The Kremlin’s Praetorian Guard
National guard troops of the Dzerzhinsky division during a parade in Red square in Moscow, in honor of Victory Day May 9. Photo: Shutterstock

The Kremlin’s Praetorian Guard

Analysis. The Kremlin’s decision last year to create Russia’s National Guard was Russia’s biggest and potentially most consequential reform of law-enforcement agencies over the last decade. A decree last May will also make it possible to put the Armed Forces under the command of the new National Guard, whose in number of troops now is believed to exceed the Russian Army’s land forces. UI senior fellow Igor Torbakov explains how the Kremlin is preparing for a potential “color revolution” in Russia.

Publicerad: 2017-08-24

As the crisis in relations between Russia and the West deepens, the Kremlin’s threat assessments appear to have grown more alarmist. Simultaneously, a highly personalized political regime forged over President Putin’s seventeen-year long rule has prompted Kremlin strategists to directly identify Russia’s national interest with that of its supreme leader. Growing authoritarianism and threat perceptions shaped by both external pressure and the specter of domestic unrest are behind the decision to massively overhaul Russia’s sprawling law enforcement and security apparatus.

“Western politicians do not understand the essence of Russia and its basic principles,” lamented Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, in his remarks at one of the closed sessions of the Valdai Club, a discussion platform bringing together Russia’s top policymakers and Western opinion makers, in late October 2014. The thing is, he went on, that Russian people perceive Western criticism of Russian president as a direct attack against their country. Volodin concluded his presentation with a seemingly preposterous suggestion: “If there’s Putin there’s Russia. If there’s no Putin there’s no Russia.”

Putin med livvakterPresident Vladimir Putin attending a ceremony in Kiev, Ukraine,  2013. Photo: Shutterstock

No matter how ridiculous this statement appears to be, it would be unwise to simply dismiss it as a farcical effort on the part of a Kremlin courtier to suck up to his boss. It would appear that Volodin’s political imaginary whereby Putin is cast as a physical embodiment of Russia is shared widely among the broad segments of Russian policy elite. More important, it seems to be shared by President Putin himself who came to see his own destiny and that of Russia as tightly intertwined.

Yet such kind of optics is bound to blur the lines between Russia’s national security and the security of its leader. In Russia, the boundary between protecting public good and safeguarding present-day political regime and the person who presides over it became ominously indistinct with the Kremlin’s decision to create Rosgvardiia – Russia’s National Guard.  

On April 5, 2016, President Putin signed an Executive Order no. 157 “On the Federal National Guard Service of the Russian Federation.” In accordance with presidential decree, “the internal troops of the Russian Federation Interior Ministry shall be transformed into National Guard troops, to be part of the Federal National Guard Service of the Russian Federation.” With another executive order signed on the same day Putin appointed Viktor Zolotov the Director of the Federal National Guard Service and Commander of National Guard troops who would report directly to him.

At first blush, the move seemed to be a kind of routine reorganization. In fact, this was Russia’s biggest and potentially most consequential reform of law-enforcement agencies over the last decade. There is much more to these two decrees than initially meets the eye. First, with its 170 000 former Ministry of Interior troops reinforced with the units of riot police, special-forces and police security guards, the newly formed National Guard constitutes a separate army in its own right.

Ryss general ZolotovGeneral Viktor Zolotov, director of the National Guard of Russia. Photo: Shutterstock

Second, the appointment of General Zolotov as its commander is highly significant. Zolotov used to be Putin’s bodyguard and then served as longstanding head of Presidential Secret Service, a subdivision of Federal Protection Service (FSO). The fact that he was moved from that position to become commander of Ministry of Interior troops in 2013 likely suggests that the ambitious law-enforcement reform has long been in the making.

Under Zolotov’s command, the Ministry of Interior troops have undergone a thorough revamp: since 2013, the number of servicemen serving on contractual basis rose dramatically, while the number of those who were drafted was brought down to 10 percent. This means that at the moment of its creation the National Guard had been the most professional military structure whose strength was roughly comparable with Russia’s land forces, with its units deployed in all of Russia’s seven military districts.

Finally, a fact that the new formidable security service is headed by a former bodyguard is very symbolic. Russian commentators have highlighted a difference in training and modus operandi between Russia’s other siloviki (military top brass, police officers, and spymasters) and members of top leadership’s security detail. While the former are trained to protect the state and are supposed to be guided by raison d’état, the latter are solely focused on physical security of a person they are assigned to protect. With the creation of the National Guard, the construction of Putin’s “security vertical” appears to have been completed. In addition to FSO, Russian president can now rely on a fearsome military machine headed by an individual who is unquestionably loyal to him.

In late May, Rosgvardiia’s command reported that the number of its servicemen was twice as large as that of former Ministry of Interior troops. According to the estimate of Alexander Golts, a highly respected Moscow-based military analyst, this means that its overall strength is now something to the tune of 360 000 ‑ 380 000 men, which in fact exceeds the number of the Land forces troops.

In parallel with this announcement, yet another executive order has been issued, which decrees that “units and military formations of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other military formations and services can be transferred to the operational subordination of the district commander [of the National Guard] to carry out the tasks assigned to the National Guard troops.” The upshot of this consequential move is crystal clear: if need be, the National Guard will be reinforced by the Armed Forces units. Significantly, if this ever takes place, it is the latter that will be subordinated to the former.

Following the publication of this decree, Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie (Independent Military Review) ran, on May 26, a wide-ranging programmatic article penned by Yury Baluyevsky, former Chief of Russian General Staff and currently General Zolotov’s top aide. This is a remarkable document that has explained, in no uncertain terms, the reasons behind the Russian leadership’s decision to create Rosgvardiia. General Baluyevsky opened his disquisition by stating that “the goal of wars in the 21st century will not be the seizure of territories, but the subordination of the state apparatus and the formation of a system of external governance over peoples residing on these territories.” He then grimly noted that “in the late 20th - early 21st centuries, more than 30 color revolutions took place. They brought nothing good to the peoples of those countries that were subjected to the monstrous experiments of transatlantic strategists.”

Baluyevsky went on to point out that Western military planners consider fomenting domestic nonviolent protests in the enemy’s territory to be a legitimate type of warfare. “If this is so,” he argued, “then it is also necessary to defend ourselves against mass riots in the streets of our cities and see such defense in terms of war. The coup d’état in Kiev [in February 2014], of course, became one of the reasons for the creation of the National Guard troops in Russia… The emergence of National Guard troops is the answer to the challenge to our society, to the threat posed by the technology of so-called non-violent resistance, which nevertheless is more accurately called a color revolution.”

Kiev demoProtest in Kiev in December 2013 againt the suspension of  the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Photo: Shutterstock

With an amazing bluntness, General Baluyevsky has stated that Rosgvardiia’s ultimate objective is to suppress domestic unrest. “The centuries-old history has proved that Russia cannot be defeated from the outside,” he contended. “The main threats to Russia may lie not outside it, but inside. We must be prepared to prevent threats from within.”

It would appear that when creating the National Guard, the Kremlin leader took a leaf out of a history book on ancient Rome. In the imperial period, the Praetorian Guard (cohortes praetoriae) constituted an elite force assigned to protect the emperor. In the run up to Russia’s potentially turbulent electoral cycle in 2018, President Putin appears to have decided to take no chances. Yet if history is any judge, the Kremlin “emperor” may well have committed a faux pas: in imperial Rome a number of emperors were murdered with Praetorian Guard involvement. This was a sad irony of ancient Roman history: the body specifically created to protect the emperor’s person had become his greatest liability.  

Igor Torbakov
Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.