The puzzle of Putin’s insecurity: Praetorian guards, Stalinist blueprints
24 May 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Harald

Churchill’s famous line, ‘Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,’ refers to Stalin’s totalitarian empire. Taken out of context it reinforces a national myth, etched in every Russian mind by the poet Tyutchev: ‘Russia defeats the human mind’. That’s claptrap, yet aspects of contemporary Russia seem deeply puzzling.

Why should a man who has ruled Russia for almost 17 years and who, polls suggest, is trusted by 80% of his compatriots and apparently adored by some; who faces no challenge to his authority, and whose political admirers apparently include Xi Jinping, Trump, Le Pen, Farage, Orban, and Tsipras—why should Vladimir Putin repeatedly take steps that suggest he feels acutely threatened?

On 5 April, Putin decreed the formation of a National Guard, ostensibly to combat terrorism, extremism and organised crime, responsible to him directly, and only to him. The move prompted puzzlement in Russia itself, because Russia already has a Centre for Combatting Terrorism (headed by the FSB, the KGB’s domestic successor); a Special Rapid Response Group (SOBR) against organized crime; 182,000 ‘internal troops’; and 15-18,000 trained riot-police (OMON).

What’s more, Putin already has a personal guard, the FSO. Its size is a state secret but Sweden’s Defence Research Agency estimates its strength at 20–30,000. Estimates of the size of the new National Guard, expected to be drawn from the various forces listed above, vary from 180,000 to nearly 430,000. The higher figure, almost half the size of Russia’s army, seems unlikely. Putin appointed his former personal bodyguard and judo-sparring partner, Viktor Zolotov, to head it

Some of Putin’s cohort of securocrats—the heads of Russia’s phalanx of security agencies—have a clear explanation for the move: Russia, they say, is under constant and intense attack from ‘the US and its allies’ who are prosecuting a ‘hybrid war’ against it. Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, asserts that US hostility to Russia is not a result of tensions that wax and wane but is ‘systemic’.

Last month another lieutenant, Alexander Bastrykin, gave an even more fervid explanation in a newspaper article. Once Putin’s fellow student in Leningrad, Bastrykin heads the Investigative Committee, an agency set up by Putin in 2011 that, like the National Guard, reports to him and has no equivalent in the liberal democracies. Given that the State Prosecutor achieves a 99% conviction rate, the need for the Investigative Committee was unclear. But Bastrykin acts as a kind of super prosecutor-general prosecuting fictitious cases against Kremlin betes noires.

Bastrykin has a record of thuggish behaviour. In June 2012 he was compelled—on orders from above—to apologise to a journalist after a newspaper editor revealed that Bastrykin had kidnapped the journalist, threatened his life and joked that he would take charge of the investigation into his death.

Bastrykin’s message to his readers is stark: Russia faces a present and acute danger from crimes of terrorism and extremism that are being fomented and funded by ‘the US and its allies’, together with the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda.

‘Over the past decade Russia…has been subjected to a so-called hybrid war, unleashed by the US and its allies…prosecuted by various means: political, economic, informational and legal,’ he asserts. So resolute counter-measures are imperative and urgently required.

‘Enough of pseudo-democracy, dictated by pseudo-liberal values.’ China’s methods in censoring the Internet and controlling the media should be applied in Russia. ‘Falsifying historical facts and distorting contemporary events’ should become criminal offences. The families of terrorists should have their property confiscated—recalling the collective punishment of the families of ‘enemies of the people’ under Stalin.

So, another puzzle: why would a senior judicial officer, who isn’t a member of the National Security Council, proffer a policy blueprint, and one that seems to imply the President has toyed too long with pseudo-democracy and failed to ensure the country’s security?

It seems inconceivable that Bastrykin could have published his chilling diatribe without a nod from the President’s Secretariat, especially as the last time a Putin lieutenant used the media to air a grievance he was dismissed. Is the neo-Stalinist manifesto by the country’s most senior ‘legal officer’, in a newspaper aimed at the elite and the new middle class, a warning from the top that any disloyalty would be extremely unwise?

As well as decreeing a new praetorian guard, Putin appears to be reshuffling his top echelon, rusticating one of his longest serving lieutenants, Viktor Ivanov, who first recruited Putin to the KGB, and abolishing the Federal Drug Control Service that Ivanov headed.

Given that politics everywhere is about power and money; that in Russia both depend ultimately on Putin’s favour; and that even the Russian security agencies must compete for fast shrinking funds, the article smacks of a bid by Bastrykin to preserve his job and standing.

Presumably the explanation is some or all of the above.

What’s plain is that Russia’s present supremo perceives his interests being served by mobilising the populace with the spectre of ‘the US and its allies’ waging an undeclared war against the Russian people and collaborating with Daesh and al-Qaeda in planning acts of extremism and terrorism in Russia.

Whether Putin and his inner circle’s sleep really is disturbed by fears of foreign attack or subversion from within remains hidden. Setting up another and large internal security force, and authorising a call for overtly Stalinist methods against a putative new generation of enemies of the people, looks like paranoia. But for Putin such measures presumably amount to sound governance.