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State Unitary Enterprise "My Defense": How Russian regions are forming their own armies amid the war in Ukraine

Source : https://t.me/vvgladkov/2979/
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On July 25, the Russian Duma approved a bill in the third reading, introducing amendments that would empower Russian governors to establish their own military companies and equip them with small firearms and ammunition. This move appears to be a late reaction from lawmakers to a practice that has already been in place for a while.

Since 2022, governors of several Russian regions have been forming territorial defense, or self-defense, forces. They justify this by the necessity “to protect our land” against threats from Ukraine and NATO. They share videos showcasing the training of their territorial defense units. Some of them, like Kursk governor Roman Starovoit, actively encourage people to join these units. Meanwhile, others, such as Vyacheslav Gladkov from the Belgorod region, are seeking ways to arm these forces with combat weapons. 7x7 provides an account of how these territorial defense squads have evolved from being pro-government "patriotic" associations to becoming state-run military enterprises.

"Villagers with doorman syndrome"

In June 2023, historian and blogger Alexander Shtefanov visited the Belgorod region to work on a video story about the situation in the border area. In the town of Otradnoye, Belgorod district, he was detained by people who identified themselves as members of the territorial defense.

"I arrived, walked around the town, and asked the locals about the areal attacks, whether and how often they happen. From there, I was going to walk to Krasniy Khutor, a frequently bombed settlement. At that moment, an old woman came up to me and asked whether I was a Ukrainian saboteur. Soon after, Yuri [who claimed to be in the territorial defense] showed up. He asked for my ID, snatched the passport from my hands, and said that we had to wait for the border guards to arrive. Eventually, he passed my passport over to the police," Alexander recalls the incident. 

According to the blogger, Yuri dozed off, and it was local children who woke him up. He reeked of alcohol. Yuri's wife boasted about pouring out his bottle of vodka the previous day.

Source: fonar.tv

During their conversation, Yuri did not provide any proof of being a member of a defense squad. Later, other local men arrived, also claiming to be in the territorial defense.

"They wore military uniforms that anyone can purchase. There were no insignia on the uniforms, just white ribbons. Yuri also showed a badge from the Wagner training center, very proudly. But I'm not sure if he ever was in that center. The whole thing felt like a citizen's arrest: a group of people detained me and handed me over to the police."

Yuri called the police and, while waiting for them to arrive, said that he and others in their group possessed smoothbore hunting rifles. However, Alexander never saw any locals with shotguns.

Later, the police mentioned shotguns owned by the territorial defense when they told Shtefanov about the death of Yuri Gayevoy, a member of a such unit. He was killed during an armed raid by the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) in the Graivoronsky district of the Belgorod region on May 23.

“The police claimed that he got out with his civilian gun and started shooting at the saboteurs, who shot back and killed him. There is no evidence to support this story,” Alexander says.

Police officers told Shtefanov that they couldn’t quite understand the function of the territorial defense. The blogger, too, found the status of its members unclear.

“They were villagers with doorman syndrome. Fuzzy individuals detaining you on fuzzy grounds, which presents a legal gray area. Who are they? What is their status? What are they allowed to do? It seems like they can't do much, especially with civilians. But theoretically, anything is possible.”

At the police station, Stefanov was required to write an explanatory note. He was advised to have his documents at all times with him and to show them if needed.

What is territorial defense, and what do we know about these units in the regions?

The law (Article 22 of the "On Defense" law) says that territorial defense units can be established under martial law, both on the entire territory of the Russian Federation and in the specific regions where martial law is declared. The law defines territorial defense as a system of measures aimed at protecting and defending military, state, and public facilities, as well as combating saboteurs. Territorial defense forces are controlled by governors or heads of local administrations.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, regional authorities in Russia have begun referring to civilian volunteer units formed in their regions as territorial defense forces. In doing so, they find guidance in President Putin's decree of October 19, 2022. This document introduced in certain regions, such as Krasnodar Krai and the Belgorod, Bryansk, Voronezh, Kursk, and Rostov regions, an intermediate response preparedness and allowed "certain territorial defense activities." Other regions in the Central and Southern Federal Districts have been put on the regime of high alert, which, according to the document, may also include territorial and civil defense measures.

