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ARMS AND THE MAN
On April 5, 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin did a most extraordinary thing—with the stroke of a pen he created his own personal army, 400,000 strong. To be known as the National Guard (and also as Rosguard), it will be staffed largely by troops from the Interior Ministry, including the fearsome OMON a mix of SWAT and riot police. Possessing nine battle tanks, thirty-five artillery pieces, twenty-nine airplanes, and seventy helicopters, the National Guard will be about half the size of Russia’s regular army and among the world’s ten largest. The guard was created by presidential decree without a scintilla of public discussion or debate, but, as one Russian commentator waggishly put it: “As is often the case in Russia, the creation of the National Guard was long anticipated, and therefore, caught everyone by surprise.”
Unlike any other part of the Russian administration from agriculture to space, the National Guard will not report to a minister but directly to Putin himself and so has already been dubbed Putin’s Praetorian Guard. Putin, of course, remains commander in chief of Russia’s armed forces, but as such he has to contend with an array of strong-minded generals and admirals, not to mention the highly popular minister of defense.
The National Guard is unique in reporting directly to Putin, and the man who will lead the National Guard and do that reporting, Viktor Zolotov, is considered unique in his loyalty to Putin. Whether based on demonstrated trust or complicity in crime or the acquisition of wealth, loyalty has always been of the essence for Putin. In a Darwinian society only loyalty stands as a bulwark against greed and violent ambition.
“When it comes to President Vladimir Putin’s personal trust, Viktor Zolotov has no peers,” wrote Mikhail Fishman in a Moscow Times article, “A Bigger Bludgeon.” Zolotov has all the basic characteristics to pass Stage One of Putin’s Loyalty Test. They are both from the same city, Leningrad, and from the working class, and they are of the same generation, less than two years apart in age. They even look somewhat alike, with very Russian blue-gray eyes that stare intently and allow no entry. Most important, they are both former KGB, and as Putin is wont to remark, there is no such thing as that.
Stage Two of Putin’s Loyalty Test is prolonged, close contact, especially in sharp and sudden situations when there is no time to dissemble and true colors come out. His relationship with Zolotov goes back to the early 1990s, when Zolotov was assigned to head up the bodyguard for the mayor of St. Petersburg and his deputy, Vladimir Putin, recently returned from five years of KGB service abroad in Dresden. Zolotov became Putin’s sparring partner in boxing and judo, attempting to punch or flip him when he was not ensuring his safety.
Between 2000 and 2013 Zolotov was chief of security for the president and the prime minister of Russia, both of which offices Putin would occupy in that time. Little is known about Zolotov, as befits a secret service chief, yet there are fascinating and ominous glimpses of him in Comrade J, the memoirs of Colonel Sergei Tretyakov, who ran foreign intelligence for Russia in the United States after the end of the Cold War.
Newly elected president Vladimir Putin was scheduled to attend the UN Millennium Summit in New York in the first week of September 2000. The deputy head of Putin’s advance team Aleksandr Lunkin was an old friend of Colonel Tretyakov’s, and pumped Tretyakov for information about Zolotov. Lunkin recounted a conversation between Zolotov and an associate trying to decide which of Putin’s rivals and enemies should be assassinated to better secure the new president’s hold on power. Methods were discussed—how to make the killings look like a Mafia hit or the work of a Chechen terrorist. But one killing would necessitate another, the targets ranging from political figures to members of the press corps who might investigate the crimes. After much serious consideration, Zolotov concluded: “There are too many. It’s too many to kill—even for us.”
When, Zolotov himself, accompanied by a general, arrived in New York for a final security review, Colonel Tretyakov took the three of them to the popular Tatiana Café in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. There Zolotov bragged about the superiority of the Russian secret service—its use of multiple armored limousines in a motorcade so an assassin wouldn’t know which one bore the president, the quality of the weapons used by his “Men in Black,” so called because of their black suits and black sunglasses. Those weapons included Gyurza pistols whose magazines contained eighteen bullets that could penetrate bulletproof vests from more than fifty yards away and also portable “Wasp” rocket launchers. Each man in the presidential guard was also an expert in martial arts, added Zolotov, and could kill with a single blow.
To demonstrate his point, Zolotov, without a word of warning, struck Tretyakov in the temple, knocking him unconscious to the floor. He came around a few seconds later, the general yelling: “You could have killed him!”
That may have been the tipping point for Colonel Tretyakov, who defected a month later to the United States, for which he had been covertly working for three years and which paid him more than $2 million, the highest sum any defector had ever received.
Officially, among the National Guard’s several functions, the most important would seem to be “countering terrorism and extremism,” categories that can cover a multitude of sins, especially the latter. Yet the real purpose of Putin’s personal guard is to prevent Putin’s personal nightmare scenario from becoming a reality. That scenario has several interlocking elements: military pressure from Russia’s chief enemies, which, as in the Cold War, are again NATO and the United States; an information war by those same enemies designed to create unrest among the populace, leading to a Russian equivalent of Ukraine’s uprising; and maintenance of the sanctions and, in the Kremlin’s view, the deliberate keeping of oil prices low to bring Russia to its knees, since economic suffering will only exacerbate the discontent of workers, some of whom have received no salaries for months. Economic pain and social turmoil will set the stage for a palace coup by ambitious officials and oligarchs disgruntled because Putin has gone from making them money to costing them money. In that worst-case scenario Putin is dragged through the streets like Qaddafi.
