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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police 'Army' Not Needed In Russia

The need for an efficient, well-equipped police force is all too apparent in Russia, but the growth in public profile and firepower of the Interior Ministry raises some unsettling questions.

As Moscow Times reporter Carlotta Gall explained in an article Thursday, Russia has adopted a clear policy of devoting more resources and assigning more powers to the body, which is responsible for maintaining law and order in Russia.

To the extent that this reflects a desire to step up the fight against crime and corruption and bring more professionalism to the police force, the policy can only be welcomed.

But the Interior Ministry is far more than a simple police force. It also maintains 250,000 interior troops armed with artillery, tanks and much of the hardware more commonly associated with full-scale warfare. The ministry's land forces are now almost half the size of the land-based army forces under the command of the Defense Ministry.

The Interior Ministry's justification for its impressive order of battle is that the troops can be used if social protest spills over into mass unrest.

A country as large and troubled as Russia does need the capacity to deal with civil unrest, but tanks and artillery are not the way to do it. If street violence is a major threat to stability, the Interior Ministry should upgrade the OMON riot police so they are trained and equipped to respond without resorting to massive force. The events of October 1993, when riot police melted in the face of street demonstrations, showed how urgently Russia needs such a force.

Yet it is hard to see why Russia needs two full-scale land forces competing for resources and operating independently. The rivalry between the army and Interior Ministry troops cost Russian lives in the war in Chechnya when the two armies virtually fought two separate wars. The resentment in the army is only being aggravated by what appears to be a policy of providing relatively generous funding to Interior Ministry troops while starving the army of resources.

Of course, the problem goes beyond the Interior Ministry to the whole system of competing armies inherited from the Soviet system. The Border Guard Service, the Federal Security Service and the Kremlin bodyguard all have tens of thousands of heavily armed men. In Soviet times this was part of the byzantine balance of power of a bureaucratized police state, but it has little place in a democracy.

At the moment, Interior Ministry troops are being pumped up as a counterweight to the army. It would better if Russia developed a unified national defense system under one, loyal command.