Russian Interior Ministry's Internal Troops
The Russian Interior Ministry?’s Internal Troops (Vnutrenniye Voyska, VV) is the country?’s largest uniformed agency after the Armed Forces. VV is the main service which the Russian government relies on in its efforts to counter the numerous internal security threats, including the armed Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.
In terms of its functions, organizational structure and armament, the VV service has many similarities with such paramilitary formations in highly centralized foreign countries as France?’s Gendarmerie nationale, the People?’s Armed Police in China, and the Turkish Gendarmerie. There are, however, many significant differences which stem from the traditional Russian approach to internal security. In addition, the VV remit includes territorial defense in the event of an external military threat. When internal armed conflicts break out, the VV shoulders the main burden throughout the entire conflict, and not just during its first and the most acute phase, as the two campaigns in Chechnya showed. The combat readiness of the VV service played a key role during the political crises in Moscow in 1991 an 1993, which were the most severe in Russian history since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and which saw the use of military force.
The VV service has been undergoing reforms in recent years, although the pace of those reforms has been much slower than in the Armed Forces. The main objectives of the reform program include making the service more professional and focusing its remit on the same kind of internal security tasks which similar services in other countries are pursuing. That excludes using VV servicemen as guards - such duties will be handed over to the Russian government agencies?’ own departmental guard/security services, as well as private security organizations. Nevertheless, the VV service is still seen by the Russian military-political leadership as an operational police reserve, which can be used as a “rough and ready” solution to various policing and public order problems.
The history of the Russian Internal Troops dates back to a decree by Emperor Alexander I signed in March 1811. The decree ordered the War Ministry to establish internal guards battalions as part of the local military forces. These battalions were tasked with helping the authorities to execute court verdicts, catch bandits, disperse illegal gatherings, protect law and order during fairs and public celebrations, and help the public during emergencies such as fires and floods.1 In wartime the internal guards battalions were used as the core of militia units. In 1886 the War Ministry set up an escort guard service to escort criminals. During World War I it was also given an important task of guarding and protecting the railways. Under the Tzars Russia also had the Independent Gendarmerie Corps ??“ but official military historians do not view it as the forerunner of the Internal Troops, and for good reason. In terms of their functional role, the descendants of the Gemdarmerie Corps in Soviet Russia were the Cheka and the KGB security services, succeeded in present-day Russia by the Federal Security Service (the FSB).
After the Bolsheviks came to power the new government set up the Internal Security Troops (VOKhR) in 1919 by merging the armed security units of various government departments and subordinating them to the All-Russian Emergency Committee (the Cheka).2 The numerical strength of the VOKhR continued to grow in later years; the service was tasked with combating armed anti-Soviet rebellions and guarding the railways and other key industrial infrastructure. Escorting was not part of the original VOKhR remit; in 1924-1930s that service was run by the NKVD of the various Soviet republics and then up until 1937 it was subordinated directly to the central government. In 1938 the government set up the Main Directorate of Border and Internal Troops of the NKVD. The directorate included the NKVD Troops Department for the Protection of Railways; the Main NKVD Troops Department for the Protection of Key Industrial Facilities; and the Main NKVD Escort Troops Department. Shortly before World War II the NKVD formed independent special operations regiments to guard the rear and conduct anti-insurgency operations; the combat training of those regiments was very similar to the training of regular infantry troops.
During World War II, NKVD Troops officers were often used as the core of newly-created military units. There were a total of 53 NKVD troops divisions and 20 brigades; most of them became part of the Red Army. In the first post-war years, the NKVD and Interior Ministry/State Security Ministry troops bore the brunt of suppressing anti-Soviet insurgencies in western regions of the Soviet Union. They were also tasked with guarding and protecting the nuclear and missile industry facilities and testing ranges, as well as the “closed” cities where those facilities were set up after the war. During the reforms launched by Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 the central Interior Ministry in Moscow was abolished, and the interior troops units were subordinated to the interior ministries of the union republics. In 1966 the central Interior Ministry in Moscow was resurrected and given back control of the Internal Troops.
