Mass protests, violent attacks against the police, Molotov cocktails, stones, sticks, women and children… The scene could easily be mistaken for the Maidan early last year, but in fact it was a recent training operation by Russia’s Interior Ministry to prepare for just such an eventually on the streets of Moscow—Zaslon 2015. The scene of the Maidan on the streets of Moscow is a threat and possibility that the Kremlin is aware and preparing for, especially after the marches in Boris Nemtsov’s memory.
The threat of protests have loomed large in Putin and the Kremlin’s thinking since the “Bolotnaya Protests” against his return to the Presidency after his “Castling” maneuver with Dmitry Medvedev, where he resigned the presidency due to constitutional presidential limits. As disconcerting as these protests were, the overthrow of Yanukovych and the memory of the color revolutions—a wave of revolutions that overthrow longtime autocrats in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan—have made the diffusion of mass protest to the Kremlin gates an eventuality that the Kremlin and Putin are unlikely to countenance.
That is why just as Russia is reminding its neighbors about its military presence; it is preparing its own skull-crackers against an eventual domestic uprising. The MVD, Russia’s Interior Ministry, is responsible for coordinating not only the regular police but the more specialized units tasked with defending the regime against any domestic challenges.
Russia’s history is full of defenders of the regime, from the Oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible, the Okhrana of the Tsar’s, to the Cheka and KGB of the Soviet Union, Russia has never been wanting for political police. Russia retains not only a large police force, but an institutional structure explicitly designed for quelling domestic dissent.
In 1987 OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Units Otryady mobilnye osobennogo naznacheniya) was created in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to combat rising crime and as a specialized unit against mass protest. Made infamous during the January 1991 crackdown in Vilnius Lithuania, OMON are an omnipresent site at any protest or mass gathering, providing a well-trained and motivated group explicitly designed for mass domestic disturbances.
Despite the intimidating figure and presence of OMON, the real muscle behind the MVD’s regime security efforts are the Interior Ministry Troops (Vnutrennye Voyska or VV). The VV act as a parallel military structure responsible for domestic policing (and is common among authoritarian regimes that balance security structures against each other to “coup proof” the regime.). The utility of the VV ranges from those used as extra bodies to guard soccer matches and prisons, to the elite 1st ODON (1st Independent Special Purpose Division) also known as the “Dzerzhinsky Division.” 1st ODON acts as the third leg in a balancing act around Moscow, designed to prevent any one service from attempting a coup against the Kremlin (the army maintains the elite 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division and the 4th Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, with the FSO—Federal Protective Service—maintaining the Kremlin Regiment and the MVD with 1St ODON).
Beyond the complex institutional and unit structure is the potential utilization of the units, made clear during the recent large-scale exercise, Zaslon 2015, held April 2-10, which was explicitly designed to test and ready the VV troops against eerily similar situations that the Berkut had faced on the Maidan in Kiev. Zaslon 2015 pulled together some 40,000 troops and 1,500 pieces of equipment encompassing the North-Western, Central, Volga, Crimea and Southern Federal Districts. According to Interior Ministry Spokesman Vasily Panchenkov, the training was organized, “based on events that took place in the recent past in a neighboring country. All attributes of those events, right up to burning tyres and the throwing of stones and bottles at the servicemen…” Thus the use of water cannons and tear gas, and the response to Molotov cocktails, were a large part of the exercise. Rather than defending Russia from rampaging “Fascists” as is so often heard in Russian media, the real threat in this exercise was from mass protests and citizens in the street, the kind that eventually removed Yanukovych from power (aided by the failure of enough of the military and security forces to support him and quell the protests).
Yet the goal of Zaslon and other exercises is not only increase the proficiency and training of the troops, but to reinforce a sense of mission in their identity. This sense of mission ensures that the VV remain committed to the regime and are not only able, but willing to follow orders to disperse their own countrymen. A definitive moment in Russia’s history was the abortive August coup in 1991 when hardliners in the party, security services, and military attempted a coup to reverse Gorbachev’s liberalizing efforts. The failure of the coup, and to take back the Russian White House from Yeltsin and the crowds of Muscovites protesting the coup, was primarily due to a lack of willing and committed security forces who were hesitant to disperse the crowds for fear of being blamed for any killings, and a lack of overall leadership among the coup plotters. That is why exercises like Zaslon are so important to the current regime, they remind the troops of their duty and reinforce the command hierarchy. Having the necessary troops is one thing, making sure they follow orders is another.
Ensuring that the VV carry’s out any potential orders is Putin’s close political confidant Viktor Zolotov. Zolotov and Putin have a long ranging relationship from Putin’s incipient days in St. Petersburg, and continued when Zolotov headed Putin’s personal bodyguard (for more information on the close relationship see Karen Dawisha’s excellent book on the subject). Now deputy Interior Minister and head of the VV troops, Zolotov’s longstanding ties with Putin lead to the conclusions that the Kremlin is solidifying its control over the organs poised to defend the regime against a likeness of the Maidan protests. As NYU Professor Mark Galeotti stated, “Zolotov is exactly the kind of quiet, loyal and ruthless bodyman Putin appreciates.”
Much as democratic leaders fear losing power through electoral defeat, authoritarian leaders fear losing power through the hangman. This fear drives the creation of committed forces able to protect the regime against any political discontent. While there is little fear of protests demanding Putin’s resignation today amid high approval ratings, the situation can change very quickly. And with Putin’s tenure continuing to drag on with no end in sight and little plan for succession, a safe bet is that Zolotov and the VV will stand ready to weather any mass challenges to the Kremlin.