An Expert’s Guide to Russia’s Security Apparatus

September 5, 2013

Russia has long been a country identified with secretive and elite security and police agencies; from the Oprichina of Ivan the Terrible, the Okhrana of the Tsar’s, the Cheka and KGB of the Bolsheviks and Soviet Union, to the FSB of today. Due to the multitude of differing agencies, often times with varying levels of training and duties, it makes understanding their nature and roles in Russian society all the more challenging. This is true when one considers that not only are there competing police units and spetsgruppy (special services) but a quasi-parallel army, in the form of the Interior Ministry’s (MVD) VV troops. Luckily, Professor Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs has recently written a book, “Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991” by Osprey Publishing, to help elucidate the intricate and myriad nature of security in Russia. I was able to sit down with Professor Galeotti and ask him some questions about his new book and the security forces inside Russia.

Andrew Bowen: In your book you look at Medvedev’s attempts to professionalize and improve the quality of the police with his 2011 Law on the Police. Especially with a new Minister of the Interior (a career cop, Vladimir Kolokoltsev), how effective have the reforms been and with Putin back in power do you foresee them continuing?

Mark Galeotti: I can’t help but feel that history will treat Medvedev a little more kindly than contemporary observers—myself included—and one of the key reasons is that while he was unable to bring any of his various reform programs to a successful conclusion, he did at least launch them, and in the process bring them onto the national agenda. It’s under Medvedev that genuine military reform began, that there was a drive towards codifying (and thus implicitly limiting) the powers of the FSB, and that the new Law on the Police was introduced. As with all these initiatives, starting them, drawing up new rules and laws, is the relatively easy stage; it’s implementation that is the hard grind. I see little evidence that Putin truly cares that much about police reform, so long as street crime is controlled and the OMON riot police are ready to crack skulls when the Kremlin calls. Furthermore, there are massive problems of corruption, unprofessionalism and institutional inertia within the MVD, the Ministry of Internal Affairs. And yet, just as it is hard to start a true reform process, once launched, it can acquire some momentum of its own. I see a generation of younger officers—as well as veterans such as Kolokoltsev—who are genuine professionals, who want to do their job, who may appreciate some perks and petty bribe-taking but are morally offended by the profligate and institutionalized corruption that has become such an problem. It is by no means guaranteed that they will be able to push much further without a change of regime, and in any case it will be a slow, two-steps-forward-one-and-a-half-back process, but they are trying, and I find that very encouraging.

AB: One of the most widespread images of Russian police as of late has been the riot control police OMON charging in and breaking up protests and arresting opposition leaders. How much of a qualitative difference is there between them and the regular police?

MG: It’s essentially a question of role, training, equipment and motivation. The OMON are specially selected and indoctrinated for their public order duties. If you want crowds controlled—which need not involve baton charges and violence: they have also proven adept in the more subtle ways of denying crowds the momentum and environment they need—then they are certainly your men (and some women). But for traffic duties, resolving domestic disputes, logging petty thefts, simply providing reassurance on the street, the regular police are generally rather “better.”

AB: I think one of the most interesting facts about the Russian police and Spetznaz is how they were recruited by Organized Crime gangs in the 1990’s to act as bodyguards, assassins and all around tough guys. Is this still prevalent within the security services today or has better pay and oversight reduced that tendency?

MG: Fortunately, things are rather better now. In part, as you suggest, better pay and more oversight have reduced the temptations, but it also reflects the way that organized crime is now much less violent than before. Less encouragingly, though, it is also a byproduct of the rise of organized crime within the security forces; where once they were just specialist hirelings, now circles of cops, FSB security officers and the like run their own rackets. Even so, though, these are usually not so much rooted in direct violence so much as the use of their positions to smuggle, demand protection money and embezzle. Whether that counts as progress is another matter…

AB: You write, in considerable detail, about the VV troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and their various spetsgruppy, and how they have seen considerable combat in the North Caucasus. How well do these troops match up against the regular military and how able are they to conduct combined operations with the army?