In 1966 the government created another branch of the VV service, the special motor police units, which still exist to this day as special motorized military units of the Internal Troops. These units were tasked with fighting general crime in the most crime-ridden areas. Essentially, these were militarized police units; their main strength consisted of conscripts (just as the strength of other VV units did). By the time the Soviet Union began to break up, the VV service consisted of four main components. One of them, the Escort Troops, was disbanded by 1999 after its remit, i.e. guarding and escorting prisoners, was transferred to the police and the Justice Ministry. The other three still exist, including:
the troops protecting key government and industrial facilities
special operations troops
special motorized units
Since the adoption of the first Soviet law on general conscription in 1939, all the relevant pieces of Soviet legislation stated that the VV service, as well as the border troops, were part of the Soviet Armed Forces. Such a provision in the law was necessary to draft conscripts for these troops - but there was also another important reason for it. The combat training programs of the VV service - and especially the special operations troops - followed the same principles as the programs of the Soviet Army. Their organizational structure and, to a certain extent, their armament matched those of the motorized rifle units of the Soviet Army. In essence the VV was a Soviet army reserve. It was only in March 1989 that the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, the KGB Border Troops and the Railway Troops of the Soviet Army were made separate from the Soviet Armed Forces. This was done because the government in Moscow wanted to make sure that a large part of the combined-arms formations of the Soviet Army would not fall under the limitations of the soon-to-be-signed Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE). Nineteen such formations were reassigned to the Internal Troops alone. In later years the need for such accounting chicanery disappeared owing to massive army cuts - but the VV service still remains formally separate from the Armed Forces.
20 years of war
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the numerical strength of the VV service was more than 300,000 people. Nevertheless, it was under a lot of strain owing to its commitments in various conflict zones all across the former Soviet Union, including the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, etc. The Internal Troops alone proved unequal to the task of restoring order in these conflict zones. They did not have the required numbers, and in those cases where they faced armed resistance, the armament and combat training level of the VV fighting units also proved insufficient. As a result the government was forced to send Soviet Army units, especially airborne assault troops, to the aid of the VV service. For example, airborne assault troops were used to suppress armed rioting in the Azeri capital Baku, during which the rioters targeted the ethnic Armenian minority. The most high-profile case of MoD units being used inside the country came during the attempted coup by Communist hardliners on August 19, 1991, when Soviet Army troops were brought to the streets of Moscow. Most of these troops were combined-arms and airborne assault units, whose ability to suppress large street action in a huge city was questionable. That was one of the reasons why the army command was reluctant to obey the coup leaders’ orders, and took the side of Boris Yeltsin, who led the opposition to the failed coup.
By late 1991 all the VV troops which were originally stationed in Russia proper had been pulled out from the ethnic conflict zones in the trans-Caucasus. The units stationed on the territory of the other former Soviet republics had been «privatized» by the new governments of these newly independent states. In November 1991 the Russian government attempted to use the VV troops to enforce a state of emergency in its mutinous Chechnya province. That attempt marked the beginning of more than two decades of the VV service’s heavy involvement in combat action in the Russian North Caucasus. In November 1992 the Internal Troops were also tasked with separating the warring factions and enforcing a state of emergency in the Ossetia-Ingushetia conflict zone.
A special page in the history of the Internal Troops service belongs to the events in Moscow in September-October 1993. Shortly before ordering the dissolution of parliament, President Boris Yeltsin ostentatiously visited the »Guard» Independent Special Operations Division (ODON) of the Interior Troops, formerly known as the Dzerzhinskiy Division. Soldiers from ODON and special motorized VV units were used to reinforce the police cordon around the anti-Yeltsin parliament. On October 3 the pro-parliament demonstrators broke that cordon, despite the involvement of the ODON division, and lifted the blockade. But then soldiers of ODON’s Rus special task squad took decisive action outside the Ostankino TV center. They used firearms to disperse the demonstrators and managed to turn the situation around in Yeltsin’s favor. The final defeat of the anti-Yeltsin camp came when tanks fired at the parliament building.
