Rosgvardiya: Hurtling Towards Confrontation?
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
Over the past five years, analysts have noted an increasingly assertive “global Russia” that has deployed military forces in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, and beyond, yet insufficient attention has focused on changes in Russia’s domestic security structure, particularly the drastic reorganization of internal security services and the creation of the National Guard in 2016. Possibly more so than its foreign interventions, these internal changes shed light on the changing mindset of the Russian political and military leaders and the sources of their anxiety and power. That is, great anxiety persists about unrest at home, and how to deal with it. To understand the sources of Russian conduct abroad, the West must first understand the important changes taking place within Russia.
In 2016, President Putin signed a decree that created the National Guard, known in common parlance by its Russian name Rosgvardiya. This did not entail whole new organizations or the recruitment of new troops, but rather a reorganization of existing internal security forces into a separate agency reporting directly to Putin. The most significant change was the transfer of 140,000 Internal Troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del: MVD), which formed the base of the new organization. The Ministry of Internal Affairs lost another 40,000 troops in the OMON Special Purpose Mobile detachments (otryad mobilnyi osobennogo naznacheniya: OMON), as well as 12,000 in the Specialized Quick Reaction Forces (spetsialnyi otryad bystrogo reagirovaniya: SOBR). MVD’s moneymaking arm of the Okhrana, which provides government security guards for a fee, was also transferred to the new National Guard.
The Internal Troops, divided into operational brigades, divisions, and special forces detachments, form the bulk of what could be considered a counter-insurgency army. Other forces form motorized units to support the OMON or SOBR, while conscripts fill the bulk of other independent battalions or regiments, largely providing static fixed site security. These forces are distributed among seven regional commands that differ in capability and size. Some reports put the total personnel strength of the Rosgvardiya at approximately 400,000 although exact numbers are unknown.
When Putin decreed the creation of the force in April of 2016, Rosgvardiya’sstated purpose was to ensure public order and safety, guard against terrorism and extremism, participate in territorial defense, secure specified government objects, cooperate with external organs of the FSB for defense of the Russian state, and execute, in accordance with law, duties to control private firearms registration and provide private security forces. But with no external restraints over the force, Rosgvardiya’s responsibilities remain open for wide interpretation. As an autonomous agency, it reports only to President Putin. Russia watchers largely agree that Rosgvardiya was created to give Putin more direct authority to control protests and possibly to protect him from a coup. The former appears logical enough, given the increased tempo of protest activity up until 2016, with protests continuing to this day. Rosgvardiya has been deployed to break up some of these protests in recent years.
While an elite coup is currently hard to imagine, it cannot be completely ruled out. Survey data from 2008 to 2016 indicate overwhelming elite support for Putin’s foreign policy moves, and as the ‘balancer in chief’ of Russia’s factious elite, Putin has proven himself adept at moderating and resolving elite competition and infighting. Yet Putin’s low trust ratings, his unsteady handling of the coronavirus crisis, and his weak response to protests in Khabarovsk have raised questions about how able or willing he was to resolve domestic crises. If this trend continues, it is possible that a critical mass of elite could eventually sour on Putin. In this scenario, Rosgvardiya would serve a key function in foiling an elite insurgency.
Rosgvardiya’s emerging culture is rooted in the other Russian security institutions. Its leadership is largely composed of older men, with decades of service in the MVD or other security agencies, and with thoroughly conservative and hierarchical political attitudes. First deputy Colonel-General Victor Strigunov is a 40 year veteran of the MVD; Colonel-General Sergey Chechnik, the Chief of Staff, has 37 years of service in the MVD; deputy and state secretary Colonel-General Oleg Plokhoy had a 13 year career in the FSB before serving in a variety of capacities in the presidential administration. Director Victor Zolotov is the exception that proves the rule: he did not develop within the organs of the state security services but was head of Putin’s private security force for 13 years before becoming the first deputy of the MVD in 2014. With the relative cultural and professional homogeneity of their professional upbringing, their outlook and worldviews are predictably conservative and uniform: uncomfortable with change, loyal to ranking superiors, and disinclined to initiative.
Though Rosgvardiya is, on paper, supposed to deal with organized crime, terrorism, and other internal threats, its autonomy (rooted in great part in Zolotov’s personal relationship with Putin), a lack of external oversight, and an ambiguous legal mission allow it to be the catch-all force for Putin for whatever hot issue may arise, underpinned by executive orders. Advocates note that other European countries have enduring traditions of standing and centralized police forces or gendarmeries, like Italy’s Carabinieri. Yet, the Kremlin flagged its own insecurity by carving out a separate force from the existing MVD at a time of overall increased protests in Russia. For Putin, the stories of Ukraine and recently Belarus are instructive. In his view, Ukraine fell to a coup orchestrated with the help of Western powers which the Ukrainian government was ill-prepared to suppress.
What results is latitude for roles and functions, and composition. Rosgvardiya’s law enforcement role has allowed the Kremlin to formally co-opt certain paramilitary historical elements like Cossacks, who are also quite willing to provide 'security’ for a price. The outbreak of the coronavirus in Russia resulted in an increased number of Rosgvardiya patrols on Moscow streets to enforce, public health mandates, albeit rather loosely. When officials at the State Environment Watchdog agency sounded the alarm about an impending environmental disaster at the Usolyekhimprom facility in Siberia, Rosgvardiya was brought in to secure and contain the damage. Units have also been called in to provide additional security at schools before the traditional start of the school year on September 1st . Some criticize these missions as deceptive, designed to give the Rosgvardiya a more human face by showcasing its benevolent contribution to public safety, even while its core mandate remains to manage civil unrest.
