Can Russia Police Its Protests – and Its Elites?

Holding the line: a police wall pictured during protests against Russia's military mobilisation in St Petersburg in September. Image: Sipa US / Alamy

Putin can rely on his security forces to keep both protests and political allies in check for now, but this may change if the war’s impact begins to be felt more keenly by Putin’s traditional support base.

Russia’s failures in Ukraine have prompted predictions that the war has undermined the three pillars which the regime, like all autocracies, rests on – repression, legitimation and co-optation – with one senior Ukrainian advisor recently claiming President Vladimir Putin is fearing for his life. But though weakened, both Putin and the Russian government can still call on a capable repressive apparatus.

Russia’s internal security forces are likely to be able to police its protests. In addition to their large numbers, Putin remains popular, and the opposition is weak. Putin has also personalised the structures governing the security sector and divided control of these across the political elite. Potential internal challengers are unlikely to be able to mobilise the security forces against him.

This poses a challenge which goes beyond just the capacity of the repressive pillar. Protestors and internal challengers need to overcome a collective action problem to be successful; they need to believe they have a strong chance of successfully removing Putin and his allies, and that any alternative would be better. But the security forces’ perceived strength means that failure is considered likely, and the costs are high.

Increasingly Repressive Policing

Russia’s system of repression stymies the organisation and escalation of popular mobilisation. The regime has ramped up a deep and penetrative system of surveillance to intimidate and prosecute journalists and activists since the war began, a trend it had already accelerated over the last decade. Over the same period, increasingly violent crackdowns have reduced the scale of protests. This stifling of political opposition removes any figures who protestors can credibly believe are capable of mobilising sufficient opposition to counter the security services.

The creation of the National Guard in 2016 further enhanced the presidency’s ability to counter protests by amalgamating various Interior Ministry units under one chain of command and the leadership of Viktor Zolotov, formerly head of the Presidential Security Service and one of Putin’s most loyal henchmen. With about 200,000 public order officers (plus 140,000 auxiliary staff) in the National Guard and around 750,000 ordinary police, the regime has sufficient ‘boots’ to draw on, which it organises and uses to counter popular mobilisation. Learning from Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, it has strengthened its ability to police key geographies, preventing protestors from mobilising in Red Square, for example, and instead fragmenting and diverting them to more peripheral areas.

Culturally, police actors are drawn from conservative and nationalist sections of society, which has made it easier for the regime to motivate officers against liberal protestors

Rank-and-file officers are likely to follow top-down instructions, even in the case of growing protests. Though subject to poor pay and working conditions, these jobs offer a regular salary and the opportunity to work in major cities. Culturally, too, police actors – like in most contexts – are drawn from conservative and nationalist sections of society, which has made it easier for the regime to motivate officers against liberal protestors.

The various internal security units are reinforced by a criminal justice system wholly orientated towards protecting the regime. There are few checks and balances, allowing the state to prosecute protestors and political opponents with ease. It is little wonder, then, that in recent polling, 58% of Russians said they were scared they would be arbitrarily arrested or otherwise harmed by the authorities, a powerful disincentive to protest.

Personalised Rule and Factionalism

It would be an error, however, to think Putin has total control over the repressive system. Like all authoritarian rulers, he has faced a dilemma when organising his security forces, which need to be capable but should not pose a threat to his own rule. To manage the latter, Putin has undermined the sector’s formal governance and ensured it is divided and dependent on informal ties and economic relationships with him.

In the early 2000s, Putin strengthened the security sector. He centralised control of the main power ministries, reversed some of the fragmentation which occurred under Boris Yeltsin, reasserted the centre’s budgetary and bureaucratic control over regional politicians, and increased officers’ pay.

But this strengthening was achieved by enhancing the security agencies’ dependency on Putin, rather than building institutional capacity or independence. Amalgamating Interior Ministry units into the National Guard removed a ministerial role from the chain of command and the potential for even modest autonomy. But this was only one of a long series of reshuffles and organisational restructures, which have been more about balancing Kremlin factions than improving public security – for example, the 2006 dismissal of the head of the General Procurator's Office (GPO) as part of a tussle between Zolotov and Putin's chief of staff Igor Sechin, or the 2011 separation of the Investigative Committee from the GPO.

Though opposition is currently being contained, as the impact of the war affects Putin’s traditional support base, policing will become more difficult for the regime

The possibility of a military coup in Russia is sometimes posited as a threat to Putin, but the military is unlikely to counter pro-regime forces. It has around 20,000 troops stationed around Moscow, but has become more subordinate to the Kremlin under Putin, and mainly has a history of staying out of politics. Even were the military to launch a coup, in the Moscow area, military forces would face 20,000 National Guardsmen and 10,500 men from the Federal Protective Service (which includes the Presidential Guard Service) – agencies with strong personal loyalties to Putin – together with around 50,000 ordinary police.

Personalised governance and fragmentation of the security sector present powerful barriers to collective action. Elites cannot look with any certainty to the rule of law or institutions to protect their political positions or economic resources – including those gained through corruption. Instead, with power so centralised around the presidency, a good relationship with Putin is the best guarantee of security. And the long history of security and political elites in Russia gathering kompromat (compromising material) on each other though wiretapping and surveillance further reduces the likelihood that an individual or grouping would risk mobilising opposition to Putin.

Stable Until It’s Unstable

There is no exact science to predicting an autocrat’s demise. Too many factors depend on a complex interplay of structure, agency and luck. But though the regime’s repressive pillar is likely to remain effective, the war in Ukraine may expose its brittleness, especially in two respects.

Officers are ‘loyal’ in the sense that they broadly follow orders and are unlikely to resist because of a lack of better alternatives. But further stresses on working practices and conditions will likely undermine even that. There have been multiple cases of police openly criticising the government during the Putin era – mostly recently, with officers of the supposedly more loyal National Guard suing the government following their dismissal for refusing to go to Ukraine. Thus far, such criticism has not been directed at Putin, but if his legitimacy declines, both Putin and the regime may find the obedience of the security forces more difficult to come by.

A far greater challenge will come from any increase in the scale and breadth of mass opposition. Though currently contained, as the impact of the war affects Putin’s traditional support base, policing will become more difficult for the regime. Getting its forces to crack down on liberal Muscovites protesting electoral fraud is one thing. Ordering them to crack down on protests by right-wing nationalists or broader sections of society is another. And the perception that the police apparatus is effective will become harder to maintain if a greater number of Russian communities suffer further declines in living standards and increases in body bags, and if they display a willingness to share their grievances publicly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Liam O’Shea

Senior Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

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