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Armed Forces

The Invisible Reform of the Border Guard Service

Aleksey Nikolsky

From a fighting force to a law enforcement agency

Russia has been very sensitive about guarding its frontiers, the longest in the world, since well before the Bolshevik Revolution. At present the length of the Russian borders is 60,933km, including 38,808km of maritime borders. For various economic, internal security and ideological reasons, at the height of its power the former Soviet Union had arguably the strongest border guard service in the world. The core of that service consisted of border troops, which took their orders from the security agencies rather than the MoD. In 1957-1991 those troops were in fact part of the KGB. Joseph Stalin espoused the ideology of “socialism in one country”, which later transformed into a “socialist camp”, surrounded by hostile countries. That siege mentality was compounded by a state monopoly on foreign trade, which called for strong border controls to prevent smuggling, and the need to repel periodic cross-border raids by anti-Soviet rebels. As a result, the Soviet government kept its borders “locked and barred” as the saying went. In practice that translated into unprecedented militarization of the border guard service. The “linear” principle of guarding the entire vast length of the Soviet border required enormous troop numbers. Indeed, in terms of their numerical strength and technology, those troops were comparable to the entire armed forces of relatively large and powerful countries. In 1991 the KGB Border Guard Troops had 190,000 men under arms.1 In 1984 they operated 343 planes and helicopters, 545 ships and boats, 1,608 radars, 1,294 searchlight stations, 22,328 vehicles and 2,213 units of armor (infantry fighting vehicles and APCs).2

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 the KGB was split up into several services. Its border guard troops became an independent Federal Border Service (FPS). In 1994-1997 the FPS was led by Army Gen. Andrey Nikolaev, and the service essentially remained an armed force. In 2003 President Vladimir Putin once again subordinated the service to the security agencies – namely, to the FSB, the successor of the Soviet KGB. That move, however, did not signal a return to the old Soviet system. On the contrary, it was the beginning of a radical reform which aimed to demilitarize the border service and turn it into a law enforcement agency. On the whole, that reform had been completed by 2011-2012.

The reform was spearheaded by Army Gen. Vladimir Pronichev, who was appointed head of the Border Service in 2003. He retired in March 2013 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60, to be replaced by Col. Gen. Vladimir Kulishov. Unlike his predecessor, Kulishov had never served in the border troops or border agencies. The head of the Border Service also serves as deputy chief of the FSB.

The numerical strength of the border service has been reduced by some 51,000 people since 2003 to about 100,000.3 The service remains militarized only on a few individual stretches of the border, including the troubled North Caucasus, parts of the border with China (on a temporary basis), and in the three countries which rely on Russia for the protection of their borders: Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the rest of the border the previous “linear” principle (i.e. guarding the entire stretch, with no gaps) has been abandoned in favor of protecting only the most important sections of it. Also, the emphasis is now on intelligence, reconnaissance and technology rather than numerous boots on the ground. As part of the reform, the border service has transitioned to a territorial structure. The old ex-territorial border guard districts and directorates have been abolished. Instead, the Russian provinces which have external borders now have their own border directorates (although on some of the less sensitive stretches, two provinces share a single border directorate). Finally, the service is now manned only by professionals rather than conscripts. Apart from the penitentiary service (which used to be part of the Interior Ministry before the 1990s, when it was subordinated to the Justice Ministry), the Border Service is the only armed Russian agency to have completely stopped using conscripts. The goals of the border service reform have never been kept secret – but to the outsiders it has remained largely invisible. It was driven by two obvious reasons: the unbearable economic cost, and the political absurdity of maintaining the old Soviet system. As a result, the FSB Border Service now looks a lot more like the services of the developed countries.

Current structure of the Border Service

In 2009 the forces guarding Russia’s land borders were subordinated to 38 regional Border Service directorates set up in the individual Russian provinces. Some of the provinces share a single border directorate, including Kursk and Belgorod; Kurgan and Tyumen; Saratov and Samara, Astrakhan and the Kalmyk Republic; and Khabarovsk Territory and the Jewish Autonomous Region. Yakutia and Krasnoyarsk Territory have maritime borders in the Arctic, but they don’t have border directorates because there is no practical need to guard those borders.4 The old command structure (border station – border unit - border district) has been replaced with a new one which consists of border crossing stations and border directorates.

The border directorates operate rapid response teams and technical services which maintain radars and CCTV systems. The directorates in the troubled North Caucasus also have mobile and heavily armed special task force units.

The following centers train Border Service officers:

  • Golitsyn Border Service Institute (Moscow Region), with a branch in Stavropol which offers a three-year course for warrant officers

  • Moscow Border Service Institute

  • Kurgan Border Service Institute (the former Border Service Aviation School)

  • Khabarovsk Border Service Institute

Land border units operated by the border directorates are subordinated to the Border Service Department of the FSB Border Service. The department is led by Lt. Gen Yevgeny Inchin, deputy chief of the Border Service.