Owing to the political crisis in 1993 and the outbreak of an armed conflict in Chechnya in 1994, the size of the VV service rose from 230,000 in 1994 to 304,000 in 1996, even though the government was still pressing ahead with the dissolution of the Escort Troops throughout the 1990s. 3 The Chechen rebels were armed with modern small arms, so the VV units had to be reinforced with armor and artillery. The Russian government also began to increase the numerical strength of the VV aviation service, which was created in 1979. Large numbers of obsolete heavy weaponry - as well as soldiers, in many cases - were transferred from the Armed Forces to the VV service. The weapons included PT-76 and T-62 tanks, D-30 howitzers, D-48 cannon, Mi-8 and Mi-26 transport helicopters, Mi-24 attack helicopters, and Il-72, An-26 and An-72 transport aircraft. The pilots and aircraft maintenance specialists were transferred from the Air Force; the VV service was also receiving new specialists from the Air Force training centers. To all intents and purposes, the Russian government created a duplicate Army for the military campaign in Chechnya, using the VV fighting units as the core of that second Army. On the one hand, it was unnecessary duplication and wasteful use of human and financial resources. But on the other, such a strategy reflected the Russian political leadership’s decision to rely on the organizationally more viable VV service during a period of severe crisis in the Armed Forces.
The power and influence of the Internal Troops reached their peak when the VV commander, Anatoliy Kulikov, served as interior minister in 1995-1998. It was under Kulikov that the government increasingly began to rely on servicemen of special motorized and special operations VV units to make up the shortfall in the regular police forces and maintain law and order in the big cities.
When the second Chechen campaign began in 1999, on many occasions the VV units once again found themselves on the front line - and once again it became obvious that they needed more heavy weaponry. What made things different in 1999 was that during the most difficult initial period of the second campaign the government gave the command of the Russian forces in Chechnya to the MoD (whereas in 1995 the VV commander, Anatoliy Kulikov, was made the over-all commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya in January of that year). According to official figures released in 2010, some 2,984 Internal Troops servicemen were killed and about 9,000 injured during the two campaigns in Chechnya.4 Official estimates put the number of MoD servicemen killed during the same period at over 7,000.
In 2002-2003 the situation in the North Caucasus began to change; the changes became especially obvious in 2004. The Chechen rebels had adopted new tactics, and their main modus operandi was now guerilla warfare and terrorism. In response the Russian government began to bolster the VV special task force units in the republic. The ideology of the Chechen insurgency also changed; it had come to be dominated by radical Islamists, and the rebels were now actively spreading their campaign of insurgency and terror from Chechnya itself to Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. After several large rebel attacks in 2004 the government appointed VV officers as commanders of Operational Coordination Groups (GrOU), tasked with coordinating all the Russian armed and law-enforcement forces in the republics of the North Caucasus. Meanwhile, in Chechnya itself the number of rebel attacks fell substantially thanks to the efforts of the republic’s pro-Moscow local rulers, the late Akhmad Kadyrov and his son and successor Ramzan Kadyrov. Much of the counter-insurgency effort in the republic is being led by newly-created VV units manned by Chechen fighters loyal to Kadyrov; most of them happen to be former rebels. These units include the 248th Independent Battalion (“North”) and the 249th Independent Battalion («South»), both created in 2006. In 2011 the North battalion became the 141st Akhmad Kadyrov Special Motor Regiment.5 In 2011 the government began to create a similar VV battalion, staffed mainly by the locals, to fight the insurgents in Dagestan.
