Earlier this month, in Syria’s Idlib governorate, 29 Russians found themselves encircled by fighters from the rebel front Tahrir al-Sham (which Moscow still calls its old name, Jabhat al-Nusra). Moscow responded with a characteristic extravagance of firepower. The attack submarine Veliky Novgorod launched Kalibr cruise missiles. Su-25 ground attack aircraft flew sorties, while helicopters laden with Syrian and Russian commandos (including men from the elite Special Operations Command) flew in to extract the soldiers and then punish Tahrir al-Sham. Only three Russians were wounded and none died. What was unusual was that the men of this platoon serving in an exposed position were not Spetsnaz special forces, but members of the Voennaya politsiya, Russia’s military police.
Formed only in 2011, this military police force is now 20,000 strong and increasingly professional. With distinctive red berets and black brassards, they fill a long-discussed need in addressing crime and indiscipline within the ranks. Under Lt. Gen. Vladimir Ivanovskii, head of the Ministry of Defense’s Main Directorate of Military Police, their effectiveness is still the subject of some public debate, especially as they have no real role investigating the massive levels of corruption and embezzlement in the military. However, as their growing role in Syria shows, they do represent a different face of the Russian army, and a potential instrument of a robust kind of soft power.
The North Caucasian Battalions
The first deployment of these military police to Syria began in December 2016 with a force of Chechens, drawn largely from the so-called “Kadyrovtsy” — the security forces loyal to republican strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Although some accounts put their number as high as 500, their real strength was probably just under 400. The Chechens filled a variety of roles, ranging from convoy security to hearts-and-minds aid distribution missions in the ruins of Aleppo. Much was made of their ability to find common ground with the locals because of their Muslim faith, but their presence also represented two more cynical calculations: To Moscow, they represented a more disposable asset than ethnic Russian soldiers, given sensitivities at home about the political costs of casualties. To Grozny, they represented a token of loyalty. Kadyrov was being regarded with suspicion and concern by the Russian security elite after the embarrassing murder in Moscow of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. This way, he could demonstrate his value to Vladimir Putin, and also justify his continued control of Chechnya’s security troops (for all that, they were formally now part of the new National Guard).
They were withdrawn in March 2017, their tour having partly overlapped with a battalion of military police from neighboring Ingushetia. The Ingush troops, who were especially visible guarding Hmeymim Air Base and in Damascus, including fighting alongside Syrian Arab Army troops in its Jobar neighborhood, were also there because of politics at home. Ingush leader Yunus-bek Yevkurov, acutely conscious of Kadyrov’s ambitions to extend his authority (until 1992, Chechnya and Ingushetia were conjoined), wanted also to show Moscow his value and loyalty.
The Military Police in Syria Today
This was the first time Russia had deployed military police abroad. The experiment was clearly considered a success, and Moscow is now deploying battalion-strength scratch military police units created from several constituent elements but with no particular ethnic identity. By July, four battalions were operating in Syria, for a total of almost 1,200 effectives. Their primary missions are providing security for Russian facilities and personnel, and manning checkpoints and observation stations monitoring the “de-escalation zones” being established in line with an agreement reached in Kazakhstan in May between Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
According to the accounts of both journalists and others I have spoken to who have seen them on the ground, these military police appear to be relatively effective and professional, and they are likely to stay. (Recent photos of their Tigr light armored vehicles have shown them labeled in both Russian and Arabic.) The military police units offer Moscow several specific advantages. The units are disproportionately made up of professionals, making it easier to form contingents for overseas deployment, as they must be volunteers by law. It also means that the valuable experience they are gaining — especially useful for such a new force — is not going to be bled away quickly by conscripts ending their terms of service.
This is also part of Russia’s domestic and foreign PR campaign for a war that is not especially popular at home (in a recent survey, half wanted Russian forces pulled out of Syria). The presence and activities of the military police have been hyped heavily for domestic consumption, not just playing to the general militarist and nationalist agenda of the state-controlled media but also suggesting that Russia’s role is both humanitarian and relatively casualty-free. With the bulk of combat casualties being sopped up by the “Wagner” pseudo-mercenary force (which is actually a government front, manned almost entirely by Russians, whose losses need not be acknowledged by Moscow), this is meant to assuage public concerns about their boys dying in a war about which they care relatively little.
Future Prospects and Implications
Finally, using military police allows Moscow to send soldiers able to fight if need be — although their primary role is not to be front-line grunts — but also burnish its battered reputation. Russia is considered in many countries in essentially negative terms, as an agent of anarchy on the global scale. However, the use of forces such as the military police which also have a potentially positive, even humanitarian, role is considered a way in which the Kremlin can balance deploying hard power assets with maintaining a soft power capacity.
Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has looked to either deniable or legitimate instruments of coercive influence abroad. In the 1990s, it relied on proxy warriors such as rebels in Transnistria, often in order to create precisely the kind of situation into which Russian “peacekeepers” could then be deployed. Russia’s 15th Independent Mechanized Brigade, based at Samara, is designated as a specialized peacekeeping force, although the presence of elements of the 15th in the Donbas during the winter of 2014 and spring of 2015 sheds doubt on whether this means anything practice. Nonetheless, these Mirotvorcheskie sily elements were deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and a battalion is still present in Transnistria.
Since Putin came to power in 2000, and as his policy became increasingly aggressive, this became a growing priority, and fits into a wider approach of mobilizing a wide range of different instruments for both hard and soft power purposes. Proxies, from warlords to gangsters, were used in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine from 2014, but they are often of limited operational effectiveness and also hard to control. The creation of pseudo-mercenary organizations, first the ill-fated “Slavonic Corps” and then “Wagner”, is precisely intended to create forces able to operate with a minimal level of deniability both to the outside world and to Russia’s population. In this context, while the military police are first and foremost exactly what they seem, a long-needed response to a need within the Russian armed forces, they also provide another source of “hard soft power.” Ostensibly providers of law, order, and security, they are also combat assets, and their presence in harm’s way can even — if one is working on a very ruthless calculus — justify the injection of more conventional military force when they come under threat.
Certainly the incident recounted above in Syria was used as the pretext for a massive and much wider military assault which, according to Russian sources, killed hundreds of rebels, including five commanders. It also acquired a geopolitical dimension, as the Russian media lost no time in blaming Washington for the attack on its forces, asserting that the Americans controlled the al-Nusra Front and that the attack was “initiated by U.S. secret services to stop the successful advance of the government troops to the east of Deir ez-Zor.” Meanwhile, the Russians are angry about the death of Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov in shelling near Deir ez-Zor, which Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called “the price paid with blood for the hypocrisy of American policy in Syria.” The combination of these has meant that the military police have suddenly become the poster children of the Russian “assistance mission” to the Middle East.
Prof. Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher and the head of the Centre for European Security at the Institute of International Relations Prague. His next book, on Russian organized crime, will be published by Yale University Press in spring 2018.