There are two Rosgvardiyas; one formally described by the state, and the other described by those encountering its brutal street violence. Units from this force are now being deployed near Ukraine, according to open-source intelligence organizations.
The official version is a militarized police organization established in the spring of 2016, and incorporating the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). In accordance with the Federal Law of 3 June 2016, which defined the activities of Rosgvardiya, its tasks include “participation in the maintenance of public order, providing public safety,” the protection of state and regime facilities, control of the circulation of weapons and the fight against extremism.
In practice, the Russian Guard is the government’s enforcers and protest-bashers, focusing on the suppression of even mild civic unrest. The Rosgvardiya are designed more for internal use than abroad, as Russian protesters have discovered to their cost. Russian Guard troops are notorious for special brutality toward the population. Unprovoked force against peaceful protesters by the police and the Russian Guard was demonstrated in August 2019 during mass protests in Moscow sparked by the authorities’ decision to bar independent candidates from municipal elections to the city Duma. The action resulted in dozens of people being beaten and hundreds being detained.
Municipal Deputy Aleksandra Parushina was struck in the head with a police baton. The journalist Maksim Kondratiev was hospitalized in the Sklifosovskiy Institute after being shoved into a paddy wagon. Security personnel struck Darya Sosnovskaya in the stomach as she tried to intercede for a detained person with a disability, while another protester, Konstantin Konovalov, had his leg broken. Journalists counted several dozen similar incidents and over 1,000 detentions. All the violence was started and executed by the authorities.
Rosgvardiya returned during the protests in support of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, which swept through every large Russian city in January 2021. The cruelty and unprovoked violence of the security forces were noted by defense attorneys and journalists, and it was sizeable and systematic. Broken limbs and faces beaten bloody were commonplace. In some towns, riot police (OMON) and the National Guard used stun guns and weapons designed to cause trauma to the human body, while in Saint Petersburg a police officer even brandished a cable gun.
Much of this information is known and publicly available. It is much harder to establish what might be in the minds of the Kremlin’s military planners for Ukraine, since at least some of what is available on the internet will be calculated falsehoods. The days when armies could move in relative secrecy are gone; instead, Russian (and other) militaries attempt to seed the digital cloud with disinformation.
It is therefore interesting to examine stories stating that a column of military vehicles, characteristic of Rosgvardiya (BTP-80, Tiger and Ural-VV armored vehicles) was moving from Chechnya in a northwestern direction. The authors cited a video in which the insignia of the 141st Special Motorized Regiment “Akhmat Kadyrov,” better known as the “North” regiment was visible. If this is true, it’s an extremely alarming signal.
The cruelty of the Chechen Russian Guard detachment is at the high end of the scale for the Russian Federation’s uniformed services. In March last year, Novaya Gazeta published the testimony of a former member of the Akhmat Kadyrov regiment (named after the assassinated pro-Russian president and father of the current Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.) A man called Suleiman Gezmakhmaev told the publication that in 2017 Chechen security forces, without any court authorization, had summarily executed 27 people detained on suspicion of attacking police. Gemakhmaev, one of the executioners, told how the detainees were tortured with the electric current until they confessed to everything they were accused of, or they died.
Detainees were held in the basement of the Kadyrov regiment gym. According to him, civilians unjustifiably described as militants and terrorists often suffered extrajudicial murder.
“It’s easier to catch someone, keep them in a basement until a beard grows, and then take them out into the forest and liquidate them as a militant. This is called ‘preparing for the result,’” the former Russian Guard member told Novaya.
Chechen security forces are rarely held accountable for their actions. In December 2020, a judge in Gudermesskiy City Court of the Chechen Republic pronounced a sentence on former employees of the National Guard accused of illegally detaining a resident of Dagestan, who subsequently disappeared without a trace. They were found guilty of abuse of power and sentenced to three and a half years of probation. Even this astonishingly lenient sentence is the exception rather than a rule of total immunity for both Chechen and other Russian security personnel.
Yet when speaking to this author, a former adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense and the head of the Center for Defense Reforms, Oleksandr Danylyuk, questioned the reliability of the information.
“The Russian Guard is not an army unit, but a kind of gendarmerie, designed to maintain order in the occupied territories. It’s unlikely that Moscow will dare to use the ‘Kadyrovites’ for this purpose, because it would alienate even the pro-Russian part of the population of eastern Ukraine. For residents, these people will mostly be associated either with the cruelty of the Kadyrov regime, or with Caucasian crime.”
It is true that in 2015, residents of the occupied city of Gorlovka told horrific stories about the behavior in their city of the Kadyrovites and Serbs summoned by pro-Russian militants, along with mobsters who engaged in gunfights over territory and loot. The Ukrainians described a nightmare world in which the Chechen Rosgvardiya engaged in repression against civilians and undertook patrols aimed at intimidating the population. Anyone expressing dissent was liable to summary execution. As eyewitnesses noted, the Kadyrovites were “good at it.”
According to Danylyuk, the news about the Kadyrovites is more likely to be, “disinformation from Russian military intelligence (GRU). It is known that all Russian special services are in a state of fierce competition and even confrontation, both among themselves and with Kadyrov’s security forces.”
Overall, however, the picture provided by open-source intelligence is accurate. Even Russian propagandists and military analysts do not hide the fact that significant unit movements are underway. In particular, the authors of the pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad admit that American military intelligence data is accurate, and errors are possible only in its political interpretation.
The publication says that “in the past six months, the movement of forces and materiel has been carried out slowly, gradually, but inexorably,” and military equipment from Siberia has been drawn to the Ukrainian border, that reservists have been called up for exercises and that the military is working to counter anti-tank missiles recently supplied by NATO allies.
We still do not know whether these efforts are a means of psychological pressure or preparation for a real invasion, but Russia is not concealing its aggressive intentions.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.