Reform, structure and financing
Owing to the declining level of military activity in the North Caucasus, in 2004-2005 the government began to reassign back to the Army some of the artillery and heavy armor previously transferred to the VV service. From time to time, however, officials speak of the need to reverse that process6. In 2009 the government resurrected a VV artillery regiment in Chechnya, armed with D-30 122mm howitzers. Meanwhile, the numerical strength of the VV service had been reduced to about 200,000. In 2005 the Russian Security Council made a decision to reduce the figure even further by 2011, from 200,000 to 140,000 people. But in 2008, by which time the Internal Troops had already been cut to 170,000 servicemen, the reductions were put on hold; the government said these troops were needed to provide extra security for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.7
In 2006-2008 the government began the process of restructuring the Internal Troops. VV Districts were transformed into Regional Commands, whose borders match those of the seven Federal Districts that existed at the time. Most of the VV divisions were turned into brigades, and the regiments that used to be part of the divisions became battalions. Some of the brigades and independent VV regiments that existed at the time retained their former status. At present there are only three divisions left in the VV service: the ODON, based in Balashikha, Moscow Region; the 55th Special Operations Division, and the 59th Special Operations Division. Both of the divisions include regiments and battalions stationed all over Moscow and Moscow Region. The number of Spetsnaz (special task force) units has been on the rise since 2004. By 2017 it had reached 17, with a numerical strength of 10,000 servicemen. The government now wants them to become the core of the VV Special Task Force centers; the first such center has already been set up as part of ODON through merger of two Spetsnaz units.8
The Internal Troops take their orders from the Main Internal Troops Command. The VV commander is Army General Nikolay Rogozhkin, who is also the first deputy minister of interior. Before his latest appointment in 2000 Gen. Rogozhkin served as the commander of the Army. He is one of the longest-serving officials in the Russian uniformed agencies; there is only one other senior official with a similar record, Yevgeny Murov, head of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), who was also appointed back in 2000.
The Main Internal Troops Command includes the Internal Troops HQ, the personnel department, the combat training department, the aviation department (in charge of the VV service’s air strength), the medical department, the engineering department, the VV rear and logistics service, the legal department, the intelligence department, and other services. The Main Internal Troops Command directly controls the 9,000-strong Independent Special Operations Division (ODON) stationed in Balashikha.
The Main Command also controls several regional VV commands:
The Central Regional Command (Moscow). Its largest formations are the 55th and 59th special operations divisions (DON) and the 21st Special Operations Brigade (OBRON, stationed in Sofrino). The Central Regional Command also controls at least 25 battalions. Most of them are part of special motorized battalions (OMSB), but there are also two independent special battalions (OSN), plus ODON and the Special Task Force Center (TsSN) that is part of ODON.
The Northwestern Regional Command (St. Peters-burg). The command has three brigades: the 33rd OBRON Brigade, the 110th Independent Special Motorized Brigade (OSMBR), and the 63rd Independent Brigade (OBR), plus five regiments (including a training regiment and a training engineering regiment), five independent special motorized battalions, and the 7th Air Squadron.
The North Caucasus Regional Command (Rostov-on-Don): The command has five OBRON brigades, including the largest 46th OBRON brigade in Grozny (Chechnya), which is 7,000-strong; six special units; up to 10 regiments (including an artillery regiment); and at least 15 independent special motorized battalions. The command also controls an air squadron and several support units.
The Volga Regional Command (Nizhniy Novgorod). The command has up to three OBRON brigades, up to five regiments, more than 10 independent special motorized battalions, and three special units.
The Urals Regional Command (Yekaterinburg). The command has up to three OBRON brigades, at least five regiments, two special units and an air squadron.
The Siberian Regional Command (Novosibirsk). The command has three OBRON brigades, up to 10 regiments, up to seven special motorized battalions, two special units and two air squadrons.
The Eastern Regional Command (Khabarovsk): The command has two OBRON brigades, up to 10 independent special motorized battalions, one special unit and one air squadron.
The government has not released any official figures regarding the overall numerical strength of the Internal Troops. By most estimates it currently stands at about 170,000-180,000 servicemen, including at least 30,000 conscripts.
The VV air strength consists of at least eight air squadrons (including one squadron assigned to the special task force units). They operate up to 100 aircraft, including nine Il-76 heavy transports, two An-12 medium transports, six An-72 and 12 An-26 light transports, 10 Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, and more than 60 Mi-8 transport and special-purpose helicopters of various modifications. The Mi-24 attack helicopters that used to be in service with the Internal Troops have all been reassigned back to the Air Force. Almost all the aircraft currently in service with the Internal Troops were transferred from the available Air Force stock; their average age is 20 years. Only six Mi-8 helicopters have been supplied to the Internal Troops in new condition directly by the manufacturer since 2005.