Source: t.me

Kursk region

Since December 2022, Kursk governor Roman Starovoit has been actively promoting the "Patriot" volunteers’ squad, also assuming the role of its commander. He attends its tactical training sessions on weekends and loves mentioning that the fighters were earlier trained by Wagner mercenaries. Among those who visited the training grounds of Kursk volunteers was the Duma speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin.

Starovoit's posts on his Telegram channel show that the volunteer groups are engaged in patrolling the border areas. They also organize fire brigades, particularly in the frequently shelled Glushkovsky and Khomutovsky districts. If necessary, according to the governor, the volunteers "will be able to defend their homeland and support the army."

Source: t.me

Voronezh region

In mid-June, a certain local organization (“People's territorial defense of Voronezh”) demanded one of the city’s bars hand over the administrator who, referring to the dress code rules, refused entry to a man in a military uniform (apparently, the man had been in the war in Ukraine). Later, Rospotrebnadzor initiated administrative cases against the bar for violating consumer rights and providing services that do not meet regulatory requirements. The bar manager recorded an apologetic video but got fired, nonetheless.

Alexander Mosolov, the head of the organization, told the "Vesti-Voronezh" TV channel that the volunteers had no legal entity, only a charter and that donations were their only source of financial support.

The press service of the regional government clarified that this particular organization has nothing to do with the regional territorial defense, which consists of members of law enforcement agencies. Earlier, Voronezh governor Alexander Gusev announced that there were regional volunteer units consisting of civilians. In early June, Dmitry Kuznetsov, a member of the State Duma Defense Committee, mentioned his trip to Voronezh, saying, "I have come to Voronezh region and will be talking to men who want to join the defense forces. I want to find out what they are ready for, what they need, and what they want. Now it is important to understand what kind of weapons are needed, what kind of training is required, and what will be the format of interaction with the authorities. Because we have to be ready.”

Oryol Region

The Oryol region does not border Ukraine, however, in July, the authorities decided to form their own territorial defense units. Governor Andrei Klychkov, just like Duma member Kuznetsov, mentioned the need to "be ready." 

"There is a proposal to get together and organize the civilian rear in order to get prepared, to learn the basics of medical and tactical training, to master how to use weapons. I hope we will never need it [to use these skills]," the press service of the Oryol government quoted the head as saying.

The proposal mentioned by Klychkov is a video message that was recorded by two men in military uniform and a woman after an arson attack on a relay cabinet near Oryol-2 station. They said they would like to teach combat skills to region residents.

"The authorities are determined. They are in support. At the moment, the work is being done at the “Uragan” training grounds. We are to open soon. And we will take the first group of learners for training. We are not talking about the number of trainees yet. But there are lots of those willing," Sergei, an instructor of the Rokot-Oryol project, told to the Oryol News. According to journalists, he has also joined the instructors’ team at the defense force. 

Pskov Region

Pskov governor Mikhail Vedernikov formed a detachment called Alexander Nevsky's Druzhina in July to fight NATO. His region borders the alliance's member countries Estonia and Latvia.

"Given that the pressure from the West, the NATO bloc, is only increasing so far, we need to go from the most probable to the least probable. To stop possible activities of sabotage groups, terrorist acts, especially in border municipalities, it is necessary to create... we can call it territorial defense," Vedernikov said in an interview with "First Pskov.”

 Belgorod region

Territorial squads are most active in the Belgorod region. Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov first mentioned them in December 2022, but according to the commanders, these detachments appeared much earlier, at the beginning of the war. In the spring of 2022, the territorial defense was busy mostly supplying the military with such things as generators, food, and clothing. Later, they moved on to patrolling and guarding facilities, which led to various incidents, such as the detention of Alexander Shtefanov.

source: fonar.tv

In January 2023, Alexander Kurchevsky, one of the commanders of the Belgorod battalion, told BelRu news agency that his fighters were involved in detaining journalists from Moscow and even foreigners. Perhaps they were involved in the detention of Kirill Ponomarev, a reporter for the Moscow Times, who was collecting comments from Ukrainian refugees in September 2022 in Belgorod. Or in the detention of Danil Nozdryakov from Sobesednik, who came to Belgorod in October 2022 to work on a story from the border area.

During the armed raid of the RDK in Novaya Tavolzhanka in May and the massive shelling of the Shebekinsky district in late May and early June, the territorial defense was engaged in evacuating local residents. According to one witness, territorial forces were not involved in a fire exchange with the RDK.