A vicious cycle
But as the case of Belarus shows, the autocratic centralization (and stagnation) of the regime creates the very frustration and popular discontent that Rosgvardiya is designed to control. Furthermore, while certain sub-factions of elites (i.e. ‘protectors’ like Zolotov) think they are creating a force that will contain unrest and protests that arise from the aforementioned discontent, the deployment of the Rosgvardiya could actually provoke backlash and heighten tensions. Of course, Rosgvardiya’s leadership does not see it this way. Instead they view popular uprisings and protests as a dangerous and malignant import from the West and not authentically Russian. This narrow, but closely-held worldview makes matters more dangerous because it clouds the leadership’s ability to anticipate and plan for popular protests, thus ensuring Rosgvardiya remains a purely reactive force.
Importantly, both the current protests in Belarus and in Khabarovsk were not groundswell movements that arose from dissatisfaction over living conditions, economic factors, or disagreements over foreign policy matters. They arose in reaction to ugly actions taken by the ruling regime. In Khabarovsk, protests ignited following the arrest of a well-liked regional governor, Sergey Furgal, for crimes he allegedly committed 15 years ago, but more likely for maintaining both popular support and a strong degree of independence from the Kremlin. In Belarus, large-scale protests began after blatantly falsified election results but grew dramatically when images emerged of police beating protesters and reports verified the torture of protestors in detainment. Similarly, in Ukraine in 2014, protests initially directed against Yanukovich’s decision to reverse course on an economic deal with the European Union multiplied when the Ukrainian equivalent of OMON, the Berkut, violently beat some 20 students on Independence Square. Interestingly, in Khabarovsk, the police have taken a more restrained approach and Rosgvardiya has been absent, suggesting that Putin feels he has more to lose by suppressing these particular protests and potentially provoking a stronger reaction from civil society.
In Russia, the increasing frequency of protests is creating more opportunities for bungled responses and the Rosgvardiya is going to have to walk a fine line between containing them and provoking escalation. Currently, the Kremlin is probably eager to avoid an open confrontation for fear of further becoming the object of peoples’ ire. Moreover, people only seem to take notice of Rosgvardiya when it is involved in dubious actions. The Russian internet is full of stories of individual bad actors involved in corrupt practices or abusing their power. In the 2019 municipal elections in Moscow, public opinion condemned the police and similar authorities for their overly-harsh reaction. But in Khabarovsk, where Rosgvardiya noticeably did not take forceful actions to contain demonstrations, the protests—not the police—were the subject of attention.
Putin’s ability to manage competing elite factions will be important. Two ruling factions have been battling each other for Putin’s ear: more hawkish conservatives, of which many of the siloviki are members, and more pragmatic individuals, such as some cabinet ministers, technocrats, and oligarchs. Both factions are interested in regime survival for their own purposes and will be carefully watching public sentiment for opportunities to change the status quo or ensure their own longevity. The conservatives will be more likely to use force, but the pragmatists will be more inclined to avoid further escalation. If the Kremlin is smart, it will avoid putting Rosgvardiya in situations which will inevitably heighten tensions and look bad on TV. Yet without substantive domestic reforms, the likelihood of confrontation increases. The Kremlin seems genuinely unable to understand that managing the system and providing stability and predictability are not enough. People will become dispirited if they cannot envision a prosperous future. Creating more unaccountable police forces exemplifies a failure of governance. As we’ve even seen in democratic countries―including the United States―even the most professional police forces are often ill-equipped to contain the frustration and anger of a popular protest. No side wins in these confrontations. In Russia, such a standoff and possible escalation will just fuel further discontent towards ruling authorities, while causing bodily injury to many protestors.
As the Putin era continues into its third decade, the West must closely observe Rosgvardiya’s actions and authorities it is given, not only to understand Russia better, but to avoid a diplomatic misstep that might unintentionally result in further instability inside Russia itself. The moves that the Kremlin makes with Rosgvardiya—to deal with public protest and domestic security—will provide indications of insecurity and vulnerabilities that should inform diplomatic relations. What’s more, there is a very real chance that eventually one of the more conservative forces in the siloviki will succeed Putin, creating perhaps even more acrimony in the bilateral relationship. It will be essential to understand what role Rosgvardiya plays during and after that transition.
Rosgvardiya is a symbol of what Putin fears. It is a manifestation of Kremlin’s anxiety of a supposed effort to undermine Russia, drawing upon strong historical antecedents. But as an institution, it is still young. It has yet to adhere to predictable behavior, and although it reports directly to Putin, that does not mean that the rank and file will unquestionably support every order. For its part, the United States can shape policy towards assuaging fears of a ‘color revolution,’ while affirming U.S. values and interests of the current world order. Certain pressure valves, such as arms control treaties, could forestall a potential military or nuclear confrontation. Future economic sanctions could be more targeted against the perks that certain Russian kleptocrats enjoy in the West, while containing very clear criteria for lifting them. Russian actions in Ukraine are more difficult to resolve, but the West should try to repudiate the fiction that Western interests in Ukraine are an existential threat to Russia. To do so, much more diplomatic outreach and exchanges are sorely needed. Trust is unlikely to be built in years, but over generations, the West can learn to live with Russia, while still adhering to Western principles. These two goals need not be mutually exclusive. Taking some of these steps, while understanding the internal forces that steer the Rosgvardiya amidst political uncertainty, will hopefully prevent further instability inside Russia itself.
Colonel Jason P. Gresh is a Eurasia Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Army, and has served in Ukraine, Estonia, Tajikistan, and other places around the former Soviet Union. He is currently a military fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or CSIS.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).