Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announced plans Tuesday to form a National Guard with the stated goal of fighting terrorism and organized crime.
But analysts say the main aim is to put down public unrest as Russia’s economy worsens, and the country heads into elections. They see the move as a chance for Putin to consolidate power.
A draft law in Russia’s parliament, the Duma, authorizes the guard to use water cannons, armored vehicles, and riot gear to disperse mass protests.
While the draft law forbids shooting in crowded areas or at pregnant women, the disabled, or children, it says Putin will be able to directly order the National Guard on armed missions and for them to fire without warning if they see a threat.
“For all that Putin claims, it’s to fight organized crime and terrorism and drugs and so forth, it’s nothing of the sort,” says professor of Global Affairs at New York University Mark Galeotti in a VOA interview via Skype.
“This is essentially a paramilitary security force. It’s really designed for two purposes; one is to keep control of the streets in case there are renewed forms of labor unrest or anti-government political unrest. And, the second function might also be actually as a praetorian guard to make sure that the elite don’t try to conspire against Putin at all,” says Galeotti.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state media the National Guard would be used against terrorism and crime, but also acknowledged it would likely be used to suppress what were called “unauthorized mass actions.”
When asked if the establishment of the National Guard meant a crisis of confidence in the powerful officials of military or security background surrounding Putin, called the “siloviki,” Peskov answered, “No, it does not mean that.”
The idea of a National Guard was floated numerous times in the past, but quashed because it was seen as unnecessary. “To me, this very much suggests there’s a certain mood of paranoia in the Kremlin these days,” says Galeotti.
The executive order calls for the National Guard to integrate existing Interior Ministry troops, riot police, and special forces under the central command of Putin’s former chief body guard, Viktor Zolotov, who would answer directly to the president.
“And, a bodyguard, from his point of view, is the best choice,” said independent defense analyst and deputy editor of Russia’s Yezhenedelny Zhurnal (Weekly Journal) Alexander Golts.
“Because all these so-called ‘Siloviki’, representatives of power structures-military guys, guys from security services, police, all of them were trained and indoctrinated to defend people, to defend citizens,” he says. “The only people who are indoctrinated to defend only one person and sacrifice everything in order to save his life are bodyguards,” adds Golts.
After losing its forces to Putin’s National Guard, the Interior Ministry would take over Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service and Federal Migration Service.
Russian media reports say the National Guard could eventually number up to 400,000 troops.
Critics of the Kremlin say it sounds like the establishment of a police state, while analysts say it is just heading off potential threats to Putin’s power.
“I think it is a direct answer to the main threat to Russian security as Mr. Putin sees it,” said Golts. “This ‘threat’ is the so-called ‘Color Revolutions’-peoples’ uprisings,” he told VOA.
Elections a Crucial Test
With parliamentary elections scheduled for September and presidential elections in 2018, the Kremlin does not want to take any chances, says Golts, “No doubt they really are preparing for something that can happen during the elections or before them.”
After shady parliamentary elections in 2012 sparked massive anti-Putin demonstrations, the Kremlin reacted with a crackdown on critics, a series of repressive laws against public protest, and nationalist campaigns against alleged traitors and ‘enemies of the people.’
Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea jolted Putin’s popularity at home to new highs amid a wave of nationalism.
While the tough line appears to have worked, the Russian economy is worsening with low oil prices and Western sanctions over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.
Galeotti says the economic problems are eating away at Putin’s legitimacy and the elections will be a crucial test for the Kremlin. “Almost certainly, the election results are going to have to be rigged for the Kremlin to get the kind of result that it wants,” he says.
“And, we’ve seen in the past that actually that is a point at which public protest can just suddenly flare up seemingly from nowhere as people demonstrate their anger. So I imagine they want to be at least ready, just in case there is any such protest around the elections,” Galeotti said.