By Leonid Bershidsky   April 11, 2016

President Vladimir Putin has overhauled Russia’s law-enforcement operations to create a domestic army that ultimately would answer to him personally, not to one of the government ministers. It was the clearest demonstration in years of the Russian leader’s concern about preserving his power.

On April 5, Putin submitted a bill to the Russian parliament that carved out a National Guard from the Interior Ministry’s Interior Troops. The Interior Ministry is essentially the police force; the 170,000-strong Interior Troops are the crack riot police and counterinsurgency units. During Putin’s first two presidential terms, they bore the brunt of the fighting in the formerly secessionist region of Chechnya, and they have dispersed many unsanctioned rallies.

In addition to the Interior Troops, all of the ministry’s elite units, nicknamed “cosmonauts” by opposition activists for their round helmets and “Star Wars”-like gear, will also be included in Putin’s army, with the potential for further expansion. Immediately, the number of National Guard personnel will exceed 15 per cent of the Russian armed forces that are supposed to deal with external threats.

This powerful, well-trained force will operate outside the ministry under the command of Viktor Zolotov, a long-time Putin associate, whom the president appointed head of his personal bodyguard immediately after moving into the Kremlin in 2000. Like many Putin friends in government service, he is far wealthier than his official income could ever allow, and he is far more personally loyal to the president than Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev. Zolotov will report directly to Putin.

As the political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya wrote for the Russian Carnegie Center, regardless of whether the interior minister is a close associate of Putin’s, or even one of his judo sparring partners, “at a hypothetically possible moment of high tension, his hand will tremble when orders must be followed. Zolotov enjoys maximum protection from such hesitation. Putin – and Zolotov as an extension of Putin – will have no more intermediaries.”

In the same way, the National Guard’s loyalty is more certain than that of the Defense Ministry, run by the popular – and, reportedly, increasingly independent – Sergei Shoigu.

The new National Guard has its own intelligence service and thus investigative powers. It also has been granted authority to issue firearm licenses to private individuals and security firms – almost 10 million people, from hunters to elite bodyguards. The National Guard also has been granted the right to fire without warning “in special cases” and to not introduce themselves when making an arrest.

The Interior Ministry will be severely weakened by the reform. Whenever it needs muscle, it will have to ask Zolotov. As a consolation prize, Kolokoltsev, not a member of Putin’s inner circle, gets the 27,000 employees of the Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics and most of the former Federal Migration Service, which issues passports. The ministry is handed all the routine police work, and it loses its status as the Kremlin’s most powerful protector.

Putin last reshuffled the “power ministries” in 2003, mostly to bring them closer in line with the Soviet institutions of his youth. The new moves appear to be more significant, both because Russia’s ruler is personally taking control of an army and because of the timing. Parliamentary elections will be held in September – though it won’t be a significant event because the resulting legislature will likely rubber-stamp Kremlin decisions just as the current one has, but if the vote is as blatantly rigged as it was in 2011, protests could break out again. Although pollsters still report high levels of support for Putin after the military actions in Ukraine and Syria, Russians also are under stress because of a continuing economic slump. According to the Russian Central Bank, the country’s economic output shrank about 1 per cent in the first quarter of 2016, compared with a year earlier.

Putin, who appears to believe that the US and its Western allies are out not just to destabilise his regime but to bring about Russia’s break-up, is taking no chances. He clearly is timing the reorganisation to be completed well ahead of the election. By the time of the presidential election in 2018, the National Guard will have ironed out its kinks. It will have all the powers and functions necessary to counteract a putative Western plot and do away with any overly loud or violent dissent.

Once again, instead of opening up and liberalising, the embattled Putin regime is closing in on itself, and the man sitting on top of it is taking on more and more direct powers. The National Guard is a manifestation of Putin’s mistrust of Russia’s remaining institutions: He feels more confident surrounded by old friends and in control of a large fighting force.