In April 2016, Vladimir Putin created a powerful new security service—the National Guard—headed by his long-serving bodyguard Viktor Zolotov. The new entity was designated a “special service”, alongside the FSB, the FSO (Federal Protective Service) and the Foreign Intelligence Service. The National Guard was initially made up of Interior Ministry troops, including its notorious OMON special forces division, the units used to violently break up anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011-2012. The total number of troops in the National Guard is said to be in the 300,000-400,000 range.
On the day Vladimir Putin published the decree creating the National Guard, he said its goal would be expanding its effectiveness in all areas pertaining to domestic security, including fighting terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking. The Kremlin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov underlined that the new secret service was not being set up to suppress domestic unrest.
Yet the very next day, Open Russia published a video of a secret training session of new National Guard troops practicing breaking up a simulated peaceful protest, a clear signal that the purpose of Zolotov’s new service was first and foremost to protect Vladimir Putin.
Putin became obsessed with his personal security after the Arab Spring, the Ukrainian Maidan uprising, and especially after the mass protests in Moscow in 2011-2012. Though the proximate cause of the domestic protests was another round of fraudulent parliamentary elections, they were in fact provoked by Putin’s announcement on September 24, 2011 that he would once again run for the Presidency—the famous rokirovka (or “castling”) with Dmitry Medvedev.
Three weeks ago, a deadly incident involving the National Guard sheds some light on just what kind of service Putin has built. On October 18, a 27 year old Staff Sergeant of the National Guard, Nikita Pavlutin, was shot to death in the organization’s offices in Moscow. Russian law enforcement immediately stated Pavlutin was accidentally shot by his colleague, the 26 year old Sergeant Sergey Ruchkin. The Kremlin-loyal outlet MK wrote up a tragic account of how Ruchkin forgot to take the bullets out of his gun, which went off as he was handing it over in a gun room, hitting Pavlutin in the head. MK cited witnesses—the two young men’s colleagues—who were at the crime scene: “The Sergeants’ colleagues assume both Nikita and Sergey, after a 12-hour shift, were playing with guns, which led to the tragedy.”
Then the next day, the REN TV Channel, which is part of a media holding company belonging to Yury Kovalchuk (a sanctioned friend of Putin), ran a video of the shooting. You cannot hear the conversation on the tape (it’s security camera footage) but the video shows that Pavlutin was sitting at the table with a disassembled weapon in front of him, when Ruchkin turns around, puts the gun to his head, and cold-bloodedly pulls the trigger. The other officers in the room didn’t even bother to disarm the shooter, but they did tend to the victim. Pavlutin was taken to a hospital, where he died. As a result of this video leaking, Ruchkin was arrested and put in a jail for two months, awaiting trial.
As the prominent Russian journalist Yulia Latynina has been known to say, a system is characterized not by any mistakes it makes, but by the system’s reaction to the mistakes. And the National Guard’s reaction, before it was forced to admit that the incident was in fact murder, speaks volumes about its true nature: not only is it geared towards violence against people, but it also is prone to covering up hostility and lawlessness within its ranks.
The only question which remains unclear is where REN TV got this video, and how it got authorization to play it in the first place. There are at least two possibilities: either Zolotov’s enemies (and he has many), perhaps in the Investigative Committee, leaked the video; or the video was leaked on purpose, in order to clearly communicate to the Russian people that the National Guard is a ruthless institution.
If it’s the first case, we can assume that Kovalchuk, the owner of Bank Rossiya, is opposed to Viktor Zolotov, setting up a potentially interesting struggle for power inside Putin’s inner circle.
In the second, well, it would just confirm what we already know: the Kremlin is ready to kill people in order to protect its power.