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In Moscow’s Shadows: Does a suicide in the Kremlin Guard reflect wider woes?


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The news that an officer of the Federal Guard Service (FSO: Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti) committed suicide in the Kremlin has triggered a few press enquiries, so let me just put a little background out. (I’d add that I’m planning on a proper profile of the FSO in a future episode of my In Moscow’s Shadows podcast).

Although the Baza Telegram channel, which named the individual as one Mikhail Zakharov, claimed he was actually one of Putin’s bodyguards – which would make him part of the Presidential Security Service (SBP: Sluzhba bezopasnosti prezidenta), a sub-division of the FSO, most other Russian news sources are contradicting this last point. It thus seems more likely that he is part of the Presidential Regiment, formally the Independent Red Banner Order of the October Revolution Regiment of the Commandant’s Office of the Moscow Kremlin, or in other words the Kremlin Guard.

This 5,500-man force, subordinated to the Kremlin Commandant, Lt. Gen. Sergei Khlebnikov, is an elite protection force. Its barracks are inside the Kremlin, in ‘Block 14’ – the Arsenal building – on the other side of the complex from Cathedral Square, where the incident reportedly took place. Its officers all have to meet demanding physical fitness requirements, be at least 190 cm tall and never have been registered at a psychiatric facility, as well as pass an intensive background check (simply having a close relative living abroad is enough for disqualification). They are the men in wear blue uniforms around the Kremlin – and the men in dark blue-green parade uniform standing on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandrovsky Gardens.

The FSO has a range of other elements and roles, from the drivers of the Special Garage to the analysts poring over opinion poll data or hints of a serious threat in the president’s correspondence. Arguably, though, their political muscle has diminished since the retirement of former director Evgeny Murov in 2016; a veteran with considerable behind the scenes clout, Murov was replaced by Dmitri Kochnev, a serious and professional figure, but not someone with the same authority.

Since then, there have been subdued grumbles even from this elite force. It used to be that as well as relatively high salaries (and elevated ranks), they could convert the inevitable overtime they accrued into early retirement. That last perk was summarily removed, and at present they do not even get overtime pay. They are often expected to defer or reschedule vacations, and while they get good medical care in Moscow, the culture is still one which frowns on taking recovery time. Besides which, there is also a keen awareness that their cousins in the FSB and MVD get extracurricular opportunities from bribe-taking to moonlighting in private security. The former is not really an option for regular FSO officers and the latter strictly banned. This, plus the tough entry requirements, may help explain with the Presidential Regiment is currently under-strength, exacerbating the other problems.

Zakharov was also apparently going through a divorce – it could well be that this was nothing more than a personal tragedy, with no professional implications. However, there is a bit of a pattern. In March, one of the snipers from FSO Military Unit 11488 appears to have shot himself at home. Last year, an officer from one of the regional FSO departments – the Volga Federal District unit of the Special Communications and Information Directorate – threatened his superior officer with his service sidearm over a dispute over changed holiday schedules.

Tough conditions, arbitrary management and poor relations between officers and men are long-running problems in the Russian security sector. However, it is striking that a time when the police and the armed forces have certainly put efforts into addressing them, that the FSO seems to be lagging behind. I can’t help feel that if I were the president, I’d want my Praetorians to be a little happier and more relaxed.

In Moscow’s Shadows