MOSCOW -- The Kremlin has cast its new National Guard force as a timely move to combat terrorism and organized crime, but wary observers liken the agency to a "Praetorian Guard on steroids" to protect President Vladimir Putin and his hold on power, particularly as elections loom.
The Russian president publicized his order for the National Guard, to comprise Interior Ministry troops, OMON riot police, and SOBR special forces, on April 5.
The National Guard will stand alone as a separate federal agency and answer directly to the president, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told Interfax.
The agency will be headed by Viktor Zolotov, Putin's staunchly loyal former chief bodyguard, who is said to have been dubbed "The Golden One" by colleagues. Zolotov has effectively been handed ministerial powers and been named a permanent member of Russia's Security Council.
In outlining the function of the National Guard, Putin placed the accent on its role in fighting crime and terrorism, although Peskov later clarified that it will "of course" also be involved in the suppression of "illegal" protests.
Liberal journalists, analysts, and many other Russians see the latter as the evident primary task, with the authorities looking nervously ahead to parliamentary elections in September -- and to a presidential election in 2018 -- with the country currently facing a second year of recession.
Interior Ministry troops are typically deployed at opposition protests and to quell unrest -- as are OMON riot police.
"There is no real reason for creating the National Guard out of the Interior [Ministry] Troops (VV) and other forces unless you have a serious worry about public unrest," Mark Galeotti wrote on his In Moscow's Shadows blog following the announcement.
A poll conducted by the Ekho Moskvy radio station also showed skepticism about the Kremlin's stated intentions, with 54 percent saying the new structure had been created "for the personal security of the president" and 36 percent saying it was "to combat the political opposition."
State newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote late on April 5 that the National Guard force currently numbers around 180,000 men and that they may receive new armaments including tanks, helicopters, and heavy artillery.
Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote that the creation of such an agency had actually been discussed since 2005.
But Galeotti speculated that the decision in the end came out of the blue, suggesting it was made by the very close circle surrounding Putin, a group that he said appeared to have "big worries" about unrest in the future.
"The idea of creating a National Guard for Russia bringing together public security forces under a single command has been raised periodically and always abandoned for very good reasons, not least the lack of any apparent need to have a Praetorian Guard on steroids."
On April 6, draft legislation outlined eye-catching powers the Kremlin intends to bestow on its National Guardsmen.
The bill submitted to the State Duma says that officers of the National Guard will be permitted to open fire on or use force against targets without warning if there is a risk to the lives of other citizens or the guardsmen themselves. The bill goes on to note that the guardsmen are prohibited from firing on pregnant women or disabled people.
They are allowed to use armored vehicles and water cannons to disperse mass protests.
They may seal off sites, including homes, to quell unrest; they may stop traffic and block roads during emergency situations; and they may carry out document checks and arrest Russians on suspicion of criminal or administrative offenses.
The spirit of the law appears to echo a statement by Putin on March 15 in which he said: "Even when Interior Ministry staff implement, speaking frankly, repressive state measures against the subjects of the law, but the people see that this is done in the interests of society, then this evokes support from the people."
A 'Putin-Centric' World
Putin suggested in February that "enemies abroad" were trying to "interfere" in Russia's parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The last State Duma elections, in December 2011, were marred by allegations of fraud and brought tens of thousands of Russians out onto the streets in protest.
Yevgenia Albats, the editor in chief of the New Times investigative weekly, said that the creation of the National Guard needed to be understood in the context of the Kremlin's perception of being surrounded by threats.
"I think the main question right now -- it is the question of protection for Putin -- to defend him," Albats said on Ekho Moskvy. "If you look, the rhetoric of all the last days, it is all Putin-centric. Everything that happens in the world is directed against Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich."
The revelations reportedly contained in the "Panama Papers" this week have implicated dozens of world leaders and officials around the globe, but the official Kremlin reaction claimed the massive data leak was part of a U.S. plot targeting Putin.
Albats said Putin's appointment of Zolotov to a prominent new post points to his desire to have trusted men in powerful positions. "Vladimir Putin fears his own circle more than anything else in the world. And he needs people who are guaranteed to be prepared to protect him," Albats said, pointing to Zolotov as a person who is "absolutely dedicated and loyal to Putin."
'The Golden One'
In August 2013, Argumenty I Fakty predicted the creation of a kind of a Praetorian guard for the president, quoting an anonymous source saying that Zolotov had been tapped to prepare the Interior Ministry troops and other forces "to be reformed into the personal guard of the president."
The Argumenty I Fakty piece also noted that Zolotov's nickname among colleagues was "The Golden One" ("Zolotoi" in Russian).
Zolotov is an enigmatic figure, but his successful career as a bodyguard for the country's elite and his knack for making powerful friends is hinted at in a pair of photographs from the 1990s.
In August 1991, he was photographed as a bodyguard standing behind Boris Yeltsin on the tank outside Moscow's White House, facing down the failed hard-line coup. Later in the 1990s, again as a bodyguard, Zolotov could be seen walking with Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin's patron, and the mayor's daughter, Ksenia Sobchack.
Zolotov met Putin, who worked under Sobchak until 1996, during the latter period. Zolotov became the head of the presidential security detail when Putin moved to the Kremlin. In 2013, he was made the deputy head of the Interior Ministry troops, and the following year was made their commander.
Speaking of the appointment, Ekho Moskvy editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov said: "In my opinion, first, this strengthens Putin's personal control over the internal troops. Second, the creation of more mobile brigades within the country to resolve issues linked not to operational work but to...mass unrest, mass movements, clashes, and so on."