Moscow’s Praetorians: the Kremlin’s security forces

Given the protests in Moscow and the deployment of riot police and security troops, I thought this was a good time to provide a quick update as to the security forces available in the capital, not least as a counter to some of the more fanciful suggestions about the imminent victory of people power.

The Police

The regular police of the Moscow Main Directorate of Internal Affairs (GUVD) number some 50,000. Of greatest relevance are the riot police of the OMON, now renamed KON (Komanda osobennogo naznacheniya, Special Designation Command). There are over 2000 on the Moscow City OMON, who could be reinforced by the parallel Moscow Region KON. They have the full panoply of the usual engines of repression, from water cannon down. They are more than just riot police, though: they are trained and if need be armed for fully-fledged urban combat and fought in that role in the North Caucasus. In addition, there is the Moscow KSN (Komanda spetsnialnogo naznacheniya, Special[ized] Designation Command, formerly OMSN), a smaller SWAT type force, as well as less skilled armed response elements.

The Interior Troops (Vnutrennye voiska MVD)

The Vnutrennye voiska (VV) are militarized security troops who often look nearly indistinguishable from regular military and, indeed, have borne the brunt of the fighting in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The primary VV force in the capital is the so-called Dzerzhinskii Division, although it no longer technically has this name and is formally the 1st Separate Special Designation Division (1aya Otdelnaya diviziya osobennogo naznacheniya, 1aya ODON). This is a reinforced motor-mechanized division, perhaps 12,000 strong, based at Balashikha, on the eastern outskirts of Moscow. It includes such special additions as a fire-fighting battalion, but it (understandably and encouragingly) lighter in terms of tanks and artillery.  It dates back to 1924 and has an unsullied reputation for obedience to whoever happens to be in the Kremlin: it supported the 1991 August Coup, then 1993 Yeltsin’s ‘October Coup’. In 1994 it was renamed, but the ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’ tag still sticks.

The 1st ODON used to control the Rus’ and Vityaz special forces elements, but in 2008 they were combined into the MVD VV’s 604th Special Purpose Center, a Moscow-based commando unit that can be used for counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency or counter-hipster-liberal-protester operations at the Kremlin’s discretion.

Of course, there are lots more MVD VV forces in and around the capital, although some are essentially just command structures or glorified prison guards. There are essentially four types of VV units. The Osnaz (osobennogo naznacheniya, special designation) are, like the 1st ODON, relatively elite – by security trooper standards. At least they are trained, prepared and reliable; probably of KON standard, if more overtly military in their training. The Opnaz (operativnogo naznacheniya, operational designation) are OK when it comes to basic crowd control and the like, but closer to the level of glorified security guards and ordinary beat cops given some basic riot training. Then there are the units which are just administrative titles for static security guards; the 622nd MVD VV Detached Battalion, for example, guards Lefortovo prison. And at the other extreme, small special forces like the 604th. Most noteworthy is the MVD VV 33rd Special Designation Detachment (OSN, otdel spetsialnogo nazacheniya) Peresvet (named after a sainted Russian Orthodox monk, what else?). You’ll find them at Leningradskoe shosse 23a.  The 1st ODON is the only sizeable osnaz unit in Moscow, but the 21st MVD VV Detached Osnaz Brigade is based in Sofrino, north-east of Moscow, but could quickly be deployed to the capital. There appear to be two opnaz regiments in Moscow: the 551st and 687th MVD VV Regiments, as well as up to five more units, which may well be of battalion strength.

Overall, though, that means that in Moscow or subject to a very quick deployment, the MVD disposes of perhaps 15,000 first-line security troops (including maybe 400 special forces) and another 12,000-15,000 second-line forces. But it would not take long to bring in more units.

The Military

Deploying the military in more than a purely static protective role or for riot lines would be a very serious step. Nonetheless, the main units by Moscow are both relatively elite: the 2nd Tamanskaya Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (based at Alabino, west of the city) and the 4th Kantemirovskaya Guards Detached Tank Brigade (at Naro-Fominsk, to the south-west). Then there are also the paratroopers of the 45th VDV Detached Reconnaissance Regiment (Kubinka) and the commandos of a Spetsnaz Brigade, possibly the 16th. And as if that were not enough, many more are close by…

The Praetorians

The Federal Protection Service (FSO, Federalnaya sluzhba okhrany) includes the Presidential Regiment (also known as the Kremlin Regiment), a 5,500-strong force charged primarily with guarding the Kremlin and a few other strategic locations, also the smaller Presidential Security Service (PSB, Prezidentskaya sluzhba bezopasnosti), akin to the US Secret Service. The Federal Security Service (FSB) controls the Al’fa counter-terrorist special forces unit within its Special Operations Center (TsSN), which has an estimated 350 commandos (half its total strength) in Moscow. The TsSN also includes the Vympel unit.

Then there are also some paramilitarized elements of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Justice Ministry’s Fakel commando force (which specializes in dealing with prison riots and sieges) and more, but I think that will do for now, as we are already at a whisker under 100,000 men with guns on whom – and so far we have no sense that discipline is a serious problem – the Kremlin can rely…

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