, April 10, 15, 2019).
Also indicative of the military’s increased role in public life has been the defense ministry’s dispatching of a propaganda train carrying “Syrian trophies” to different regions throughout Russia. However, not everyone supports the campaign. For example, residents of the Republic of Karelia met the procession with anti-war protests (Region.expert, April 26; see EDM, April 18).
In reality, the hope that the army will be more effective in suppressing demonstrations is even more illusory than relying on the Ministry of Interior or on Rosgvardia. Eurasian expert Paul Goble writes, “Armies, especially draft-based militaries like the one in the Russian Federation, consist of ordinary people who are trained and prepared to be used against foreign enemies but are not in many cases equally well prepared to be used against their own people, especially because the draftees spring from them” (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, April 12).
Therefore, an attempt by an autocratic regime to use the military against its own people can result in an outcome that is entirely the opposite of what the authorities may have hoped for. Instead, the outcome could end up mirroring events in Romania from 30 years ago, when Nicolae Ceaușescu tried to suppress popular demonstrations with the help of the Armed Forces, but ultimately the military overthrew him instead (Region.expert, April 11).