MOSCOW — It has been years since Russia's protest movement showed much moxie, sending tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow for raucous demonstrations against electoral fraud and Vladimir Putin's third term as president. But with the economy now mired in its longest recession in 20 years and parliamentary elections set for this September, Russia's police are drilling for a new rise in discontent.
Earlier this month, Putin announced the formation of a new, national guard, whose commander (a former head bodyguard for Putin) would answer directly to the Kremlin (as opposed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) and which may be given the right to fire into crowds with live ammunition, Russian lawmakers have suggested. Officially, the National Guard will fight terrorism, weapons trafficking, and organized crime, along with public unrest. Informally, the agency, called Rosgvardia, has been panned as Putin's "praetorian guard."
Following the announcement, activists and news media have published several fresh videos of riot police attached to the new agency running large, anti-protest drills. Last weekend, the Kommersant newspaper reported on the latest police training exercises against "mass riots" in the city of Smolensk by "residents unhappy with the rise in utilities costs who have joined an unsanctioned protest."
In the simulation, which was held in the suburbs of the city of about 325,000, riot police and Russia's equivalent of SWAT teams use stun grenades to disorient the crowd, while barbed wire is used to cordon off the protesters in a process called "kettling." In the simulation, the newspaper writes, "the protesters are cut into two groups, after which they are all cordoned off. Then the most active rioters are detained and brought to the police station for further proceedings." In real life, the newspaper noted wryly, Smolensk's utilities infrastructure is one of the most accident-prone in the nation.
The two agencies responsible for breaking up the crowd, OMON (riot police) and SOBR (similar to the United States' SWAT), were both transferred into the national guard, according to the order for the guard's creation posted on the Kremlin's website (English version here has less detail), along with weapons and drug-enforcement agencies.
"There is no real reason for creating the National Guard out of the Interior Troops and other forces unless you have a serious worry about public unrest," Mark Galeotti, professor at New York University and a specialist on Russian security, argued in a recent column. Supporters of the government argue the new agency will streamline law enforcement.
Earlier this month, Open Russia — a news website critical of the Kremlin backed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch who was jailed under Putin for a decade — released another video that showed Russian riot police (the website claims it is the national guard) drilling on the outskirts of Moscow to break up a far larger protest than in Smolensk. While the website did not release details of the simulation, protesters can be seen building tire barricades and carrying Latvian and Russian flags, as well as the standard of a popular Moscow soccer team, CSKA.
Some elements reminded viewers of the volatile protests that led to Ukraine's 2014 Maidan revolution, specifically the stacks of tires that protesters set on fire during the winter demonstration. The videos show Russian police using tear gas and water cannons, and dropping water from a helicopter in a technique usually employed to fight forest fires. The video was released several days after Putin announced the formation of Rosgvardia.
Activists have also pointed to Russian security agencies making new procurements of anti-protest weapons, including a "Sound Cannon" (or Long Range Acoustic Device) similar to the one used by U.S. police against protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The last large Russian political protest to turn violent was the 2012 Bolotnaya Square demonstration, where protesters clashed with riot police, ending in hundreds of arrests and several dozen criminal prosecutions.