One of the main features of the current urban unrest in the U.S. in places like Portland, Oakland and, soon, Chicago is the use by the Trump Administration of “Federal” troops from the DHS and analogous agencies to supplant local police forces to combat what it calls “Anarchy” and “Terrorism”. Trump has created, by fiat, a new police/army unit which takes its orders directly from the White House, without reference to local governors, mayors, or civil authorities, under the pretence of protecting Federal assets. These troops assemble in full military gear, without names or reference numbers and use extreme force, pepper sprays, tear gas and deadly weapons against peaceful protestors; often using the power of arrest and detainment of those they capture and take off in unmarked vans and buses. The First Amendment right of protest is ignored and their tactics and the chaos which ensue provides an attractor to the participation of genuinely dangerous fringe protestors who use the chaos to loot and burn. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The rationale for such a development is not the fig-leaf of protecting Federal assets. The riots and chaos are an integral part of the political campaign by the Trump administration to demonstrate that a strict ‘law and order’ response by Trump is a reason to vote to support him in his 2020 campaign for the Presidency. This use of secret Federal warriors deployed against the ordinary citizenry is unprecedented in U.S. history, but it is not unprecedented. This is a direct copy of the playbook of Vladimir Putin since 2017 when Putin created the Росгвардия (‘Rosgvardiya’), the new National Guard of the Russian Federation.
This federal executive body was established in 2016 by a law signed by President Vladimir Putin. Its stated mission is to secure Russia's borders, take charge of gun control, combat terrorism and organized crime, protect public order and guard important state facilities. The National Guard numbers approximately 340,000 personnel in 84 units across Russia and consolidated the forces of the MVD Internal Troops, SOBR, OMON and other internal military forces; they are separate from the Russian Armed Forces. The MVD is the Ministry of Internal Affairs which supervises and controls the Police and the internal troops of the Ministry, the OMON (riot police, a gendarmerie-like paramilitary force) and the SOBR (SWAT teams). These were all merged into the new Rosgvardiya when it was formed. Officers are still called “omonovtsy”. Several of the former chiefs of the KGB Ninth Directorate, the “Devyatka”, which was the thug wing of the KGB, joined up at the merger.
There have been several explanations of why Putin chose to form the Rosgvardiya. The first reason was to have the ability to put down dissent across Russia from the growing problems of labour union strikes and demonstrations and the political competition of dissidents, like Navalny, who were increasing the frequency and geographic spread of their demonstrations. Rosgvardiya is allowed to fire into crowds in a select number of situations, such as terrorist incidents, hostage situations, or if a government building secured by the National Guard comes under attack. Troops can also use physical force against direct threats to members of the public or fellow soldiers, special cargoes, structures along communications lines protected by National Guard troops and the National Guard facilities, as well as open and search cars, check for identification documents and detain citizens. The National Guard also can seal off areas, including for the purpose of preventing mass riots. In a state of emergency, the National Guard personnel have the right to ban the traffic of vehicles and pedestrians, commandeer citizens’ cars to arrive at the scene of an emergency situation or chase criminals, enter houses, use force, special means and weapons.[i] All this can be done without involving local governments, city mayors or councils.
These powers were largely unchecked. In a report completed in 2019, the largest number of offenses was committed by employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 3819 (+10.4%); employees of the penitentiary service, 1018 crimes (+ 2.3%); bailiffs, 681 (-18.2%); Ministry of Emergencies, 391 (+ 23.3%); FSB, 178 (+ 69.5%). Federal Customs Service employees committed 177 crimes (-15.7%), judicial authorities 118 (+ 118.5%), Investigative Committee workers 110 (+ 52.8%); prosecutors 38 (-5%). The Rosgvardiya showed the most impressive growth with the number of crimes committed by its employees in a year increasing by 277%.[ii]
A second reason for Putin to set up the Rosgvardiya was his need to prepare the way for his recent initiative amending the Constitution so that his term limit of 2024 could be lifted and that he could serve additional terms as President. He wanted to prepare a force to control any dissent from that initiative by the public and to make them aware that their opposition would be met with force if needed.
The third, and perhaps the most important of the reasons for Putin’s initiative, is Putin’s fear of a “Colour Revolution” in Russia supported by the Russian military. Putin’s fear of and distrust of the military has been a constant theme in his governance since he was put in office by Yeltsin. This disjuncture of the civil and military power in Russia has been a core battlespace in Russia.
Putin and The Russian Military
Putin has been at odds with the military since his accession to power. After the chaos of 1990, the KGB had prepared to take over the reins of government. Their abortive coup against Yeltsin left the KGB in disgrace, the Party banned, and the military in a much stronger position.
When, on 20 August 1991, the KGB plotters attempted their coup against Gorbachev Yeltsin moved to protect the White House (the national assembly). The KGB in Moscow called for troops to attack the White House and to arrest Yeltsin using KGB troops and MVD troops, along with Alexander Lebed’s Airborne troops. The Minister of Defence ordered General Valentin Varennikov to order the attack. Varennikov passed on the order to General Grachev who refused to obey the order to attack. General Lebed removed the Airborne troops from the area of the White House and General Yevgeny Ivanovich Shaposhnikov ordered his men to take up positions around the White House to protect Yeltsin and to shoot down any helicopters flying near the White House and to destroy any tank attacking it. The army was the saviours of democracy in the Battle of the White House and Pavel Grachev, Boris Gromov, Alexandr Lebed and Yevgeniy Shaposhnikov the heroes. The KGB was disbanded (later to re-emerge as the FSB), but the leaders of the KGB never forgot that it was the Army which saved democracy for Russia. When they returned to power as the siloviki under Putin they remained determined to starve the Army of weapons, power, and resources. It was no accident that Putin intervenes in military leadership conflicts. It is habit.
