Some thoughts on the security side of Saturday’s Moscow crackdown

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I enjoy going to Moscow for all kinds of reasons. One of, perhaps, the most recondite is the chance to take an up-close look at the security forces when there are some major public order deployments. I’m not in Moscow at the moment, so I’ve been mainlining photos and videos of Saturday’s heavy-handed operations (some especially evocative and useful ones here), and here are a few observations:

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1. There seems to have been something of a split between the police and the National Guard. Both were deployed in riot gear, but the regular police seemed less enthusiastic to get heavy with the crowd. When actually in close quarters, they didn’t seem to hold back (in fairness, equips someone with a stick and put them in a scary, high-adrenaline situation, and they generally won’t), but they were much less likely to launch actual sallies.

Now, in part that may well be because that wasn’t their role. Remember, all the dedicated stormtroopers such as the OMON are now blue-camouflage Rosgvardiya, so these would be regular cops given some riot training. I’m sure those organising the operation would be more likely to use OMON and other Rosgvardiya assets for the more aggressive missions, while the police handled processing arrests and the like. But it also speaks to a wider issue, in that for a while now there have been quiet indications that the police (and the MVD as a whole) is not comfortable with the stormtrooper role. Indeed, this was one of the reasons for the creation of the National Guard out of the MVD’s OMON, Interior Troops, etc. We’re nowhere near the point where the regime seriously needs to worry about defections and refusals to obey orders, but it’s an interesting straw in the wind.

 

2. Sticks and stones may break their bones, but gas and guns were absent. The authorities have no lack of other means to deploy, from tear gas and water cannon, to armed officers and more exotic means. This was an entirely old school shield-and-baton operation, suggesting that the authorities wanted to ensure a degree of control and didn’t want to let the city look under siege. Once you start wafting gas into the air and blasting the streets with water cannon, then you may look powerful, but you also look desperate. They were happy for Hong Kong to steal the international front pages (there’s one positive outcome of the Sino-Russian accord…). As near as I can tell – and again, I have to acknowledge the problems of working just from third-hand info – they didn’t even have armed snatch squads kept behind the lines as backup, suggesting they knew full well that they weren’t going to face serious trouble from the protesters.

 

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3. Who was in charge? Just as there are real questions as to how far Mayor Sobyanin actually made the decision about this protest, so too there seems a distinct lack of clarity about the chain of command amongst the security forces. The FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order along with the Investigative Committee is taking point on prosecutions, but while Lt. Gen. Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief (and a career cop with no particular security/public order background), took “personal control” of the operation by some accounts, there have been other suggestions that this may not have been the case. It would be interesting to know, for example, what the command structure between police and National Guard was, and how far this was being driven by the MVD or the Kremlin. Time will tell.

 

4. Who was there? There were regular police, National Guard Interior Troops and National Guard OMON.* Without being able to peer at badges, look at truck registration plates, etc, it’s hard to be categorical, but the police all appear to have been from the Moscow City force – they don’t seem to have brought people in from the Moscow Region. Likewise, the OMON appear to have been Moscow City or Region. The other National Guard troops were largely from Moscow (1st ODON, the so-called ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, and other Moscow region units). So what? This was clearly not an operation anywhere near the kind of force drain that the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Protests were, which necessitated bringing in forces from other locations to secure the capital. In short, the security forces are nowhere near yet being at overstretch.

 

* Simplistic and unreliable way quickly to tell them apart: police are in dark blue uniforms, NG in blue stripy urban camouflage, but OMON generally wear black body armour, and other troops camouflage vests. This doesn’t always apply, though, so caveats aplenty!

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4 Comments

  1. Do you think that Navalny’s poisoning was a “warning” poisoning that wasn’t meant to kill but simply to warn of consequences?

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 4, 2019

      I hesitate to take it as absolute fact that it was a poisoning but certainly can’t rule it out, in which case, yes, I think it would have been to threaten and mess with him rather than with any fatal intent

      Reply
  1. Emergency Serious Post: Protests in Moscow | Russia Without BS
  2. JRL NEWSWATCH: “Some thoughts on the security side of Saturday’s Moscow crackdown” – In Moscow’s Shadow/ Mark Galeotti – Johnson's Russia List

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