Putin’s new National Guard – what does it say when you need your own personal army?

The idea of creating a National Guard (NG) for Russia bringing together public security forces under a single command has been raised periodically and always abandoned for very good reasons, not least the lack of any apparent need to have a Praetorian Guard on steroids. In 2012, for example, I didn’t think it likely: it would upend the balance of power within the security agencies, create a monster, and not really meet any true security need.

So what does it say that Putin today announced that such a natsgvardiya was going to be formed? After a meeting with security luminaries include MVD Interior Troops commander (and new NG head) Viktor Zolotov – a trusted ex-bodyguard – he announced [my translation]:

Decisions have been made: we are creating a new federal executive body on the basis of the Interior Troops – creating the National Guard, which will handle the fight against terrorism, the fight against organised crime, and in close cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, will continue to perform those functions which are [currently] performed by the OMON (riot police), SOBR (SWAT) and so on.

We will arrange, as we discussed with the Interior Minister [Vladimir Kolokoltsev], not only in the decree, but in a future federal law, so that there will be no discord in order to get everything working smoothly and clearly. I hope very much that the troops of the National Guard will effectively perform their tasks, as has been the case up now, and that they will strengthen the work on the areas that are considered priorities.

The NG will thus also take over the OMON and SOBR, making it a powerful paramilitary security force, with elements right across the country.

Meanwhile, the Federal Drugs Control Service (FSKN) and Federal Migration Service (FMS) will be brought under the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), albeit remaining separate services. (Again, an idea which had been mooted before.) This may be a consolation prize for Kolokoltsev but appears, unsurprisingly, to have been a bitter pill for FSKN chief Viktor Ivanov, moving from independent director to ministerial subordinate.

The creation of a National Guard is a big deal. We await details, but here are a few first observations:

1. No discussion, no lead time. As with so many crucial decisions, this came essentially unheralded, underlining the extent to which policy comes from a small, tight circlearound Putin. It is not just that they have good operational security; they also clearly see no reason to prepare the public in advance. This is just the way politics goes these days.

2. Big worries in a little circle. There is no real reason for creating the NG out of the Interior Troops (VV) and other forces unless you have a serious worry about public unrest. Let’s be clear, whatever Putin says the militarised security forces of the VV and now NG have little real role fighting crime or terrorism; they are public security forces, riot and insurrection control and deterrence assets. The OMON and SOBR do play a certain role, but detaching them from the investigations elements of the MVD actually reduces their value in fighting crime. (And the MVD will likely have to recreate some kind of SWAT forces of its own.)

3. Putin’s Own. The NG, as a federal agency, will be directly subordinated to the government, without a minister in the way. With Zolotov at its head, then it is even more clearly a personal, presidential Praetorian force, under a maximalist loyalist. This may not only be a force to keep the masses in check, but also the elite.

4. Upsetting the power ministry balance. In the past, there was a key desire to retain a degree of balance between the various security agencies. The MVD has now been weakened (and having the FMS and FSKN is by no means enough of a recompense), and the Federal Security Service (FSB) has a more direct rival in the domestic security stakes.

5. I see from the text of the law that FGUP Okhrany, the private security corporation of the MVD, is being transferred to the NG. This is a major blow to the MVD, as it made quite a bit of revenue for them. It also raises questions about the future of the Vnevedomstvennaya okhrana, the police’s private security department, which was often a good way for cops to do some paid overtime and eke out their salaries. Will they still be able to do this? If not, then that may well be a further encouragement to more petty and predatory corruption by cops seeing their real wages shrink (as bonuses have also already been cut) and options legally to make up the shortfall vanish…

The origins of Donetsk separatism

Donetsk separatism only truly became a noticeable problem in 2014. Until then, almost no one believed that it existed.

Crimea was long considered the only potentially dangerous region in this regard. A certain degree of Donbas isolation was acknowledged, but this was initially written off as the result of machinations by oligarchic clans who sought to turn the local population against other regions of Ukraine and reaffirm the myth of the Donbas as the nation’s leading breadwinner.

This was partly true; these clans are still able to divide and to rule. They skilfully directed the wrath of the Donbas’ depressed mining communities against similarly disenfranchised workers from western Ukraine. While average people squabbled with each other on the Internet, the clans were quietly appropriating the Donetsk region’s industries. However, the very same Party of Regions officials from Donetsk and Luhansk who convinced their electorates that the Donbas is a “special region” with the right to occupy a dominant position in Ukraine were more often themselves the captives of stereotypes.

Donetsk separatism existed long before it was popularized by the Party of Regions. It is not about “Donetsk–Kryviy Rih Soviet Republic,” whose existence was noted only by the Bolsheviks who invented it and Donetsk native Volodymyr Kornilov, who wrote a book on it. In the USSR, the Donbas showed no discernible desire for independence. The first signs of separatism appeared in the mining regions at the end of the 1980s before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, this phenomenon was primarily economic and not national in origin.

Solidarity became the foundation of the Donetsk miners’ separatism. The popular assertion that “Donbas feeds the entire country” originated among them. The profession had been heroized in the 1920s-30s, with the mine worker portrayed by official propaganda as a true Atlas on whose shoulders rested the economic power of the whole country. And as the Donbas was a major coal mining region of the Soviet Union, its residents, of course, overflowed with a sense of self-worth. It was here that the saying “miners are the guardians of labour”was coined; it was here that the legendary Soviet miner Alexey Stakhanov set his world record; it was the Donbas that a famous Soviet poster named “the heart of Russia”.

