Last Tuesday, April 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of the National Guard, a new military body headed by his former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov. According to Putin, the National Guard will lead the fight against terrorism, organized crime, and illicit drug trafficking, as well as protect the rights and freedoms of the Russian people.
As Vice News reported, however, the timing of the reform signals growing anxiety within the Kremlin, ahead of parliamentary elections in September and presidential elections in 2018.
The move has already sparked strong reactions from Putin’s critics and analysts who claim that it poses unprecedented threats to activists organizing against Putin’s regime. As Russian journalist Kirill Rogov noted on the RBC news website, the National Guard will have extraordinary powers and carry out functions formerly performed by separate government departments.
For instance, the guard will be charged with maintaining public order and control and countering terrorism, all at the same time. These functions were previously carried out by two separate agencies, the Special Purpose Mobility Unit and the Federal Security Service, respectively. This merging of authority, according to Rogov, is “the most radical attempt to change the Russian security agencies in the past decades.”
Sociologist Ella Paneyakh observed in her blog that the National Guard “is another army, with the right to conduct military operations on the territory of the country and against the country’s citizens.” She also noted that the guards will have the right to shoot without warning whenever they perceive a threat to security.
Most worryingly, the vague language contained in Putin’s order appears to protect the National Guard from meaningful legal accountability for its actions. According to Paneyakh, various ambiguous clauses also allow the guard to suspect, detain, and hold citizens in custody without charge for 48 hours.
The National Guard’s ability to declare a state of emergency in any part of the country, coupled with the secrecy surrounding its location and lack of transparency about its actions, gives the new body unprecedented flexibility to use whatever means necessary to suppress anything from peaceful protests to violent revolt.
Already, the National Guard’s oppressive purpose has become crystal clear. As captured by leaked video footage, first obtained by the group Open Russia, members of the guard appear to have engaged in a secret training simulation for suppressing large-scale demonstration on April 7, not far from Lyubertsy, a city outside Moscow. The video shows the National Guard using force – from firearms to water cannons to helicopters – to disperse mock protesters.
Given Russia’s growing economic problems, the Kremlin is rightly concerned that the upcoming round of elections will bring another wave of demonstrators demanding change. For Putin and his allies, the National Guard represents a way of responding to this threat and ensuring their power remains intact.