The creation of the National Guard, a sort of national secret service, is the sign of a person feeling vulnerable, not one brimming with confidence. So it was probably no coincidence that the American guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook was buzzed dangerously close by two Russian Su-24 bombers in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Kaliningrad on April 12, 2016, a week after the decree creating the National Guard. That this is an area where Russia feels particularly vulnerable was demonstrated two days later when a U.S. reconnaissance jet was buzzed by a Russian fighter. It came close to creating an incident. Secretary of State John Kerry called the behavior “reckless,” “provocative,” and “dangerous,” adding that “under the rules of engagement that could have been a shoot-down.” A Russian official responded: “We will continue to use force to prevent any attempts by foreigners to come close to our borders. If they blink, we will shoot them down without a second’s hesitation.”
The Baltic states—Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—as well as Poland were particularly alarmed by the Russian annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine. They all have long memories of Russian occupation and oppression under tsars and Communists. Some, like the city of Narva in Estonia, would seem ripe for the plucking. Narva is 94 percent Russian-speaking and 82 percent ethnic Russia. Fewer than half its residents are even citizens of Estonia. In Narva on February 24, 2015, during a parade that included U.S. troops and armored vehicles, the Estonian prime minister said: “Narva is a part of NATO no less than New York or Istanbul, and NATO defends every square meter of its territory.”
The irony is that Poland and the Baltic states really have nothing to worry about—Putin is happy to rattle the populace and humiliate NATO from time to time, but he has no vital interests there for which he would be willing to risk a confrontation with NATO. On the contrary, it is Putin himself who feels most vulnerable in the Baltic region.
Russia has a fleet at every point of the compass. The Northern Fleet, near Murmansk in the Arctic, and the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok have always been secure. The southern Black Sea Fleet was secured with the annexation of Crimea; until then its use was ultimately dependent on the pleasure of the government in Kiev. It is the Baltic Fleet, which operates out of the Russian exclave province of Kaliningrad, that is the most unprotected. What Russia fears most—being surrounded by NATO—has already happened in Kaliningrad, a piece of Russia about the size of Connecticut, totally disconnected from the “mainland” and encircled by Poland and Lithuania.
Oddly enough, though surrounded by NATO in Kaliningrad, the Russians don’t seem the least cowed. In fact, they’ve used the area quite aggressively. Both President Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev have threatened to place missiles there, including some with nuclear warheads, in response to U.S. plans to install missile defense systems in Eastern Europe beginning with Romania, operational as of May 2016, to be followed by Poland in 2017. Russia launched live-fire war games in Kaliningrad right after the invasion of Crimea; the Poles and Lithuanians were so shaken that they invoked Article 4 of the NATO charter, which calls for consultation when “territorial integrity, political independence or security” is threatened.
But Kaliningrad is not so much Russia’s extended fist as its Achilles’ heel.
The Kremlin fears that the West can question the validity of Kaliningrad’s belonging to Russia. The original agreements about the postwar boundaries of Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union were set out in the Potsdam Agreement of 1945. Those agreements were provisional and only became final forty-five years later, on September 12, 1990, with the signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with respect to Germany. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum the Russians agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when Kiev surrendered its nuclear weapons. If Crimea can be an exception to that agreement, why can’t Kaliningrad be an exception to the Final Settlement? This is a pressure the West could bring to bear.
In fact, Russia believes that its sovereign control of Kaliningrad is already under assault by the West.
Kaliningrad itself has already become an active front in the information war, though it isn’t clear how much Russia’s “enemy” is actually firing. Yet the counteroffensive is being waged on the highest levels. The governor of the province has said: “It’s no secret that Western intelligence agencies are carrying out operations for a Ukrainian-style revolution in Kaliningrad.”
Those Western operations take many forms, many of them seemingly small and innocuous, like “creeping Germanization”—demanding that the historical name of the city, Königsberg, be sometimes used or that the region’s five-hundred-year history as part of Prussia and its being the birthplace of the philosopher Immanuel Kant not be entirely downplayed. But Germany has not evinced the slightest desire to reclaim this territory, which no longer has any ethnic Germans. And so: “Senior Russian intellectuals and officials have gone on record saying they strongly believe that Washington has secretly approved of the transfer of Kaliningrad to Lithuania.” Fear of outside agitators uniting forces with a “fifth column” inside Kaliningrad is rife.
Pressure on regions like Kaliningrad is one way of raising tensions within Russia; maintaining the sanctions and artificially keeping the price of oil low are another. Proof that Putin respects sanctions is that he chose to inflict economic, not military, pain on Turkey when it shot down a Russian jet that strayed into Turkish territory in November 2015.
