oDR: Explainer

Who are the Russian security forces upholding Putin’s brutal regime

Some five million members of the siloviki are responsible for maintaining Putin's crackdown on any opposition

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Sergey Smirnov
31 October 2022, 4.04pm

A poster of Russian president Vladimir Putin seen damaged on the floor in a police station in Kupiansk, Ukraine, 26 September 2022

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Ashley Chan/ ZUMA Press Inc/ Alamy

Understanding Russia’s political and civic life is not easy. There is a ruling party, which should mean the rest of Parliament is in opposition. But this isn’t the case because the real opposition forces are not allowed to participate in elections. This would suggest that election results should be a cause of outrage. But in Russia, elections have been destroyed by mass fraud, in which tens of millions of votes are falsified.

The same goes for the Russian courts. Formally, according to the country’s constitution, the courts are independent. In reality, any decision in a political trial is made by order from the Kremlin.

Who supports this system, who protects it? The so-called security forces, known in Russia as siloviki, are the core and backbone of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Today, there are as many as five million people in the siloviki, including employees of the country’s state security, the police, the investigative committee (which is supposedly akin to the FBI in the US) and numerous other agencies, such as the National Guard, which employs more than 300,000 people and is only really tasked with dispersing protests.

Russia’s siloviki have long lived by their own rules. Very often, these rules are inaccessible and incomprehensible for both people outside the country and residents of Russia.

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I’ll give you an example, a true story that took place in a small town in the Leningrad region in 2017. A police officer met with his agent, a twice-convicted drug addict, whom he asked to sell drugs to someone he knew. The agent agreed, and the officer demanded that he sell not only a drug of natural origin, but also a secret synthetic drug.

Why? Russia’s criminal code has different potential sentences for the possession and purchase of drugs – if it’s a synthetic drug, the sentence is much higher, so in this case the buyer’s sentence would increase from three years to ten. For the police, this is extremely important because Russia’s security forces continue to exist in the Soviet-planned economy. They have set targets for solving crimes – and drug charges are a priority.

But at the very last moment, the police agent refused to hand over the synthetic drug, replacing it with a harmless allergy tablet. Having already detained the buyer and drawn up a charge, the police became furious that the forensic examination did not find traces of the drug. They detained their agent and offered him a choice: either he goes to prison on drug charges or he pays them compensation for problems with the examination.

The drug addict had no money and decided to go to the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence service, whose tasks include monitoring the country’s security agencies. FSB officers have their own targets for identifying police officers involved in corrupt activities. The agent, under the supervision of the FSB officers, handed over the ‘compensation’ to the policeman, who was immediately detained and asked to testify against other police officers involved. Sensing the danger, senior police officers refused to meet with the FSB and did not take any of the compensation money.

This frustrated the FSB officers’ plan, so they broke into the police department with a special forces team, detained the necessary officers and took them to a forest. There, they used stun guns to torture the policemen and force them to confess their guilt.

Why did this happen? Because for any court, an admission of guilt at any stage of the investigation is the main basis for issuing a guilty verdict. The police officers were convicted on corruption charges, and the FSB agents never faced justice for the torture they committed.

Russian police officers detain men at rally

Russian police officers detain men at a street protest against the partial mobilisation announced by Vladimir Putin, Moscow, 21 September 2022

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REUTERS/ Alamy

It seems that this story has nothing to do with Russian politics and public life. But Russia’s security forces have the same targets for opposition arrests as they do drug charges or identifying corrupt officers.

Back in the late 2000s, a new department was set up at Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, the now infamous Centre for Combating Extremism, better known as ‘Centre E’. In the years that followed, more and more people were convicted on ‘extremism’ charges. At first, these were young people, initially with radical right- or left-wing views, and then any opposition. After Centre E officers imprisoned most of the radical youth in their regions, they took an interest in Russian social media users. As a result, many people were convicted on extremism charges for posting harmless memes online.

As Russia’s laws on protest were toughened over the past decade, the authorities’ attitude to opposition activists has also changed. The main punishment for attending a street protest was previously a fine of 500 rubles (less than €10), but this has been gradually increased and is today punishable by up to 15 days in prison.

It’s also become a criminal offence to violate the rules for holding a rally: if you are detained three times in a row at a protest, you face up to five years in prison. Once you’re on Centre E’s database, it’s enough to simply go out to protest – even if you aren’t detained on the day, police will track you by CCTV while you’re on your way home or to work. They’ll stop you, and you can be held for 15 days.

But the authorities have become even more worried about politicised youth who are capable of forceful resistance. While Russian security forces once called these people ‘extremists’, after Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014, they began to view them as ‘terrorists’. Terrorism cases are under the jurisdiction of the FSB, which means torture is becoming a legal method of interrogation. We saw this in the ‘Network case’ in 2017, when anti-fascists in the Russian town of Penza were tortured as part of a supposed terrorism investigation. The group had played airsoft, a paintball-like game with mock air weapons, in a forest and discussed what happened in Ukraine’s Maidan – this was enough to declare them a ‘terrorist organisation’ and sentence them to 18 years in prison.

For 15 years, the Russian security forces have done what the authorities asked of them. They suppressed any opposition activity at an early stage, with many people preferring not to attend any more protests after an encounter with the police or FSB. The authorities also never made concessions to demonstrators. Those who continued with opposition activities faced increased attention from the security forces, intimidation, weeks in jail and criminal investigation.

Yet the siloviki’s control is not limited to politics and drug-related investigations. The FSB and security forces control other areas of Russian life through criminal investigations, which are the easiest way to persecute someone who does not share the authorities’ opinions, and have become an integral part of Russian culture. This was the case with theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was accused of fraud with public money, in a case that was widely considered to be politically motivated and part of a crackdown on artistic freedom.

What’s the siloviki’s motivation, though? They have great work benefits and can often retire early – the Kremlin spares no expense on them. These millions of law enforcement employees know they are better protected than the majority of Russian citizens. Especially if they continue to play by their own rules, following the plan and orders from the Kremlin.

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