Internal Troops officers are trained at four VV institutes in St Petersburg, Perm, Saratov and Novosibirsk. In addition to air squadrons, the Internal Troops also have several naval units which operate up to 200 small and river boats, as well as units of military divers. The main task of these units is to protect crucial infrastructure - primarily nuclear facilities - built near bodies of water.
The Russian Internal Troops maintain international ties and exchange delegations with such foreign counterparts as France’s Gendarmerie nationale, the Turkish Gendarmerie, and China’s People’s Armed Police. In particular, the VV service is exchanging best practice in mountain training with the French; such an exchange will help to provide security during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Under the law on the federal budget for 2012 and the draft federal budget for 2013-2015, the government will fund the Internal Troops to the tune of 115bn roubles in 2012. The figure will rise to 118bn roubles in 2013, 121bn in 2014 and 122bn roubles in 2015. In other words, spending on the Internal Troops will not be rising in real terms over the next few years. The arms and ammunition budget makes up no more than 10 per cent of that spending.9
When the government announced in 2009 that the planned VV cuts from 200,000 to 140,000 people were being halted at the 170,000 level, it explained the decision by the need for extra security during the 2014 Winter Olympics. But as soon as the Olympics in Sochi are out of the way, Moscow will have the security of the 2018 football World Cup to worry about. The process never ends. It is therefore safe to assume that there are no big VV cuts left in the pipeline, and the size of the force is unlikely to fall below the 150,000-180,000 level.
Prisoner escort duty ceased to be part of Internal Troops’ remit in the 1990s. In 2005 it was followed by another traditional VV task, guarding and protecting key facilities. Armed security of the transport infrastructure, defense industry facilities, etc will now be provided by the corporate security services of Russian Railways, Rostekhnologii and other companies and agencies. There is, however, one exception: the VV service will probably continue to provide security at nuclear power plants and nuclear industry facilities owing to the sensitivity of the task. And the same time, the government continues to increase the numerical strength of the VV special task force and reconnaissance units, improve their training standards and equip them with new hardware. These forces are currently bearing the brunt of the counterterrorism operations in the North Caucasus. Neither are there any signs that the Interior Ministry is going to end the practice of using special motorized VV units as «free extra police».
It is difficult to make a strong case for retaining the special operations VV units, which currently account for at least 50 per cent of the Interior Troops’ numerical strength. These units follow the personnel tables of the Army’s motorized rifle formations, but they are lightly armed. The two campaigns in Chechnya have demonstrated a clear need for these units to be given more weaponry and support if they are to be effective in any serious armed conflict. Opponents of the Russian government often accuse it of keeping the VV service, which they see as bloated and too heavily armed, to “oppress its own people”. Such allegations are wide of the mark. To suppress the insurgencies such as the one in Chechnya, the Internal Troops actually need to be armed even more heavily than they are now. But rather than give the VV service more weapons, it would probably make better sense to create a few more combined-arms Army units, and give them extra training in counterinsurgency warfare. Such an approach would translate into more effective use of the available financial and especially human resources. It would also eliminate the problem of coordination between the VV service and the MoD troops, which was very obvious during the two campaigns in Chechnya.
1. Official web site of the Russian Interior Ministry’ Internal Troops // www.vvmvd.ru/menu2/history/do1917/.
2. Army Anatomy website. History of the Internal Troops // army.armor.kiev.ua/hist/BBB.php.
3. Konovalov I. Interior Troops to remain in Olympic reserve // Kommersant, December 17, 2008.
4. Statement by Interior Troops Commander Nikolay Rogozhkin // Kommersant, December 17, 2008.
5. grozniy.bezformata.ru/listnews/sluzhu-otechestvu/3032894/ .
6. Statement by Col. Gen. Sergey Bunin, chief of staff of the Internal Troops. Interfax, March 30, 2011.
7. Konovalov I. Interior Troops to remain in Olympic reserve // Kommersant, December 17, 2008.
8. http://www8.brinkster.com/ and http://warfare.ru/.
9. Author’s own data.