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Putin's New National Guard Strengthens His Grip on Security as Russian Economy Falters

Coming ahead of parliamentary elections in September, the move may signal growing anxiety in the Kremlin about the potential for civil unrest as a collapse in oil prices pushes millions of Russians into poverty.

by Greg Walters
Apr 7 2016, 9:00pm

Photo via Reuters

During a televised appearance this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement declaring the creation of a new National Guard, which will be headed by his former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov.

"A decision has been made," Putin remarked on Tuesday, seated at a table with Zolotov and Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Russia's minister of internal affairs. "We are creating a new federal body on the basis of Interior Ministry troops: the National Guard."

The National Guard will draw troops from the ranks of the Interior Ministry, answer directly to the Russian president, and be tasked with "the protection of public order," according to a statement posted on the Kremlin web site.

"It will take on the fight against terrorism and the fight against organized crime in close cooperation with the Interior Ministry," said Putin.

But the timing of move ahead of parliamentary elections in September may signal growing anxiety in the Kremlin about the potential for civil unrest as a collapse in oil prices pushes millions of Russians into poverty. Analysts said the initiative seemed more likely to be aimed at shoring up Kremlin control of domestic security rather than addressing terrorism and crime.

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"It's a kind of Praetorian guard to deal with the internal enemy," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow, referring to the Roman imperial bodyguard. "It reminds me of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. We see an aging emperor appointing his bodyguard chief of everything."

Russian National Guard troops will have the right to shoot without warning in response to perceived security threats, according draft legislation taken up by Russia's State Duma, Russian newswire Interfax reported.

'Of course he's paranoid. Anyone who's been sitting in the Kremlin that long will get paranoid.'

The new body will take over functions previously managed by the OMON riot police and SOBR rapid-reaction forces, the Kremlin said.

"Let's be clear, whatever Putin says," Mark Galeotti, professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, wrote in a post on his blog, In Moscow's Shadows. "[National guard] forces have little real role fighting crime or terrorism; they are public security forces, riot and insurrection control and deterrence assets."

"This is linked to the election cycle," said Konstantin Gaaze, a Moscow-based political analyst and journalist. "Putin wants to make sure the situation that took place on the Maidan, in Ukraine, won't happen in Russia," he added, referring to demonstrations in downtown Kiev that ultimately toppled pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

"The surprise announcement signals that the Putin administration is worried about instability, in Russia as well as the Kremlin itself," US security and intelligence firm Stratfor said in an analysis following Putin's announcement. "This may suggest that the Russian president doubts whether other security forces — the FSB [Federal Security Service], Interior Ministry troops, or even the military — would remain loyal to him in the event of a coup."

Gaaze said the move may be an attempt to counter the rising profile of Sergei Shoygu, Russia's minister of defense, following perceived Russian military successes in Crimea and Syria.

"The minister of defense is getting extremely popular after Crimea and the Syrian campaign," Gaaze said. "Putin wants to have his own private army in his own hands.... He has to go through the minister of defense to control the regular army."

The Russian president's popularity has remained high, according to polling data, despite a grinding recession that began when oil lost half its value in late 2014 and Western countries slapped sanctions on Russia over its role in the conflict in neighboring Ukraine.

With parliamentary elections on the horizon and a presidential election in 2018, however, the establishment of the National Guard can be seen as another example of the Kremlin's take-no-chances approach to security amid concerns that Western nations may attempt to destabilize Russia.

On Thursday, Putin indicated that the Panama Papers leak into offshore tax havens that has implicated various of his associates was intended to do just that. The announcement of the new National Guard on Tuesday may in fact have been spurred by the Panama Papers scandal, Felgenhauer said.

Related: The VICE News Guide to the Panama Papers

Leaked documents from the Panamanian law Mossack Fonseca suggest, among other revelations, that a cellist and longtime friend of Putin named Sergei Roldugin secretly amassed a colossal offshore business empire, amid speculation that the fortune might be linked to Putin — a charge the Russian leader explicitly denied Thursday.

Reacting to the disclosure in a televised appearance, Putin called the leak an attempt to destabilize Russia by foreign adversaries.

"Our opponents are... worried about the unity and cohesiveness of the Russian nation and the multi-ethnic Russian society," Putin said. "This is why they are trying to destabilize us from the inside, to make us more malleable and to mold us in the way that they see fit. What is the easiest way to achieve this? It is to discredit authority and the government in the eyes of the people and to turn them against each other. This was successfully achieved during the tragic years of the first World War, when the country was led to disintegration. They are trying to do this today."

Russian officials have long accused Western governments of sponsoring revolutions in countries unfriendly to Washington, and the security officials in Moscow have vowed not to let revolution take hold in Russia.

"Of course he's paranoid," Felgenhauer said. "Anyone who's been sitting in the Kremlin that long will get paranoid."

But Felgenhauer pointed to a series of Western military interventions over the past two decades that have alarmed Russia, from attacks on Russian ally Serbia in the early 1990s to the invasion of Iraq and the bombings of Libya and Syria.

"They killed Saddam. They killed Qaddafi. Now they want to kill Assad," Felgenhauer said. "And Putin believes he may be next in line."

Meanwhile, Russia's economy is stuck in a punishing recession that has been steadily pushing more and more Russians into poverty.

On Wednesday, the World Bank predicted that "Russia's anticipated economic recovery has been delayed" following the "twin shocks" of lower oil prices and international sanctions caused the Russian economy to contract by 3.7 percent in 2015.

"The World Bank expects that the Russian economy faces a long journey to recovery," it said, forecasting that, in a baseline scenario, the country's economy will contract by 1.9 percent in 2016 before achieving growth of 1.1 percent in 2017.

The bank forecast that Russia's poverty rate would increase to 14.2 percent in 2016 from 13.4 percent in 2015. Last year, the number of Russia's poor rose by 3.1 million to 19.2 million people, the World Bank said.