You’d think a ruthless autocrat who believes he faces a West that wants to unseat him with people power would make damn sure he keeps his Praetorian Guard on side. You’d think. After all, it has long been one of the Kremlin’s tenets that the West is committed to first isolating and then reshaping Russia using a ‘colour revolution’ or ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy. The idea is that popular revolutions and street protests are mobilised and weaponised by the dark arts of Western ‘political technologists’, with military force only deployed as a last resort.
Rising against post-Soviet authoritarians? The protests against rigged elections in Russia and Putin’s return to the presidency in 2011-13? The Syrian Civil War? The Ukrainian ‘EuroMaidan’ revolution of 2014? The mass demonstrations against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2021?
None of these, of course, could be natural, organic responses to corrupt and unresponsive regimes. Instead, they were made in Langley, CIA operations in every case (although the Kremlin will generously single out MI6 for a supporting role).
In that context, no wonder Putin has been preparing for a fight against ‘fifth columnists’ for years. One of the main expressions of this was the creation of the Rosgvardiya, or National Guard, in 2016. What this meant was that some 180,000 security personnel (and as many private security guards) were transferred from an Interior Ministry that was beginning to show some discomfort at being expected to be the Kremlin’s stormtroopers into a new force under General Viktor Zolotov, a man who could be counted on to show none.
Zolotov, after all, was a former chief bodyguard of Putin’s, and a man notorious for his thuggish ways. When opposition activist Alexei Navalny had the temerity to expose corruption in the National Guard, Zolotov even recorded a video challenging him to a duel and threatening to ‘pound him into mincemeat’. Zolotov has no power base outside the National Guard, no allies (beyond Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s even more thuggish warlord), no political career without Putin.
The National Guard includes the SOBR specialist armed response teams, the parallel army of the Interior Troops and the OMON riot police. They are the regime’s thick blue line in the face of popular protest, and no wonder that until recently they were feted and pampered. Pay rises, special perks, generous budgets, whatever Zolotov wanted, they got.
The invasion of Ukraine, though, has begun to put even this symbiosis under pressure. Putin’s wildly-unrealistic assumption was that the Ukrainian government would collapse at the first push, and a puppet regime appointed in its place. Most Ukrainians, he felt, would meekly accept this fait accompli. Nonetheless, there would be some who would protest, and so substantial numbers of National Guard drawn from all across Russia were included in the invasion force to handle the public order side of the operation.
Of course, it didn’t work out like that, and the National Guardsmen found themselves in the front line of a war they were neither trained nor equipped to fight. Their casualties have been as dramatic as those of the regular military and their social media channels have featured litanies of complaints about their being used as ‘cannon-fodder.’
This has burst into the public gaze as 12 National Guardsmen from Krasnodar have refused to be sent to Ukraine. They have opened a legal case on the grounds that their contracts do not allow them to be sent outside Russia’s borders without their consent.
Perhaps most striking has been the reported arrest of General Roman Gavrilov, Zolotov’s deputy, on charges of leaking classified information and embezzling fuel. Zolotov apparently sought an immediate audience with the president to challenge this and Putin – who has a track record of ducking tough meetings – refused to see him.
Although it is still very premature to be talking about palace coups or the like, as the security apparatus begins to consume itself with the hunt for scapegoats and ‘traitors’ then this raises an inevitable challenge for a regime which increasingly depends solely on repression.
The National Guard would be at the fore in defending the Kremlin against elite manoeuvres and popular protest alike. Letting them fight and die in Ukraine, watching them becoming increasingly disillusioned and angry, and hollowing out their command structure, would look like a rather self-destructive strategy.
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