Does a suicide in the Kremlin Guard reflect wider woes?

The news that an officer of the Federal Guard Service (FSO: Federal’naya sluzhba okhrany) committed suicide in the Kremlin has triggered a few press enquiries, so let me just put a little background out. (I’d add that I’m planning on a proper profile of the FSO in a future episode of my In Moscow’s Shadows podcast).

Although the Baza Telegram channel, which named the individual as one Mikhail Zakharov, claimed he was actually one of Putin’s bodyguards – which would make him part of the Presidential Security Service (SBP: Sluzhba bezopasnosti prezidenta), a sub-division of the FSO, most other Russian news sources are contradicting this last point. It thus seems more likely that he is part of the Presidential Regiment, formally the Independent Red Banner Order of the October Revolution Regiment of the Commandant’s Office of the Moscow Kremlin, or in other words the Kremlin Guard.

This 5,500-man force, subordinated to the Kremlin Commandant, Lt. Gen. Sergei Khlebnikov, is an elite protection force. Its barracks are inside the Kremlin, in ‘Block 14’ – the Arsenal building – on the other side of the complex from Cathedral Square, where the incident reportedly took place. Its officers all have to meet demanding physical fitness requirements, be at least 190 cm tall and never have been registered at a psychiatric facility, as well as pass an intensive background check (simply having a close relative living abroad is enough for disqualification). They are the men in wear blue uniforms around the Kremlin – and the men in dark blue-green parade uniform standing on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandrovsky Gardens.

The FSO has a range of other elements and roles, from the drivers of the Special Garage to the analysts poring over opinion poll data or hints of a serious threat in the president’s correspondence. Arguably, though, their political muscle has diminished since the retirement of former director Evgeny Murov in 2016; a veteran with considerable behind the scenes clout, Murov was replaced by Dmitri Kochnev, a serious and professional figure, but not someone with the same authority.

Since then, there have been subdued grumbles even from this elite force. It used to be that as well as relatively high salaries (and elevated ranks), they could convert the inevitable overtime they accrued into early retirement. That last perk was summarily removed, and at present they do not even get overtime pay. They are often expected to defer or reschedule vacations, and while they get good medical care in Moscow, the culture is still one which frowns on taking recovery time. Besides which, there is also a keen awareness that their cousins in the FSB and MVD get extracurricular opportunities from bribe-taking to moonlighting in private security. The former is not really an option for regular FSO officers and the latter strictly banned. This, plus the tough entry requirements, may help explain with the Presidential Regiment is currently under-strength, exacerbating the other problems.

Zakharov was also apparently going through a divorce – it could well be that this was nothing more than a personal tragedy, with no professional implications. However, there is a bit of a pattern. In March, one of the snipers from FSO Military Unit 11488 appears to have shot himself at home. Last year, an officer from one of the regional FSO departments – the Volga Federal District unit of the Special Communications and Information Directorate – threatened his superior officer with his service sidearm over a dispute over changed holiday schedules.

Tough conditions, arbitrary management and poor relations between officers and men are long-running problems in the Russian security sector. However, it is striking that a time when the police and the armed forces have certainly put efforts into addressing them, that the FSO seems to be lagging behind. I can’t help feel that if I were the president, I’d want my Praetorians to be a little happier and more relaxed.

Is the Russian National Guard suddenly acquiring sweeping new powers? No, not so much

Rosgvardiya1A new Presidential Decree with the snappy title ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of forces of the National Guard of the Russian Federation‘ has suddenly caused something of a fuss because of a clause which allows the president to subordinate military units to the Rosgvardiya. From Versiya, for example, there came the outraged cry that “Nothing like this has happened in the country’s history” and that it was “impossible to imagine” the “Russian imperial army commanding the gendarmes, and NKVD the Red Army.” In Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, the warning was that “it has become clear that sooner or later war plans require the use of troops against the population. Russian officers do not want to shoot at their fellow. And the officers of the General Staff, it seems, did their best to slow down the adoption of the policy documents. But the Kremlin was anxious. And the National Guard conquered the army.”

