Military Police, Open Up!

On 12 March, Krasnaya zvezda profiled what might be the armed forces’ first military police department (OVP) in the Astrakhan military garrison, under the Navy’s Caspian Flotilla.

A Statute and Instruction cover the authority and operations of Russia’s military police (MPs).  The KZ article says their formal functions reinforcing discipline, providing security, conducting antiterrorism measures, and controlling traffic.

Russian military police are a long time coming and far from all are happy about the idea.  Instituting an MP force was first debated in the mid-1990s, but it didn’t happen.  The major sticking point was whether the military police would answer to, or be independent of, the Defense Ministry.

As recently as very late 2005, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov didn’t support the idea, but hardly a month later, after the notorious Sychev abuse case, then-President Putin and then-Defense Minister Ivanov came out for establishing a military police force, primarily to halt violent crime and abuse in the barracks.  But the concept fell by the wayside after several months of debate.

Just as suddenly as the thought of military police disappeared, it resurfaced last fall.  The force was to be established on 1 December with a strength of 5,000 personnel, and military police units were to work jointly with local military komendaturas [commandant’s offices] for the first year before subsuming them.

As in the 1990s, the idea encountered considerable opposition primarily from the RF Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and Main Military Prosecutor Sergey Fridinskiy.  Lukin supports military police but only if they are independent of the Defense Ministry.  He has said military officials don’t need one more bureaucratic apparatus.  For his part, Fridinskiy said:

“We need to think clearly about all aspects of this issue, including those connected with legal and financial support. Moreover, where will we find such a number of qualified people?  In our country’s conditions, it’s not a certainty that military police will bring positive changes.  Where is the guarantee that we won’t get the very same excesses that they always talk about in connection with the [civilian] police–we aren’t selecting different people, it’s all the same contingent.”

Fridinskiy seems to be worried about military prosecutors tripping over MPs, or MPs fouling the work of his prosecutors.  He definitely doesn’t entertain the idea that they could work well together. 

There were press rumors over the winter that Defense Minister Serdyukov had decided to scrap the plan to institute MPs, but defense spokesmen denied the reports.  And at least the very first OVP has appeared and gotten some publicity.

The Astrakhan garrison’s OVP chief is an O-4 who once served as head of the security department for an armaments storage base, and chief of the garrison’s guardhouse.  His KZ interviewer says the OVP Chief knows all the ins and outs of garrison service firsthand.

The OVP Chief says the composition of an OVP is determined by the size, locations, and characteristics of the garrison it serves.  His OVP has a security and convoy section, investigation section, and an MP platoon, and he describes its initial capabilities as modest.

The security and convoy section guards and transports prisoners to the prosecutor’s and military-investigative organs, to disciplinary battalions, or investigative detention.  The investigative section prepares cases against soldiers accused of disciplinary offenses.  The MP platoon is responsible for patrol service, preventing crime, and maintaining discipline within the garrison.

The article indicates the OVP will spend a lot of its efforts on searching for AWOL soldiers.  The OVP Chief indicated that komendaturas and military commissariats haven’t been able to concentrate on this job in the past for lack of resources.  Russian AWOLs are known as ‘sochintsy’ from the abbreviation SOCh, or those ‘willfully leaving the unit.’

The Astrakhan OVP Chief recognizes that liaison and relations with unit commanders, local civilian law enforcement, and municipal authorities will be key for him to do his job.  More likely and problematic, however, is the possibility of crossed wires with military prosecutors or the local branch of the military-investigative directorate.  There are already lots of investigators out there investigating military incidents.  The investigative authority of the MPs was a contentious issue in the debate over them.

Russia’s 5,000-strong MP force is a modest start for a million-man army, and the success of the effort can’t be judged until it’s possible to see how many, or how few, OVPs are established.  Past initiatives in military law enforcement aren’t particularly encouraging.

For example, the 2005 effort to reestablish the guardhouse–administrative confinement–in order to do away with the army’s five disciplinary battalions (disbats)–the idea was abandoned when Serdyukov arrived because it required sending men guilty of more serious offenses into the civilian penal system where, unlike the disbat, they would get a permanent criminal record.  The guardhouse effort also went unrealized because it was costly; 98 old guardhouses needed to be rebuilt and 44 new ones were proposed.  And so the disbat lives.  Similarly, the Defense Ministry may discover it doesn’t want to pay to create a lot of OVPs.

Only time will tell how far or wide MPs will be implemented.

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