Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Russia’s Federal Border Guards

By Stanislav Lunev

The Federal Border Guards Service (FPS) is one of the few Russian government institutions which operate relatively successfully. Their job is to guard the borders of the Russian Federation; they also guard the external borders of most other CIS member-countries. As the recent war in Chechnya showed, the Border Troops are one of Russia’s most battleworthy units. With the proper support, they are effective not only in guarding borders, but also in medium-intensity conflicts.

A grateful government expresses its appreciation. The approximately 220,000 soldiers and officers of the FPS receive their pay, arms, equipment, and other supplies regularly. (1) Units are staffed at 95 percent strength — the highest level in all of Russia’s security services. The Border Troops are an elite force, in which young recruits are happy to serve.

This prosperous situation in the FPS differs sharply from that in the armed forces and the Interior Ministry. For this, there are both objective and subjective reasons. Among the objective reasons is the attention that the government devotes to the Border Troops which, in addition to their internal functions, perform important international functions that give Moscow additional opportunities to exert influence on the leaders of other newly independent states.

The activities of the FPS do not extend to the Baltic States, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, whose governments are categorically opposed to the presence of any foreign or, more simply, Russian, troops on their territory. As regards the other CIS member-countries, however, Russian border guards patrol the so-called "external borders" of their territories, that is, the former external borders of the Soviet Union. In the South Caucasus, for example, Russian guards patrol the borders of Georgia and Armenia with Turkey, but not the borders between Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which fall within the competence of the border guards of the countries themselves. A similar arrangement applies in Central Asia.

Operating on the territory of the member-states of the CIS, FPS units employ the experience and organization of the former Soviet border districts, which were deployed on the territory of the former Union republics. These include the networks of agents of the former USSR KGB, which had overall responsibility for overseeing the border guards until 1991, when the FPS was established as an independent service. The FPS now has its own intelligence and counterintelligence services, which make active use of members of the local population, both for the purposes of guarding the borders and for the political purpose of exerting influence on the leaders of the newly independent states.

Incidentally, the Russian border guards receive substantial financial and material assistance from the governments of the CIS member-states on whose territory they serve and this, in large part, accounts for their relative prosperity.

A subjective reason for the FPS’s relative prosperity has been, until recently, the personality of its chief, Gen. Andrei Nikolaev. Unlike the leaders of many other Russian agencies, Gen. Nikolaev used his good personal relations with President Boris Yeltsin’s entourage not for personal enrichment but to strengthen the agency he headed. A professional soldier, Nikolaev was appointed First Deputy Chief of the General Staff in 1992, when he was 43. In August 1993, without having any previous experience working in the security services, he was appointed director of the FPS. He headed the service until December 1997.

During his time at the head of the FPS, Gen. Nikolaev made quite a reputation for himself because of his determined resistance to attempts by any other Russian agency to encroach on the rights and privileges of the FPS. His conflicts with former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev are legendary.

Enjoying the support of former First Deputy Premier Anatoly Chubais, Gen. Nikolaev ensured that his agency was regularly funding at a time when the country was going through a prolonged financial crisis. Naturally, the ambitious activity of the FPS director to develop his own service gave him the reputation of a leader who put his agency’s interests higher than those of the state. Decisions by the FPS to create its own military institute in the city of Kurgan, or to open its own medical school in Nizhny Novgorod, were difficult to justify within the framework of the need to rationalize bureaucracy and cut government spending. The fact that the FPS enjoys the right to maintain its own foreign intelligence networks was seen as another potential budget-buster. (2)

Responding to criticism and foreseeing new initiatives from the president’s entourage, who are still trying to come up with plans to reform the Russia’s security services, Gen. Nikolaev came up with his own plan to reform his agency. Speaking to journalists in early December 1997, Gen. Nikolaev announced his intention to remove heavy weapons units, military helicopters and ships from border guard units and transfer them to other branches of the armed forces. (3) This includes the ships which the FPS inherited from the USSR Coastal Border Guards. These will be transferred to newly-created units of the Russian Coast Guard, which will be engaged not in defending Russia’s borders but in protecting the fishing fleet and other economic activities in the coastal zone.

According to Gen. Nikolaev, these plans to reform the FPS were approved by President Yeltsin. However, Yeltsin fired Nikolaev only a week after he made that statement. This was nothing new; Yeltsin has a habit of rewarding people who distinguish themselves (in December, Nikolaev had been given a medal "For Service to the Fatherland") by removing them from office almost immediately afterwards.

In commenting on Nikolaev’s dismissal, the newspaper Izvestia said that, in the course of a conversation with President Yeltsin, the general made a number of proposals to improve the situation on the Russian borders, but categorically opposed what he saw as irresponsible plans to cut the funding of his agency and merge it with the Federal Security Service. (4) In other words, Nikolaev did not agree with the plans of the president’s entourage to reform his agency, which were worked out in the Kremlin last year and were almost implemented last fall.

Nikolaev has not let the grass grow under he feet. He will stand on April 10 in a by-election for the State Duma and many observers predict a glittering political career for him if he wins this first battle. He has even been seen as a potential presidential candidate.

The general’s political prospects appear quite favorable, since the political system which has taken shape in Russia (first, "Communists vs. democrats," then "Communists vs. the ‘party of power’") has long ceased to meet society’s needs. Russia’s new commercial and industrial bosses are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s "excessively pro-Western" policy and are demanding a more effective defense of the "national" interest. On the crest of this wave, the term "third force" and figures such figures as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Gen. Aleksandr Lebed have found their way into political life. Nikolaev might be the candidate to fill this niche. He has already earned the public reputation of someone who can defend the national interest in a tough and uncompromising manner. Moreover, he has moral authority among military men, since he has not been implicated in any corruption scandals, had nothing to do with the disgrace in Chechnya, and has no association with the present Kremlin regime. The only thing he so far lacks to become one of the front-runners in the 2000 presidential race is an energetic, large-scale campaign in the mass media.

As regards the agency Nikolaev used to lead, according to an unpublicized presidential decision made in January, the formerly independent FPS has been made one of the departments of the Federal Security Service, over the protests of Nikolaev and other professionals, whose opinion Yeltsin ignored.


1. NTV, December 10, 1997

2. Delovoi mir, June 23, 1997

3. Radio Rossii, December 10, 1997

4. Izvestia, December 30, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet military intelligence (GRU).


Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by Elizabeth Teague and Stephen Foye.

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