Russia just got yet another security service. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of a Russian national guard. Officially, the new national guard will combat terrorism and organized crime and will take over riot and SWAT duties from the Interior Ministry's troops. But more than law enforcement or security concerns, the surprise announcement signals that the Putin administration is worried about instability, in Russia as well as the Kremlin itself.
Putin is not the first Russian president to propose the creation of a national guard. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, floated the idea in a 1991 New Year's Eve address. At the time, Yeltsin was a new president with a shallow political base and little loyalty among security circles. After 1993's so-called constitutional crisis, a failed coup attempt by the Russian parliament, Yeltsin revisited the proposition. During the standoff, pro-parliamentary paramilitary factions formed, and many of the internal troops defected to support the parliament. The Russian military stalled for two days before finally complying with Yeltsin's orders to send tanks and troops to storm the parliament building. Yeltsin never really trusted the military after that, leading him to resume discussion of a national guard.
In 1995, the newspaper Izvestia published leaked memos between Yeltsin's aides. According to the memos, Yeltsin had already drawn up the orders for the new force, envisioned to serve as his personal army in case of domestic uprisings. Russian media attributed Yeltsin's plans to his growing insecurity over the consolidation of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. The leaks further noted that Gen. Alexander Korzhakov would control the national guard. Korzhakov, Yeltsin's former bodyguard and head of the Presidential Security Service, was one of the few Russian security elites whom Yeltsin trusted personally. But despite recurring interest in a national guard, Yeltsin's administration lacked the strength to create one.
Similarly, this is not the first time Putin's administration has discussed a national guard. In 2012, amid months of mass protests over controversial parliamentary elections — and Putin's second re-election as president — rumors of a national guard resurfaced. And, as was the case under Yeltsin, the rumors fell by the wayside. The protests died down, and the new force was never realized.
Thus, the sudden decision to finally create a national guard indicates that the Kremlin is bracing for instability to come. The force's stated function rings hollow since the internal troops and police forces already exist to combat terrorism and organized crime. Instead, the initiative may anticipate the upcoming parliamentary elections, the first of their kind since the 2011 elections, which sparked political unrest. Although details concerning the guard's structure, size and deployment have yet to be announced, the force could serve as another means to suppress any disturbance stemming from the elections in September.
Alternatively, Putin, like Yeltsin, may intend to build the national guard as his own personal army. Without a specific and distinguishing function, the new guard would be yet another security force, sharing responsibilities with the internal troops and the FSB. Then again, the president has appointed Viktor Zolotov, commander of the internal troops, as commander of the new national guard, relieving him of his previous duties. Zolotov is Putin's former bodyguard and reportedly one of the president's most trusted loyalists — just as Korzhakov was for Yeltsin. By appointing Zolotov to head the national guard, Putin may have revealed the apparently redundant security force's true nature. As an added distinction, Zolotov was further propped up today with an appointment onto Russia's Security Council.
For years, Zolotov's rise has been a topic of great interest in Russia. During the 10 days Putin was reportedly "missing" in March 2015, the Russian rumor mill even reported that the FSB had assassinated Zolotov, an indication of his prominent role in the struggle between security elites. In calling for a national guard, and appointing Zolotov as its commander, Putin could be fortifying his administration against the threat of a coup. This may suggest that the Russian president doubts whether other security forces — the FSB, Interior Ministry troops or even the military — would remain loyal to him in the event of a coup. A keen student of Russian history, Putin may be trying to avoid the insecurity that his predecessor felt throughout his rule.