MG: The 140,000 Interior Troops span local garrison forces that spend most of their time in static guard duty or providing extra warm bodies when there’s a football match to police, all the way through to genuinely elite anti-terrorist commando groups. If we look at operations in Chechnya as a decent measure of their quality, then the half or so who are genuinely operational, largely the ten OBrON Independent Special Designation Brigades, are probably better than the regular army. Or at least at what they are being asked to do: again, it is essential to remember that these are more specialized forces. They are able to fight guerrillas and control protests, but the VV are not trained or equipped to fight full-scale wars like the regular military. There are often inter-service rivalries between the VV and army, as there are between arms of service anywhere, but they can and do work together.

AB: The plurality of groups you write about make it almost impossible to identify one group as more intriguing than the others. But I would have to say that the 1st Independent Special Purpose Division, the so called “Dzerzhinsky Division,” is one of the most interesting. You said that it acts as a sort of Praetorian Guard for the Kremlin and can trace its roots to the infamous Latvian Riflemen that acted as Lenin’s bodyguards. Does it still act as such today and how does the unit compare against the army’s elite Guards units?

MG: Even though this role is pretty theoretical these days—I don’t see a coup on the horizon—this is absolutely still an aspect of the Dzerzhinsky Division’s role; they form part of the triangle of mutual suspicion between the military (which has two divisions and a special forces unit nearby), the security apparatus (especially represented by the Kremlin Guard) and the MVD’s police and Dzerzhinsky Division. Its troops are specially selected but although some have seen action in Chechnya, they probably are more used to parade than combat duty. Fortunately for them, the army’s Moscow-based Taman and Kantemir Guard divisions, for all that they are considered elite, are probably also parade soldiers more than anything else these days. This has been a challenge throughout history: how do you make sure that politically-privileged units are happy and close enough to the seat of power to be effective, but also keep their combat edge?

AB: It seems that out of the multitude of spetsgruppy, the FSB’s Alpha and Vympel groups remain two of the most well-known and respected. Since Alexander Bastrykin and his Investigative Committee seem committed to increasing their profile and capabilities—including attempting to take over and consolidate roles and personnel from other organizations—what are the prospects that the Investigative Committee soon deems it proper for them to have their own spetsgruppa?

MG: Acquisition of your own departmental or ministerial spetsgruppa does seem to have become a mark of bureaucratic machismo. However, the General Prosecutor’s Office—from which the Investigative Committee was formed—does not have its own gunmen; indeed, it hires cops to protect its buildings. Thus, Bastrykin did not inherit such a group, and for him to try and establish his own team of cutthroats would be the kind of initiative that would just give further ammunition to his many, eager enemies, not least in the military, Federal Security Service (FSB) and MVD.

AB: There is a certain degree of secrecy and mystery surrounding many of these units, particularly when viewed from the West. This makes the almost virtually unknown group “Zaslon” (“Screen”) all the more intriguing. As you say it is rumored to be attached to the SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence service), even though they deny it, and that it was almost certainly sent to Syria. Can you comment on what some of its other missions are and how they recruit for such a mysterious group?

MG: If anything, “Zaslon” is the exception rather than the norm in its secrecy. There is quite a cult of the spetsgruppa, with units like Alpha enjoying a degree of celebrity, especially in the niche world of gung-ho military magazines like Bratishka (“Little Brother”). We really know terribly little about “Zaslon”—it is not even officially recognized by the Russian government. In many ways it is similar to units such as the Increment, the equally-shadowy special forces unit assigned in support of MI6, British foreign intelligence. Neither officially exists, but while the Increment is probably a force attached to MI6 from the SAS or similar existing elite units, “Zaslon” is more likely to be wholly recruited by the SVR from ex-Spetsnaz types and solely subordinated to the SVR’s headquarters at Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. What does it do? The glib answer is whatever the SVR wants it to do. It has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that Moscow didn’t want the United States to get as Baghdad fell. In Syria, for example, it may well be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and likewise would be charged with helping extract people, documents or technologies Moscow doesn’t want to share if things start to fall apart.