Vladimir Putin on May 24th gave his National Guard the right to assume control over and give orders to military units as may be necessary in the course of “fulfilling tasks laid on National Guard forces,” a grant of power that may reflect or will trigger conflicts among the siloviki, Ruslan Gorevoy says.
Indeed, the Versiya commentator says, there has been “nothing like this” in Russian history; and “it is impossible to imagine that the oprichniki would have been given command of the military forces of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, the gendarmes over the Russian Imperial army or officers of the NKVD over Red Army men.”
For the military, such “subordination” is simultaneously “a humiliation and a challenge,” Gorevoy says; and that fact which promises no good for the future prompts the question: “why did the powers that be take such a step?”
The answer, he suggests, lies not only in the nature of the Russian Guard but also in the possible purposes to which it can be put. [quote]In briefest terms, the Russian Guard is “a militarized formation subordinate directly to the chief of state intended to guarantee society’s security and the territorial integrity of the country.”[/quote]
It has its roots in the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible’s times, the gendarmie of tsarist ones, and the NKVD forces in Soviet times, Gorevoy says. But just as those forces were used in various ways for various purposes so too the Russian Guard may be used variously – and thus one must examine what commentators are saying about it.
Yury Baluyevsky, who advises the commander of the Russian Guard, said recently that “the main threats to the security of Russia are not from the outside but internal. The Russian Guard was created not for suppressing but for preventing the rash actions of those who by rocking the boat intend to lead the state to a situation like the one [in] Libya, Syria and Ukraine.”
That suggests that the Russian Guard is above all about domestic security; and “it is instructive that in the defense ministry [which bears primary responsibility for defending the country in the international arena] there has not been able demonstrative reaction to the presidential decree.”
According to military expert Aleksandr Golts, the powers that be plan to respond to any protests with “military force,” a plan that makes shifting military units to the command of the Russian Guard understandable, especially given the reluctance of officers and soldiers to shoot at fellow Russians, something the Guard may be required to do.
But there may be more to this Putin order than just that, Gorevoy suggests. It may be a way to take defense minister Sergey Shoygu down a peg given recent polls that show him ranking second to Putin in the estimations of the country’s population. That would be analogous to how Stalin used Lavrenty Beria at one point.
Indeed, as Gorevoy has said before, it could be that Putin is insuring himself against a military coup, such as may have been under discussion last year among Baltic Fleet officers who were suddenly and inexplicably removed from office in ways “not in the style of Putin or Shoygu” (versia.ru and fontanka.ru).
There is yet another possibility, although even Gorevoy says it is improbable, one that has its roots in Ivan the Terrible’s decision to cede power for a time and then return. Historian Ruslan Skrynnikov argues that this move reflected a crisis in the state and uncertainty how to “preserve the appearance of legality in the state” while rebuilding oprichnik power.
Could Putin be planning something similar by using the Russian Guard and its commander as his apparent successor? Gorevoy reminds that he earlier predicted that the Guard could be “a super-ministry headed by a super-president.” And he cites Sergey Parkhomenko as saying the head of the Russian Guard could play exactly this kind of role, at least for a time.