President Vladimir Putin signed a decree late last month (May 24) that lays out drastic changes in the military organization of the Russian state. The bureaucratic document approves “The Statute on the Operational-Territorial Grouping of National Guard Troops of the Russian Federation.” However, it is likely that the decree was signed specifically to enshrine in law one crucial paragraph: “By decision of the President of the Russian Federation, tactical formations and military units of the Armed forces of the Russian Federation, other military formations and organs can be transferred to the operational control of the commander of the district to perform the tasks assigned to the troops of the National Guard” (Pravo.gov.ru, May 25). The Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) was established in April 2016, largely based on the then-existing Interior Troops, to combat “terrorism and extremism” within the country (see EDM, April 7, 2016).
The possibility that the Interior Troops could, in certain situations, be subordinated to the Ministry of Defense existed both in Soviet and post-Soviet times. After all, the “external enemy” could have superiority over the regular Soviet/Russian Armed Forces; to fight against it, the Kremlin needed the ability to focus all of the country’s military or paramilitary units. All major military exercises in recent years had involved units of the Interior Troops subordinated to the Army’s command, and that tradition continued after the Russian National Guard was established. In 2016, joint exercises of the Rosgvardia and the Airborne Troops were conducted in Volgograd region. Four thousand Armed Forces troops, two National Guard brigades, the Special Forces Center and the 56th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade participated. The deputy commander of the airborne forces, Lieutenant General Andrei Kholzakov, oversaw the drills. He explained that the maneuvers took place for the first time “after the reform,” adding, “…we are working on issues of interoperability to understand how we have to operate” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 1, 2016). The reasons why an army general was appointed to command the exercise is clear: his colleagues from the Rosgvardia lacked the experience of planning large-scale operations.
Until now, regular Armed Forces units were never intended to be commanded by the Interior Troops. The only exceptions happened during the two Chechen wars, when operational command was transferred several times to the Interior Ministry to demonstrate that the “military phase” of hostilities was over. However, even then, actual control was provided by the Russian General Staff. Last year’s law that established the National Guard gave no indication of the possibility that Armed Forces units might at some point be subordinated to the Rosgvardia.
Indeed, such subordination implies that the Kremlin must believe the internal threat to the state is far more dangerous than external threats. Presumably then, Russian authorities must believe the internal threat is so serious that Rosgvardia forces may not be enough to repel it. And this is despite the fact that, according to the National Guard’s commander-in-chief, Viktor Zolotov, this force’s personnel strength has doubled in comparison with the Interior Troops, and now reaches close to 400,000 troops (TASS, May 20). If true, that means the Rosgvardia is larger than the size of the regular Russian ground troops. Putin’s May 24 decree suggests the government fears that large-scale public unrest could cover the entire territory of the country. In such a situation, all National Guard forces would be involved, and the Army would need to perform “interior functions.” A May 26 article by Yuri Baluyevsky, a former chief of the General Staff and a current advisor to the Rosgvardia commander-in-chief, rather candidly notes, “The creation of the National Guard is an answer to the threat posed by techniques of so-called non-violent resistance” (Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozrenie, May 26).
In 2014, at the Russian defense ministry collegium, generals wishing to please the Kremlin announced that “color revolutions” are a new form of military warfare. In fact, the current version of the Russian Military doctrine (Scrf.gov.ru, December 25, 2014) insists that modern military conflicts are characterized by “the integrated use of military force, [as well as] political, economic, informational and other non-military measures, implemented with the extensive use of the protest potential of the population, and special operations forces.” The “protest potential of the population” was equated with the actions of enemy saboteurs. However, after the Russian generals made such a bold conclusion, they did not go any further. In 2015, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the General Staff Academy to conduct some “research” into how the Armed Forces should respond to the threat of color revolution. But the results of that “research” are still unknown. It is possible the Russian officers did not want to plan the use of force against Russia’s own people. However, by agreeing to subordinate the Army to the command of the Rosgvardia, it shifts the commanders’ responsibility for the use of force on the streets of Russian cities.
The Russian authorities have been quite bold in emphasizing the importance of the Rosgvardia. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin even went so far as calling it Russia’s “the most aggressive military unit, which solves the main problems in the country.” Moreover, he added that the “Rosgvardia should be armed to the teeth […] with the most high-quality weapons” (TASS, May 25). The National Guard has consistently been moving toward becoming a secret service with hundreds of thousands of troops for military support. In addition, as the force’s deputy commander, Colonel General Sergey Melikov, noted that the Rosgvardia will take on training IT specialists and experts in social media monitoring. According to him, the Perm Military Institute is already training such a cadre (Vedomosti, May 19). The general argued that the task of the new unit will be exclusively to track terrorist activity and prevent attacks. But presumably, the goal could also be to identify participants in Russian street protests.
It is certainly no coincidence that a National Guard division deployed near Moscow was recently named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the bloody founder of the Soviet secret police. Soon, the name Dzerzhinsky will also be applied to the Rosgvardia’s Saratov Institute military school. Units of the Rosgvardia will be awarded orders and honorary titles of the NKVD (Soviet secret police, 1934–1946, and a forerunner of the KGB). Official historians in uniform have even received an order to find something heroic about the troops of the NKVD (Izvestia, May 30). Will they write about the participation of “brave warriors” in Stalinist-era mass deportations? And will the Rosgvardia leadership indoctrinate current service members on these “heroic examples?”