The Russian National Guard: Putin’s bodyguards or a modern security force?

The Russian National Guard: Putin’s bodyguards or a modern security force?

In April, Vladimir Putin established the National Guard as a new security structure. The initial reaction both in the West and in Russia was strong concern. The Guard is seen predominantly as a tool of political oppression, being personally loyal to Putin and geared to act as a buffer in case of social unrest caused by the ongoing economic crisis. However, an alternative perspective presents itself. The creation of the National Guard could be a progressive and timely reform to assist Russian security institutions in response to new challenges.

Security threats of today are crucially different from dangers to which the classic post-soviet security apparatus is trained to respond. Low-intensity conflicts are becoming a much more urgent threat than conventional warfare and insurgencies are merging with crime and economic-based violence. Crime in turn merges with terrorism.

The modern nation-state is facing an environment in which threats by non-state actors emerge from the combined factors of terrorism, organised crime and illicit markets. According to the prominent former Minister of Interior, Anatoly Kulikov, it is in this context that the National Guard could become an institution for internal security of the Russian state, rather than a personal guard for Putin himself.

The National Guard has the potential to make security more efficient

The National Guard could make internal security structures more efficient. The Russian Ministry of Interior Affairs (MIA) might actually benefit from excluding the massive and cumbersome apparatus of the Internal Troops, the predecessor of the National Guard.

A top MIA official stated that Minister Vladimir Kolokoltcev informally supported the change. He saw Internal Troops as a redundant structure, distracting MIA’s effort from actual police duties and towards political power struggles and social unrest.

The National Guard could also become an efficient crisis management tool. Even though some critics blame the new structure for being Putin’s personal army, its strategic framework is designed to maintain monopoly on legitimate violence to preserve the state’s institutional capacity.

During his “Direct Line”, on April 14, Putin announced that the ultimate goal of the National Guard is to unify and monopolise all actions related to weapons and SALW (small arms and light weapons) control.

In this sense, Putin is shaping the new security service within a model characterised by RAND scholar Charles Wolf, in which the state denies material support for potential protesters, rather than quell their political agendas.

General Zolotov, head of the National Guard, built his reputation not only as a former bodyguard of Putin’s, but as a successful risk manager in the area of arms control, particularly arms flows from the unrecognised republics of Ossetia, Abkhazia, DPR, and LNR.

From technology-based crime to safer streets, the National Guard holds promise

The guard itself has an institutional capacity to foster internal security, and could become a centralised structure to combat organised crime. MIA lost this function in 2008, whereas the new service has the necessary capabilities, enforcement apparatus, intelligence and anti-terrorist functions, to address the crime-terrorism nexus.

The guard includes very strong and professional enforcement capabilities such as OMON and SOBR, which are elite SWAT- and rapid-response teams. If these capabilities would be matched by hi-tech and intelligence specialists, the structure could become an essential tool to fight mafias deeply engaged in technology-based crime among others.

Finally, during an economic crisis, security implications arise from political violence to domestic crime, violent non-organized crime, and other forms of non-political disorder.

The Guard can be used to secure public spaces, conduct arms control and patrolling, essentially changing the current security balance on the streets, which is deeply impacted by MIA’s lack of funding and personnel. In other words, the streets could become safer.

Certainly, the portrayed alternative is a very optimistic scenario, however, Putin has always been building his public agenda on the basis of securing law and order in the streets against chaos and anarchy.

This kind of rhetoric resurges due to events in Ukraine and the Arab Spring, and an efficient security structure able to combat non-state actors’ threats and help to maintain the feeling of normality for a commoner could become a real strategic priority for Putin.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Elisey Boguslavskiy

Elisey specializes in political instability in the former Soviet Union. He works as a political risk consultant for the conflict prevention NGO's and holds a Master's Degree in Security Policy Studies from the George Washington University. He also obtained a Bachelor Degree in Near Eastern studies from the Moscow State University and has recently published a book on Middle Eastern intelligence services.