But if Putin were merely worried about unpaid workers and an unhappy middle class taking to the streets, he could easily have left the OMON riot police and other troops as part of the Interior Ministry and not created an entirely new entity, the National Guard. The creation of a “superpower agency can be considered as the official recognition of the significance of a new threat—the threat of the internal enemy,” to quote a recent article from one of Russia’s still fairly free newspapers.
Who exactly is that internal enemy? The National Guard’s mandate to counterterrorism and extremism has some relevance here because many Chechen rebels have already pledged their allegiance to the ISIS caliphate, and from the Kremlin’s point of view, people like opposition leader Alexei Navalny are at best just this side of extreme. But even though those are real concerns for Putin, especially as jihadists with Russian passports begin returning home from Syria, it’s not what was foremost in his mind when creating the National Guard.
That creation was meant as a signal both to specific individuals and to the power elite as a class. The minister of the interior was humbled and humiliated by losing so much of his forces to Putin’s National Guard. The Federal Security Bureau (FSB), successor to the KGB, also lost much of its mandate to the National Guard, terrorism especially having been its purview. For Putin, security types are both natural allies and natural enemies; those not bound to him by loyalty could easily have the wiles and ambition to move against him. They could collect compromising material, what the Russians call kompromat, on those around Putin or on Putin himself for that matter. If Putin has significant wealth stashed abroad, the FSB would be the organization most likely to initiate the search for it. Putin’s own rise to power was based on obtaining compromising material on the prosecutor general who was investigating President Boris Yeltsin’s family’s financial dealings in the late 1990s. And so there would be a certain poetic justice, or at least bookkeeping symmetry, if kompromat was involved in Putin’s fall.
The creation of the National Guard was also a signal to Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, whose popularity with the army and the populace cause some to view him as a natural successor to Putin. Because of his military achievements in Crimea and Syria, Shoigu consistently places second only to Putin in polls of Russia’s most trustworthy leader, not an enviable position. Shoigu is said to harbor no political ambitions and is often described with a line from the poet Mikhail Lermontov: “A servant to the tsar, a father to his men.” Others contend that no one with an Asiatic last name could ever be president of Russia. Still, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service is part Jewish, as are many of the oligarchs close to Putin, which would seem to indicate that on some level Russia is either becoming more progressive or has finally lost all of its traditional values, anti-Semitism included.
Putin’s message is straightforward: My National Guard will quash any demonstrations or terrorism, and I will come down especially hard on anyone trying to exploit social disturbance for political purposes.
Putin’s creation of the National Guard was not widely covered by the Western media, consumed with America’s political circus and immigrants streaming into a stagnant, disunited Europe, though some coverage was given to the buzzing by Russian planes because it was sensationalistic and because there was good video. The lack of coverage was in a way appropriate if Putin’s move was essentially directed against an “internal enemy.” But sometimes local politics go global. It is not in the least encouraging to see the leader of a nuclear superpower feel insecure enough to surround himself with a 400,000-strong Praetorian Guard—especially when that is coupled with a mounting mistrust of the West. In fact, both Russia and the West (NATO and the United States) have now openly declared the other their number one threat, though, according to the diplomatic nuance required, the choice of nouns may vary—“opponent,” “target,” or, to use Defense Secretary’s Ashton Carter’s memorably dweeby phrase when describing Russia and China, “stressing competitors.”
When stepping down from leading NATO’s Allied Command Operations in May 2016, General Philip Breedlove strongly warned about the dangers of a Russia that “has not accepted the hand of partnership but chosen a path of belligerence.” Saying that Russians “may not be 10 feet tall, but they’re pretty close to 7 feet tall,” Breedlove was referring to Russia’s armed forces, which had surprised and impressed the world in Syria, though even that distant incursion has its connections with the new National Guard.
Putin had many motivations for supporting Assad in Syria—to regain a position of power in the Middle East, to show up the West as meek and feckless, to test and advertise Russia’s new generation of weaponry. Those weapons have in fact won the approval of international experts, and sales have already picked up; as soon as some of Iran’s funds were unfrozen, Tehran’s defense minister flew to Moscow with an $8 billion shopping list.
Putin is decisively against authoritarian leaders being toppled and their societies abandoned to chaos. The Syrian incursion is also a message for domestic consumption, especially now that a National Guard has been created: See what amount of force I am willing to use against the enemies of a semi-important ally? Imagine how much force I would use to protect my own power, position, life.
In Putin’s view, Russia has both external and internal enemies. The external seek to weaken Russia’s society and economy through sanctions, low oil prices, information wars, and pressure on possible weak points like Kaliningrad. The internal enemies—political rivals, opposition leaders, unhappy oligarchs—share a common goal with the external ones: the removal of Putin. It is even possible they will collude. After all, in 1917 Lenin was sent by Russia’s enemy Germany in a sealed train to Petrograd in the calculation that a revolutionary Lenin would not wish to continue Tsarist Russia’s imperialist war. All of these are the sort of moves Putin himself might make if he were on the other side of the chessboard—why shouldn’t he pay his opponent the compliment of considering him equally intelligent and devious?
Putin’s fears may seem extravagant, but when viewed against the backdrop of Russia’s history, many of them do not seem so extravagant at all.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard Lourie