Miners strike, Donetsk 1998
Miners strike, Donetsk 1998

Inspirational newspaper editorials about Donbas miners were common until the late 1970s when the region achieved its peak for coal production. Coal output has been decreasing ever since. After the discovery of huge oil fields in Siberia, the Soviet fuel and energy industry began switching from coal to oil and gas. Priorities and investments changed. For the next two decades, the holdings of Donbas coal mining companies remained practically unchanged, with mines continuing to operate without renovation. In the 1980s the coal industry of the Ukrainian SSR inevitably deteriorated, hitting a crisis at the end of the decade that resulted in massive strikes.

Agitators for Narodniy Rukh successfully exploited the miners’ discontent to convince the population of the Ukrainian SSR that Ukraine was the economic engine of the Soviet Union and it was dragging backward regions along. These words resonated with the miners, who were also convinced that “our backs bend while Moscow rests”. Rather than demanding regional autonomy for the Donbas, they wanted greater economic independence for the Ukrainian SSR so that money would remain in Ukraine, and pushed the Parliament to adopt a law to that effect. Thus, for these economic reasons, they voted for Ukraine’s independence in the referendum of 1991. Until recently, many patriotic Ukrainians regarded the Donbas workers’ support for independence as a sign of their increased national consciousness.However, the workers were not in fact moved by patriotism, but rather a desire to keep mining revenues closer to home.

Just two years later, the mood in the Donbas changed dramatically. Prosperity did not follow the collapse of the USSR, and the economic crisis of the late 1980s gave way to the horrors of the early 1990s. In 1993, strikes broke out once more in the region, and again the miners demanded regional autonomy—only this time from Kyiv. As in 1989, they were convinced that their hard work was simply feeding parasites, only now the subjects of their discontent were not the peoples of Central Asia and Moscow, but the residents of Kyiv and Western Ukraine. One of the organizers of the strike was Yukhym Zviahilskyi, a long-time MP, member of the Party of Regions more recently, and a red director, who skilfully manipulated the coal miners’ discontent while simultaneously convincing the authorities that he was helping to resolve the conflict. In the wake of the protests, he moved to Kyiv and was appointed the first Vice Prime Minister. As a result, the fire was gradually extinguished with his help, yet the political demands for Donbas’ regional autonomy remained unsatisfied.

However, the Donetsk elite did not abandon the idea of separatism, and continued to agitate the situation. In 1994, together with the parliamentary elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, an event occurred that some called a “local referendum” and others a “deliberative poll”. By law, it was not possible to conduct a referendum, so another term was officially used. The survey consisted of four items, the first of which concerned the government of Ukraine. Donbas residents were asked if they would support federation as well as granting official status to the Russian language.

This event was organized in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by “regional advisory commissions for the deliberative polling of citizens”, which were at the command of regional deputies. The “referendum” was a pre-election move. Ukraine held both parliamentary and presidential elections in 1994, and local elections were held in the Donbas region. After the elections, the results of the “referendum” were no longer mentioned. It is difficult to say how accurate they were, but 80% voted for the federalization of the Donbas at the time.

Protesters in Luhansk against government Berkut forces, 1998
Protesters in Luhansk against government Berkut forces, 1998

Separatist slogans were once again commonplace during the many miners’ strikes in 1996-1998, but the movement never seriously took shape. Once Viktor Yanukovych had taken office as Prime Minister for the first time in 2002, the Donetsk clan ceased to play the separatism card, expecting that all of Ukraine would soon be in their hands and there was no longer any sense in blackmailing Kyiv. After Yanukovych’s career had taken off, separatist agitation declined significantly, even giving way to patriotic rhetoric. Regional elites were quite willing to love Ukraine if the country lived by Donetsk’s rules. But after the failure of the 2004 elections, Yanukovych’s regional separatism again received a major boost.

Unfortunately, all this time the central government in Kyiv failed to take measures to combat the virus of separatism in Donbas. The result of this failure became visible in the tragic events of 2014.

By: Denys Kazanskyi

Motyl: A Russian Threat to Ukraine?

Imagine two possible scenarios: (1) a full-scale invasion of all, most, or much of Ukraine and (2) a limited invasion of one or two provinces of Ukraine. In both instances, the point would presumably be annexation, occupation, or longer-term control…(full article)

In this article, Alexander J. Motyl examines the political implications and consequences of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The article gives a revealing overview of what could potentially happen in this oft spoken scenario. Of note, of course, are the absolute negatives to such a scenario:

what would the international consequences of a large-scale invasion be? Remember: such a move would mean a crass and blatant violation of every single international norm regarding state behavior. Ukraine poses no threat to Russia. It possesses no weapons of mass destruction and houses no anti-Russian terrorists. An invasion would be just that—an invasion, a blatant aggression, an imperialist land-grab. In violating United Nations norms, the Helsinki Final Act, the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and every other postwar accord, Russia would be declaring itself a rogue state. Its ability to play a great-power role as an international mediator would be shot. Its relations with China, Turkey, Europe, and the United States would go into nosedive. A cold war would be likely. North Korea might cheer, and the some on the American left might develop elaborate pro-imperialist justifications, but most of the world would condemn Russia. The rogue state would inevitably become a pariah state.

Read more at Alexander J. Motyl’s blog