In September, Vladimir Putin appointed Colonel General Viktor Zolotov, who used to head the Russian president’s security service, as deputy commander of the Interior Ministry troops, a large paramilitary force of about 170,000 soldiers. This appointment may be a step toward the creation of a new National Guard. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, contends that Putin’s actions point to his fear of renewed mass protests in Russia.

 

Viktor Zolotov (left) is never far from Vladimir Putin.

 

Viktor Zolotov’s background and experience, like those of Vladimir Putin himself, are rooted in the murky, highly criminalized world of politics and business in St. Petersburg, his home city. In the 1990s, Zolotov was hired as a bodyguard for St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. In that job, he met Putin, then deputy mayor, and became his sparring partner in boxing and judo. Zolotov also served in Baltik-Eskort, the private guard service of “security oligarch” Roman Tsepov, the power broker behind the law enforcement authorities in St. Petersburg. (Tsepov was poisoned by an unknown radioactive substance in 2004.) In addition to providing security for high-ranking city leaders, Baltik-Eskort reportedly also rendered services for alleged criminal leaders, including Aleksandr Malyshev and several members of the Tambov organized crime group.

In 1999, Putin, then prime minister of Russia, appointed Zolotov as head of his security detail. Zolotov was later involved in the so-called “Siloviki War” of the mid-2000s—a struggle for influence among clans in the security services and Putin’s inner circle—in which he reportedly was on the losing side with Viktor Cherkesov (and opposed by Igor Sechin and Nikolai Patrushev). Cherkesov lost his post, but Zolotov did not, perhaps because unlike the former, he did not go public during the struggle. Zolotov also was long identified as a “liberal silovik” who supported Dmitri Medvedev as Putin’s successor in 2008.

Zolotov’s transfer to the Interior Ministry may be the first step toward his assuming full command of the Interior Ministry forces, now the responsibility of General Nikolai Rogozhkin, who has weaker ties to Putin and has been subject to criticism as a result of corruption in the ranks. With Zolotov, a man whom Putin trusts, in charge, plans have reportedly been proposed to merge the Interior Ministry with airborne forces and military police to create a National Guard. Another Putin friend, Igor Sidorkevich, vice president of the Russian Judo Federation and deputy head of the St. Petersburg Sports Committee in the 1990s, was recently named head of the military police.

If created, a National Guard would likely be responsible for protecting the “constitutional order”—that is, Putin and the regime itself. Zolotov’s appointment suggests that the Kremlin is preparing for the possibility of mass protests in the event of a political or economic crisis. During the wave of mass protests in 2011–12, the OMON forces (special police units) were very aggressive, while the Interior Ministry troops were relatively more passive. Putin blamed the Federal Security Service (FSB) for not preventing the protests. Also, the Kremlin may not fully trust the army. Providing security at the forthcoming Sochi Olympics is another considerable challenge.

If created, a National Guard would likely be responsible for protecting Putin and the regime itself. Zolotov’s appointment suggests that the Kremlin is preparing for the possibility of mass protests.

The Zolotov appointment also may be part of Putin’s effort to reset the balance among the fractured and heterogeneous siloviki, among whom there has been tension and intense competition since he returned to the presidency in 2012. Five years ago, the major conflict among the siloviki over money, influence, and especially the presidential succession, was between the FSB and the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN). Today the principal struggle is between the Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigations Committee (SK) in one arena and between the FSB and the Interior Ministry in another. Since the street protests, Putin has reduced the role of the FSB as the coordinator of all law enforcement activities and is strengthening the role of the Interior Ministry under his personal control.

Meanwhile, Interior Ministry reform, begun under Medvedev—who replaced both federal and regional leadership at the ministry—has continued. The Kremlin appointed a new interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, former chief of the Orel and Moscow regional branches. The Kremlin also rotated about half of all regional police chiefs in order to decrease their connections to regional elites and bolster their ties to the center. Yevgeny Shkolov, Putin’s old comrade from Dresden and now a presidential assistant, has taken a larger role. At an individual level, the Zolotov appointment also may strengthen the checks and balances among the siloviki leaders. If he is effective, Zolotov could balance Kolokoltsev or Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, the second-most popular political figure in the country, who is sometimes mentioned as a successor to Putin. Zolotov might also counter Aleksandr Bastrykin, the powerful head of the SK.

Infighting in the power ministries notwithstanding, Zolotov’s appointment reflects the broader increase in siloviki influence since Putin has returned to the presidency. The siloviki have played the central role in Putin’s struggle with street protesters and politically active citizens, the containment of elites, and the crackdown on civil society. The result has been a short-term success: it has marginalized the liberal social base in the country. But while this drive has mobilized Putin’s core supporters—chiefly nationalists and those in the regions—it has also narrowed it. The president’s political base now comprises no more than 20 percent of the Russian population.

As speculation heightens about whether Putin will seek yet another term in 2018 (at the recent Valdai Conference, he said he did not “rule out” running again), his basic plan seems to be to stay in the presidency for the indefinite future, though circumstances may force him to find a way out well before the next election. Putin seems to believe that this goal requires that he dig in and rely on those people who are closest to him, such as Viktor Zolotov. All signs indicate, however, that the president’s circle is narrowing.

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