There is no information about territorial defense units in Krasnodar Krai and the Bryansk region. In June, Bryansk governor Aleksandr Bogomaz told TASS that "assistants of border guards" were operating in the region. For example, they passed information to law enforcement agencies about sabotage detachments that entered the Klimovsky district on March 5.

How the territorial defense units are organized in the Belgorod region

The name of the man in charge of the territorial defense units in the Belgorod region is Artur Chigrinov. He got this job at the end of 2022. It pays a salary of 15.3 thousand rubles ($157), which with bonuses can go up to 90 thousand rubles ($924) per month. 7x7 has been unable to find public references to who Chigrinov is and what he did before.

Shortly after the Belgorod governor added to his staff an advisor on volunteers’ issues, a public organization named "Consolidated operational detachment to promote law and order" was registered in the town of Shebekino. Artur Chigrinov became its chairman. Among other things declared as its duties, the organization assumes responsibility for security in emergency situations and "in the field of nuclear energy use."

By July 2023, under Chigrinov's leadership, the authorities had formed eight battalions of territorial defense, or territorial self-defense, as governor Vyacheslav Gladkov has been referring to them since December. The battalions have names: "Preobrazhensky," "Bastion," "Streletsky," "Region-31," "Vympel," "Rubezh-31," "Cobra," and "Steel." According to the Belgorod government, a total of 3 thousand people have joined these squads. These forces’ responsibilities include maintaining public order, guarding settlements and important infrastructure facilities, assisting federal agencies, intercepting border violators, and helping law enforcement services in case of threat of terrorist acts or armed attacks.

A snapshot from Vyacheslav Gladkov's broadcast on VKontakte: https://vk.com/gladkov_vv?w=wall639631882_966211/A snapshot from Vyacheslav Gladkov's broadcast on VKontakte: https://vk.com/gladkov_vv?w=wall639631882_966211/
A snapshot from Vyacheslav Gladkov's broadcast on VKontakte: https://vk.com/gladkov_vv?w=wall639631882_966211/A snapshot from Vyacheslav Gladkov's broadcast on VKontakte: https://vk.com/gladkov_vv?w=wall639631882_966211/

Aleksandr Kurchevsky, commander of one of the Belgorod battalions, told RBC that the volunteers have the status of "public servants," and they even have certificates. According to Kurchevsky, the certificates are needed to explain to local people their status and the right to wear a uniform.

This information was confirmed to 7x7 by a member of the Belgorod territorial defense, who requested anonymity. He said that the fighters hold the status of "members of a public association to promote law enforcement." He did not disclose the name of his battalion.

It is believed that no one in these formations receives a salary. Vadim Tarasenko, commander of one of the battalions, mentioned in an interview with the "Pepel" media in December that one can be paid only for patrolling alongside the police as a member of voluntary people's squads (VPS). But this may change. On July 11, governor Gladkov criticized the work of the voluntary people's squads and proposed redirecting the funds allocated for them to the territorial defense, saying:

"I have significant concerns about the work of VPS in Belgorod. They mostly recruit very young people, including a lot of girls. It all appears rather formal. We spend money, but the results are minimal."

In 2022, the Belgorod authorities allocated 89 million rubles ($914,415) for voluntary people's squads, with one half of the money coming from the regional and the other from the municipal budget. In the summer of 2022, the squads had 4.7 thousand members.

According to Andrei Pertsev, a political observer for Meduza, the forming of territorial defense forces in Belgorod was motivated by the fear of raids by the Ukrainian troops or other militant formations. The expert believes that Belgorod’s example has set a trend for other regions whose leaders have decided to establish their own territorial defense units "for future use."

"[The authorities' motivation] is merely to show off to their superiors. To demonstrate that 'I'm not idle; I'm doing something.' I can't imagine a scenario in which a territorial defense group acts as the governor's personal army. What and who would they protect? And why would they obey him? The governor, in this case, is merely an employer," Pertsev says.

The press service of the Belgorod region did not respond to a journalistic inquiry about the functions, status, subordination, and funding of the territorial defense.

Territorial defense and armaments

Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov stated that the ranks of the Belgorod defense would reach 6 thousand people by August 1, 2023. They will be provided with the necessary equipment and, most importantly, firearms.

