March 27, 2024

Putin’s Henchmen: the Russian National Guard in the Invasion of Ukraine

A Rosgvardiya officer at the site of a damaged building following a reported drone attack in Moscow, Russia, 30 July 2023.
A Rosgvardiya officer at the site of a damaged building following a reported drone attack in Moscow, Russia, 30 July 2023.

As the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) poured into Ukraine alongside Moscow’s regular troops on 24 February 2022, President Vladimir Putin’s key assumptions about the war became evident: the so-called “special military operation” had to result in Kyiv’s rapid capitulation, with the Russian National Guard performing key occupation duties and quelling any Ukrainian protests against the new authorities. As this plan failed, National Guard units would suddenly find themselves in a conventional war they had neither the training nor the equipment to fight.

This paper aims to highlight the role that the National Guard has played in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the war’s impact on the service. Willing to be a key instrument to advance Putin’s priority objectives, most notably internal stability and the war against Ukraine, the National Guard has at least momentarily strengthened its standing within Russia. In this sense, the case of the National Guard is illustrative of the general dynamics characterising Russian security agencies, constantly engaged in a struggle for resources, influence, or even mere survival.

The National Guard enjoys a favourable moment to further increase its power base. Playing a key role as both an invasion force against Ukraine and a guarantor of the regime at home, the National Guard is well-positioned to further grow as a prominent security agency inside Putin’s Russia. The significance and leverage of the National Guard as a fighting force will increase further as the service is set to receive new capabilities, including tanks and heavy artillery.

At the same time, the past two years of war have highlighted obstacles to a more leading National Guard role. Having only limited direct access to the Kremlin, the service remains far from enjoying the same status as the FSB. In a context where pressure on the federal budget is set to increase in the coming years, the National Guard could find itself in a precarious position, especially if pushed to a more overt competition for resources with the Armed Forces. Having suffered heavy losses and appearing already overstretched, the service may end up with much responsibility on its shoulders while squeezed between multiple voracious heavyweights, a position that could prove to be very uncomfortable and even fatal.

The increasingly militarised and strengthened National Guard may currently mirror Putin’s need to control a force capable of responding to what he sees as the west’s assault against Russia, ready to combat unrest inside the country and deploy to continue its mission abroad. However, this not only indicates that the Kremlin might fail to understand that the greatest sources of instability for the regime lie within Russia itself but could also mean that in a future Russia, with a new leader and a different understanding of security, the National Guard, an embodiment of Putin’s thinking, might simply disappear.

Download and read: Putin’s henchmen: the Russian National Guard in the invasion of Ukraine (PDF)