Russian military reluctance to follow what it thought were unreasonable demands manifest itself regularly. Such resistance was common among Russian troops in the Russian war in Afghanistan and even at higher levels of the military in the Chechen War. In the past, the Russian military has resisted and refused to follow the orders and directions of the political leadership. Perhaps the best example was the unwillingness of the Russian Army to fight in Chechnya. The preparation for a war in Chechnya did not have the support of the Russian military.
What the Russian army did not want to do was to fight in Chechnya. It was unprepared, disorganised and had serious political inhibitions against killing Russian people, even if they were Chechens. Yeltsin was determined to resist this independence movement and consulted with his military leaders. Yeltsin's adviser on nationality affairs, Emil Pain, and Russia's Deputy Minister of Defence, Boris Gromov, both resigned in protest at the invasion, as did Gen. Boris Poliakov. More than 800 professional soldiers and officers refused to take part in the operation; of these, 83 were convicted by military courts and the rest were discharged. Later Gen. Lev Rokhlin also refused to be decorated as a Hero of Russia for his part in the war. This is why, under Yeltsin, the war in Chechnya was fought almost entirely by the military forces of the MVD (Ministry of the Interior) not the Army.
A noted characteristic of Putin’s antipathy to the military is the frequent dismissal and, occasionally, disappearance of Russian officers. In 2016, Putin’s Ministry of Defence suddenly announced it was firing 50 naval officers, including Vice Admiral Viktor Kravchuk and chief of staff Rear Admiral Sergei Popov. They were both fired for cause, as were several other unnamed senior officials from their posts in the Baltic Fleet. This came as a great shock to the country as such a purge of serving top commanders had not been seen since the days of Stalin, during the Yezhovshchina of 1936-38. Earlier, Admiral Viktor Chirkov had been removed in November 2015 officially because of ‘health concerns’. Chirkov, who had been Kravchuk’s patron in the navy for many years, was rumoured to have also been removed due to complaints about inadequate readiness in some units. This may well have been true but others in the Navy have reported that the unwillingness of the admirals of the already-reduced Baltic Fleet to provide vessels and support to the Russian naval presence in Syria was a more immediate cause of the rift.
In addition to a lacklustre performance in a recent exercise by the two Baltic Fleet minesweepers during exercises that took place in August 2015 and the constant complaint that the Baltic Fleet had been left with only two ageing submarines, the fleet was slow in making available its newer vessels for the Syrian operations.
In late 2014 there had been a smaller purge of the Russian military when Putin dismissed twenty generals from their posts. In February 2014 Putin had dismissed six other generals. These generals were dismissed by a presidential decree announced through the Gazette and without fanfare. The officers dismissed included the lieutenant general of police, Sergey Lavrov, as well as the head of media relations in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Andrei Pilipchuk. Another was the first deputy commander of the central regional military command, Vladimir Padalko. Some other lower-rank officers were dismissed as well at the time.
Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of Putin’s antipathy to the Russian armed forces is the litany of those officers whose lives were terminated permanently in these purges. The Russian website “info-Napalm” has produced an infographic which brings this home.
The frequent announcement by Putin of additional funds for the military have exceeded the amounts actually transferred and much of which has gone on technology, not soldiers. One of the reasons for Putin to form the Rosgvardiya has been his distrust of the military and the military reaction to the terrible burden of the Covid-19 infections of the military bases and the lack of adequate medical facilities.
The Temptation of Trump to Acquire Extra-Constitutional Powers
Trump has been stymied by his inability to issue orders which must be obeyed. He has been hemmed in by the courts and his policies resisted by many in the Democratic political establishments; they even impeached him. His wall has not been built; the Mexicans did not pay for it. He has abandoned his NATO allies in a frothing attack on their reservations on “America First” and the need to punish Iran. His stalwart allies among the Kurds in Syria have been betrayed and abandoned. The Taliban keep killing soldiers. The DACA still remain in the U.S. and the child prisoners at the U.S. border are gradually being set free. His complete and utter failure to deal with the Covid-19 crisis has exposed him as one who is bereft of reason or sense. His poll numbers are in the tank with les than 100 days until the election. Trying to follow Putin’s example by creating his own “Little Green Men” is his last throw of the dice. So, following Putin’s playbook is a temptation he cannot resist.
It is important that the creation of such an extra-Constitutional force be resisted. The U.S. political conflict is not just a place where Russians seek to interfere; it is a place where Trump seeks to adopt the worst practices of Russia and apply them to America.
[i] Panfilov, Alexander, "National Guard: Major Overhaul of Russia's Security Forces". Russian Legal Information Agency. Rapsinews, 7 April 2016
[ii] Crime Russia, “Number of crimes committed by Rosgvardiya employees surges by nearly 300%”, 19/7/19