Moscow’s Plan to Create Military Police ‘Falls Victim to Interagency Intrigues,’ ‘Sovershenno Sekretno’ Says

July 6, 2015
Photo: Yuri Tass Smityuk

Staunton, July 2 – Moscow in March 2015 confirmed the statute for military police in the Russian armed forces as part of an effort to fight dedovshchina and modernize the military, but three months later, the creation of this critical network has been blocked, the victim of infighting among various agencies, according to an article in the latest issue of Sovershenno Sekretno.

A few MPs in special uniforms appeared at an international conference this spring, at the Victory Day parade, and in Crimea protecting the defense minister, Aleksandr Kruglov says. But as of now, “this is practically an exhaustive list of the achievements of the military police” in Russia today.

MPs exist in more than 40 armies of the world and play an important role in many of them, but Russia has been unable to launch such a system even though proposals to do so have appeared more or less regularly since 1989. In the last decade, the defense ministry has even announced that the MP system has been created only to have to backtrack when it became obvious that this had not happened.

Until 2011, there wasn’t a legal basis for such a structure in the Russian armed forces, and after one was put in place, the general staff wanted to name as the commander of the new unit a general, Sergey Surovikin, with a checkered past in which he was frequently accused of crimes only to be let off after the intervention of those higher-up, including in at least one instance, Boris Yeltsin.

He and others wanted the job because initially the MP system was to be a high-prestige operation, with additional salaries and benefits and with commanders stationed not at some distant base but in the major cities where the military districts and fleets have their headquarters. And its commander would oversee a force of 20,000 men.

“Initially,” Kruglov writes, “the military police was planned as a powerful law enforcement and control structure which would not be limited to the maintenance of order in military facilities” but would provide guards for the minister and have enormous authority to investigate criminal activities. In war time, the MPs would even have the right to conduct independent military activities.

But precisely because the new structure would be so large, cost so much, and take powers from others, it was immediately opposed both by the FSB and by the military procuracy who considered the MP system as a threat to them. Their leaders also feared that the MPs would survive any military cutbacks to which they, on the other hand, would be subject.

Those two agencies succeeded in getting the MP statute rewritten, the powers of the MPs reduced to the point of almost meaninglessness, and the number of MPs planned cut back to 6500, less than a third of what had been proposed, written in Kruglov documents in extraordinary and telling detail.

Three other factors played a role as well, the Sovershenno sekretno journalist says. First, rights activists pointed out that the MP plan not only duplicated existing functions but might allow some officers involved in criminal activities to escape punishment by controlling the investigation.

Second, because no one had yet been appointed to command the MP system, there was no powerful voice even within the defense ministry which could speak out on its behalf. And third, the replacement of Serdyukov with Sergey Shoygu meant that the new minister was pleased to dispense with the problems the earlier MP plans had created.

The only place where the MPs seemed to be on track to have real authority was that everyone appeared to agree that they should run punishment cells and disciplinary battalions. That could reduce the amount of dedovshchina within those facilities, but it could also lead to even worse treatment of soldiers if the MPs concluded they could act with impunity.

Even for that function, the MPs will be spread thin once the system takes off. “In many armies of the world, from two to five percent of the total number of military personnel serve as MPs,” Kruglov says. In Russia, that would mean between 20,000 and 50,000 men, vastly more than anyone plans for now. Consequently, their role is largely going to be “a fiction.”

What is especially disturbing, the Sovershenno Sekretno journalist says, is that the MP forces are not attracting the most ambitious who will seek to do a good job and be promoted, but by officers close to retirement who see this force as “a safe haven” where they can spend their days until leaving service.

According to experts with whom Kruglov talked, Russia’s effort to form a modern MP force has so far failed, something that was predictable because it followed “a bureaucratic and thus in essence imitative path of development” rather than being genuinely concerned about improving the country’s defense capabilities.