Why 'Putin's personal army' chief visited Turkey

Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russian National Guard, also known as Vladimir Putin's personal army, paid a surprising visit to Turkey's capital.

al-monitor Viktor Zolotov, the director of Russia's National Guard, attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking the anniversary of the Nazi German invasion in 1941 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in Moscow, June 22, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin.

May 22, 2019

The unannounced visit to Turkey of the chief of the Russian National Guard — an internal security establishment also known as Vladimir Putin’s personal army — will undoubtedly be given hard scrutiny by Western capitals amid increasing criticism of Turkey’s drift away from its NATO allies.

Viktor Zolotov, the head of the Russian National Guard, Rosgvardiya, a security unit that oversees anti-riot police and SWAT teams, paid a surprise visit to the capital, Ankara, from May 13-18 with a “heavily loaded” agenda, Turkish security sources told Al-Monitor. Although his Russian delegation's carefully crafted schedule didn't include any direct contact with the Turkish army, NATO's second largest, the visit heralds further military cooperation between Russia and Turkey.

The delegation of 11 officials led by Zolotov held talks with several Turkish security officials, the sources told Al-Monitor.

Zolotov, whose special force of 200,000 provides policing and military capabilities, is an influential name when it comes to Russia’s security policies. As a close friend of Putin, Zolotov recently made headlines in Russia by ridiculing the country’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny by challenging him to a duel.

Zolotov’s visit wasn’t announced prior to his arrival and was low profile for the most part. The Turkish news media said the goal of the visit was information sharing between the Russian National Guard and Turkish gendarmerie forces. Accordingly, Russians wanted to learned the general structure of the Turkish Gendarmerie Command and its operations and to work toward beneficial sharing of information between two states that have close historical and cultural ties. As Al-Monitor reported in 2017, the Turkish Gendarmerie Command has been increasingly interested in Asia.

Turkey’s pro-Russian newspaper Aydinlik reported that Zolotov’s visit wasn’t limited to information sharing and that concrete steps were taken during the visit for institutional cooperation between Russian and Turkish interior security units.

Zolotov was accompanied by Turkey’s Gendarmerie Commander Arif Cetin throughout his visit. The two also signed a memorandum of understanding that covers cooperation in public order, public security, protection of state facilities, combating extremism and sharing intelligence about cross-border organized crime. The cooperation framework also foresees organizing joint exercises, trainings for the military and civilian personnel of Rosgvardia and the Turkish gendarmerie forces.

The two organizations have many common functions. In Russia, Rosgvardiya is responsible for protecting power plants, bridges, dams, ports, tunnels and other critical infrastructure. It is also tasked with protecting lives and properties of key officials. International news media frequently report that Rostgvardiya has very close relations with some private paramilitary companies and even owns some of them.

Given that Rosgvardiya, with its extreme influence over private security companies, is tasked with special missions such as restraining societal unrest, suppressing the opposition against the Putin administration, protecting critical facilities and persons, it is important for it to engage in cooperative activities in Turkey. For example, it could offer security services for the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which is being constructed by Russia's State Atomic Energy Corp., and the Turkstream natural gas pipeline; Rosgvardiya also could engage in training and exercises with its Turkish partner to ensure public order. Rosgvardiya’s military and personnel could come to Turkey for medical care, training, exercise and even vacations without any restrictions. It could be the trainer, coordinator and even partner of private security firms in Turkey. Of course this extent of cooperation would include sharing intelligence on terror organizations and organized crime.

Zolotov’s contacts were limited to the Interior Ministry’s Gendarmerie Command and the coast guard. This means that Zolotov didn’t hold any direct contact with the Turkish army, which is a NATO element. However, it is worth remembering that the gendarmerie and the coast guard work in an integrated way with the Turkish military in combating terror in southeast Turkey and in patrolling the seas. Thus, in a way, Rosgvardiya will be in touch with the Turkish military and even cooperate with it.

It’s as yet unclear whether the Turkish military will join this honeymoon period between the Turkish Gendarmerie Command and Rosgvardiya. Another important question is whether Russian security private firms affiliated with Rosgvardiya will be given access to the Turkish private security sector. Above all, what will be the effects of the cooperation with Rosgvardiya on the institutional identity of the Turkish security sector’s established pro-Western strategic culture?

No doubt, experts in Western capitals and at NATO have already begun discussing the answer to these questions by scrutinizing Zolotov’s visit.

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