Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 31

Acting President Vladimir Putin signed a decree over the weekend which some observers believe is a step toward reinstituting the Soviet-era practice of placing “political commissars” inside Russian military units. The presence of state security units within the armed forces, in fact, never fully disappeared. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the task of watching over the military passed from the third department of the KGB’s main directorate to the military intelligence departments of the KGB’s various successor organizations. State security agents within the military ranks, however, were basically robbed of their Soviet-era political function. Over the last few years, the units of the Federal Security Service (FSB) within the armed forces have been used not only to counter the activities of foreign intelligence organizations, but also to root out criminal activities within the armed forces, including the theft of weaponry, and–perhaps with less success–to ensure “the observance of law” within the ranks. There has also been talk of transferring these functions from the FSB to either the Defense Ministry or the GRU, the military intelligence service (Izvestia, February 13).

However, the new decree–No. 318, called “On the Directorates (Departments) of the Federal Security Service in Armed Forces, Other Troops, Troop Formation and Organs”–reportedly assigns the FSB units within the armed forces such tasks as “the elimination of negative phenomena within the army environment.” This vague language, it has been suggested, can easily be interpreted to include such things as the political views of a military officer or his “unsanctioned contacts with the press” (Izvestia, February 14).

Today, in an apparent reaction to that report, FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich claimed that the “security organs within the [armed forces] are not receiving any additional power” and that the new directive “only brings the security organs into conformity with the existing structure of the armed forces, where over recent times reforms were carried out” and is based on the federal law on the security organs, which “carefully maps out” the powers of the FSB (Russian agencies, February 14).

While it remains to be seen whether Putin’s new decree really means the revival of “political commissars” within the armed forces, it is worth noting that the measure comes on the heels of others which might be viewed as part of an overall attempt to reinstitute elements of ideological control over society. On Putin’s first day in office as acting head of state (December 31 of last year), for example, he signed the decree “Readiness of Russian Citizens for Military Service,” which revives the Soviet-era practice of providing two to three hours a week of military training in state schools. Boys will be expected, among other things, to learn to take apart and reassemble rifles, while girls will learn first aid and other medical techniques (Moscow Times, February 11).