“What’s next?” ask those close to Russia’s pinnacle of power as an eventful political season gets underway. President Vladimir Putin’s first response to this time of uncertainty has been to order the creation of a new National Guard. 

On April 5, Putin introduced draft legislation in parliament that will set up a new powerful body out of existing Interior Ministry forces, staffed by 170,000 men. The move introduces a new powerful force into Russia’s security system, one that will be directly loyal to the president himself, and also helps Putin resolve issues with several personalities in the elite. 

The National Guard is literally the president’s army. It can be deployed within the constraints of the constitution and without the involvement of the defense minister, and it will have the fundamentally important role of enforcing a state of emergency at a time of crisis. Its new head is Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and adjutant, who last year was given the rank of army general.  

The background to this move is a perception over the past year that the Kremlin has not given Russia’s elite a clear sense of direction and that the country has been becoming more turbulent. Different clans, groups, and temporary allies had begun waging a war of all against all. The developing economic crisis made this conflict all the stronger. The result was a wave of criminal cases and smear campaigns. Lawyers and businessmen who had been involved in the proverbial political “bulldogs fighting under a carpet” were murdered. There was one major political assassination, that of liberal leader Boris Nemtsov.

Putin was able to tolerate this situation last year. But this year brings parliamentary elections and promises big changes, which could create unacceptable risks for the Russian president. That is why he has shaken up the security ministries overnight while also resolving several important political and managerial issues. 

One clear aim is to check any potential political ambitions on the part of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Alongside Putin himself, Shoigu was the man who derived the most political benefit from the crises in Ukraine and Syria. Together with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he is the best-known minister in the Russian government. 

Shoigu is a mysterious personality. Some people say that he has and had no political ambitions. Others say just the opposite, that Shoigu is a Stalin-in-waiting who wants to start a political career when the right moment comes along. The fact that he is an outsider to all Kremlin groups makes him a potential threat to the Kremlin. He makes use of the strong status the constitution confers on the post of defense minister and has displayed a stubborn streak, as when he allegedly blocked the Kremlin’s desire to restore Alexei Dyumin to the job of deputy defense minister. 

In this respect, Zolotov, the new head of the National Guard, can serve as an anti-Shoigu, a counterbalance to a popular and sometimes too independent minister.

The formation of a new agency also helps Putin solve the problem of his old friend Viktor Ivanov, who was until recently head of the Federal Drug Control Service (FDCS) and the patriarch of a KGB clan in the Kremlin. Ivanov had served Putin for many years, but he had become a controversial figure and his agency had become an expensive luxury whose functions overlapped with those of several other security agencies. As part of the restructuring, the FDCS was liquidated and Ivanov relieved of his post—although he is likely to be given another senior job.

The formation of the National Guard changes the balance of powers among all of Russia’s security agencies. The reform preserves the sensitive balance between the two major interior bodies in charge of domestic security—the FSB, the counter-intelligence service that is heir to the KGB, and the Interior Ministry. For the past four years, the FSB had been getting more powerful and risked becoming a mega-agency with effective control of the police force. That would have been an undesirable scenario for Putin.

Now the National Guard has emerged as a third force. It has no authority to carry out criminal investigation and no particular powers specified in the Criminal Code, but it has a monopoly on the use of the “muscles” of the other two security agencies.

The last but not least reason for the formation of a new security agency is the need to tackle a problem that was first noted by political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky last year. This is that there are two uncontrolled armies inside Russia. One is the mass of officers of various private security companies and the other consists of almost 10 million Russian citizens with gun licenses, primarily for the purposes of hunting. The National Guard has now taken on the authority to license private security companies and to control weapons throughout the country. The president, assisted by his new army, is taking on the role of chief controller and arbiter of the non-state market in violence. 

To use the language of business, the current security sector reform is all about restoring balance and restructuring assets. Putin has removed toxic and risky individuals. He has redistributed power in the security sector and taken personal control of the part of it that may play a decisive role in the country in the next two years. 

Next, the same thing will happen in the civilian sphere. Along with the coming elections, we can expect administrative reform of the government and the non-security ministries and a new economic agenda. There may also be a period in the late fall when we see some abrupt political moves on Putin’s part after the elections. 

From a broader perspective, we can see that power and big money in Russia are gradually being transferred to members of the second generation of Putin’s elite, such as Governor of Tula Alexei Dyumin and banker Dmitry Patrushev, the son of the head of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. 

The fathers are busy settling up old debts, cleaning skeletons out of their cupboards, and building a political system constructed around personal guarantees and peace, because they can’t bequeath war and chaos to the sons. The end point of this long and complex transfer of power from one generation of the elite to another will be the transfer of supreme presidential power in the country when Putin eventually steps down.

  • Konstantin Gaaze