Of course the creation of the National Guard from the basis of the MVD’s Interior Troops and public order forces was a worrying sign of the paranoias of the Kremlin. It is a force of some 180,000-190,000 security troops and special police, by the way, not 400,000 – there are perhaps as many private security officers, but they are not all armed, are scattered around the country, and in some cases are other Rosgvardiya officers moonlighting in a second job. It was clearly established both in case the Kremlin wants to break heads on the streets, and also to represent an additional obstacle to any elite political coup.

But let’s not get caught up in the hyperbole. The present presidential decree does indeed say that the president has the right to transfer army units to Rosgvardiya command for specific operations at home. However, the decree starts by enumerating the existing decrees relating to the MVD Interior Troops that it supersedes. One is the 2005 decree ‘On Approval of Regulations of the Operational-Territorial Unification of the Interior Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russian Federation,’ as amended. And guess what: that decree allowed the president to subordinate military units to the Interior Troops…

In other words, this was just a piece of legislative tidying-up, find+replacing National Guard for Interior Troops. Not so unprecedented, not so impossible to imagine, not demonstrating any sudden new bloodlust. And I very much doubt the General Staff were trying to fight it off.

Sure, there are always grounds for concern, especially when figures such as blowhard ex-general and Rosgvardiya hanger-on Yuri Baluevskii trumpet how Russia is beleaguered by Western attempts at regime change through coloured revolutions. But sadly this is nothing new and even reflected in Russia’s national security doctrine. This is a regime which fears and mistrusts its people, and which is at least willing to contemplate the use of violence to maintain power. But at the same time, let’s not fall prey to the temptation to think the sky is breaking every time the thunder peals.

A Perverse Thought: Finding A Silver Lining In Moscow’s Latest Nuclear Sabre-Rattling

Overcompensating a tad?

Overcompensating a tad?

At times, there is something of the predictably petulant teenager in Russia’s strategic responses. NATO lets it be known that it is considering pre-positioning US armour in the Baltic States (as I’ve said, this is “heavy metal diplomacy” aimed at reassuring the Balts and warning off the Russians more than because there is any serious expectation of war). And in knee-jerk response, Putin announces that

“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year.”

Perversely and paradoxically I find something faintly reassuring about this. Bizarre? Let me explain.

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The Battle of the Big Beasts? Would an expanded MVD give the FSB a run for its money?

Time for bigger dogs?

Time for bigger dogs?

A report in RBK suggests that the Federal Anti-Drug Service (FSKN) and the Federal Migration Service (FMS) are to be rolled into the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Meanwhile (and this is an idea which has been floated before) former Putin bodyguard and judo sparring partner Viktor Zolotov will become the new Minister of Internal Affairs. Current minister Kolokoltsev is, after all, too much of a professional and too little of a close Putin crony for such a crucial position, the thinking goes, despite his recent efforts to reinvent himself as a populist authoritarian of sorts.

The official logic would be to save money through efficiency savings. Maybe, though rarely does that actually happen when any government makes this claim. The FSKN has done, in my opinion, an at best mediocre job, not least as its determination to focus on interdiction and destruction of the supply-side (at which, incidentally, it has failed) has also derailed efforts to address the demand, and Russia is now the world’s largest per-capita heroin market. Its main preoccupation often seems rather empire-building (even wanting its own external intelligence role) and turf wars with other agencies. But whether rolled into the MVD or not (and this might at least address some of the jurisdictional issues which do arise between the FSKN and the police), there will still be an FSKN-like agency. With the FMS, the logic is even less apparent, although with the growing public disquiet about foreign migrants and workers, it is likely to become a more politically-significant (and thus fraught) body; the FMS may be in for a rough time ahead of it, but it will certainly be in the public eye.

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