In December 2022, Artur Chigrinov, the Belgorod governor's advisor on volunteers’ movement, said the defense force members would be ready to take firearms in their hands in "the emergency situation in the region." Initially, there were no plans to arm them, as the authorities found no legal grounds to do so. However, the defense was not entirely without firearms; for example, hunters, like volunteers from the town of Otradnoye in the incident with blogger Alexander Shtefanov, were using their own hunting rifles.

“There is no talk of using rifles during guarding. Only legally, as for all other citizens of the Russian Federation," an anonymous member of territorial defense told 7x7.

On July 5, speaking live on television, Vyacheslav Gladkov announced that the self-defense groups serving in the border areas would be armed. This decision was allegedly supported by Vladimir Putin. The authorities plan to purchase 400 firearms and establish secure storage facilities in the Belgorod district, as well as in Shebekino, Rakitnoye, and Valuisky.

It is possible that exactly for this purpose the authorities registered in June a state institution called "Okhotnadzor" and appointed Artur Chigrinov as its director. Officially, the new organization should focus on hunting, capturing, and shooting wild animals. 

"The command to use the firearms will be given personally by the governor," Gladkov's desk officer Oleg Mantulin clarified earlier.

Voronezh governor Alexander Gusev is of a different view. He believes that volunteers can train with "wooden automatic rifles" but should not fight using firearms in the defense of territories....

Source: t.me

"Armed units of civilians with other civilians in command, this constitutes a serious danger. One has to be sure that nothing would click inside such an individual’s mind… while he has an automatic shotgun in his hands," Kommersant quoted Gusev as saying.

The federal authorities appear to prefer Vyacheslav Gladkov's position. In July, the Russian Duma urgently prepared amendments to allow regions to establish state unitary enterprises and equip them with small firearms and ammunition.

Military expert about the combat capabilities of territorial defense

Kirill Mikhailov, a military researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team, speaking with 7x7, suggested that in certain situations, territorial defense groups could be the first to face the enemy. For instance, in the case of a sudden offensive, they might have to fight in the first line of defense until the regular army can respond. This is exactly how Ukraine's territorial defense acts, which proved effective during the early days of the war when the Russian army launched attacks. However, Mikhailov finds it difficult to imagine a similar scenario on Russian territory.

“[In Ukraine] the city of Sumy was never taken thanks to the defense forces. But here [in the Belgorod region] this is a completely speculative problem since it is clear that no one is planning mass invasions of Russian territory. So, this possibility can be disregarded, as well as the potential role of territorial defense in organized guerrilla actions. But their other function is to fight sabotage groups, to maintain order in general, like serving at checkpoints and detaining suspicious individuals. However, it should be remembered that these people are not trained for anti-terrorist operations," the researcher says.

Regarding the role of territorial defense in the border areas, Mikhailov says they may be helpful if sabotage groups become highly active. 

“Because they consist of local volunteers, these units will be much more motivated than the conscripts from St. Petersburg who serve there [on the border]. Plus, they have an advantage in knowing the terrain. And since they are subordinate to governors, issues with logistics and, for example, financial support will be resolved quickly.”

In Mikhailov's opinion, the Belgorod region's territorial defense in its current form would hardly be able to stop trained troops as they lack the proper experience and equipment.

“Everything depends on how effectively people are trained and who does it, and how fast the bureaucratic machine will be able to arm them. It must be remembered that small firearms are not enough; ideally, they need mortars and ammunition for drones to counter light fighting vehicles. They [the detachments] don't and will never have heavy machines. So, in a hypothetical case of the Russian territory being invaded, the regular army or the Rosgvardiya will have to involve anyways.”

“When territorial defense is headed by governors, serious combat capability is hardly possible," the expert explains.

He says that the local authorities create such units simply to imitate hard work and as a response to the federal center’s demand to protect the territory.

Source: t.me

“Maybe he [Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov] enjoys being a popular dude that everyone looks up to, but I can’t find any systematic approach in the actions of the authorities in helping the local population. I could be wrong, and maybe he [Gladkov] is sincerely trying to do what he can within his limited powers and means. But essentially it looks like he is imitating some Ukrainian military governors," Kirill Mikhailov concludes.


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