After the border service became part of the FSB in 2004, its air forces were merged with the very small fleet operated by the FSB itself. All these aircraft are now operated by the FSB Aviation Directorate. The militarized structure of that directorate has also been abolished as part of the reorganization. The old aviation regiments and squadrons have been disbanded. The FSB Aviation Directorate now operates united as well as independent air units subordinated to the FSB aviation centers, which have been set up in most of the federal districts. The air units no longer take their orders from the border directorates of the Border Service; they are now subordinated to the FSB Aviation Directorate.5

The FSB fleet of aircraft currently includes three Il-76 heavy transports, more than 30 An-26 and An-72 light transports,6 and five An-72P maritime patrol aircraft. It also operates 17 Ka-27PS naval S&R helicopters, four Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, and more than 70 Mi-8 helicopters. Most of the Mi-8s are transports, but up to 20 are the Mi-8AMTSh combat transport version or other special modifications. The FSB aviation service no longer has its own training center and relies on MoD training facilities. The head of the service is Lt. Gen. Nikolay Gavrilov.

The naval units of the Border Service were also disbanded as part of the reform. Their hardware and personnel have been taken over by the new Coast Guard service, which is reorganized on the territorial principle. There are 16 border directorates of the Russian provinces which have maritime borders that need guarding. Those directorates now include Coast Guard departments, which are subordinated to the Coast Guard Directorate of the FSB Border Service. During the transitional period there were several independent Coast Guard directorates (the Azov-Black Sea Directorate and several others). Those have now been subsumed by the border directorates of the individual provinces. The Coast Guard of the FSB Border Service currently operates about 500 ships and boats; a fleet refresh program is under way, but progress is very slow. Just like in many other Russian law-enforcement and security agencies, the current priority is to equip with modern technology the units which provide security during important international gatherings, such as the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok or the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.7 Coast Guard personnel are trained at the Coast Guard Institute in Anapa, which offers a three-year warrant officer course. The head of the Coast Guard Department is Lt. Gen. Yuri Alekseev, deputy head of the FSB Border Service.

Procurement policy

Demilitarization of the Russian border service has predictably led to the scaling back of ground weaponry procurement. The service no longer buys special armored vehicles (which the Interior Ministry’s interior troops service continues to procure). The hardware currently being supplied to the service is limited to general-purpose vehicles or, in some rare cases, regular versions of armor (such as the BTR-80 APCs). At the same time, the service is showing interest in special transports designed for difficult terrain.

Meanwhile, the FSB Aviation Service continues to buy significant numbers of aircraft; the service is allowed to place its own orders for such hardware. The units which patrol the border mostly rely on Mi-8 and Mi-8AMTSh helicopters. Three to five new helicopters are being bought every year, and the figure is likely to remain unchanged for next few years.

The FSB is currently planning to buy several transports and passenger aircraft; those will be put to a range of tasks, including trips around the country by Border Service officials and personnel. The planes will be bought under the government’s consolidated aircraft procurement program covering the period until 2020. They include two Tu-214s, four An-148s, one Il-76MD-90A, and two Tu-204-300. These aircraft will replace the old and obsolete Tu-154, Il-76 and An-72 planes currently in service.8 It is expected that by 2020 the FSB will also buy about 10 An-140 planes to replace the An-24 and An-26 aircraft.9 There are no plans to replace the An-72P maritime patrol aircraft currently in service, and the development of new patrol models based on the An-148 and An-140 designs is still in the early phases. The An-72P fleet is expected to undergo a limited upgrade.10 The FSB Aviation Service is also likely to place orders for the repair and upgrade of its Ka-27PS naval S&R helicopters. Some time ago it bought a small number of the Ka-226 light helicopters; these are being used for special missions, and some are based on Project 22460 patrol ships. For the moment, however, there are no further procurement plans for this model. No new orders have been placed in the last two or three years, probably owing to teething problems with the new design which the manufacturer has yet to fix. Finally, the FSB Aviation Service continues to buy small batches of Russian-made tactical UAVs. It has also shown interest in UAV models offered by Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems, but has not placed any large orders for the time being.

Coast Guard ships and boats are probably the largest and most expensive item on the FSB Border Service’s procurement list. That is unsurprising because at least 80 per cent of the Coast Guard fleet currently in service is old and obsolete technology with only a few years left in it before it heads for the scrap yard. In line with a global trend that has emerged over the past two decades, the Russian Coast Guard has stopped buying simplified and lightly armed versions of ships designed for the Navy. Such ships in service with the Soviet KGB’s Border Troops included Project 13351 large patrol ships (Krivak III class) and many other designs.

In the early 2000s the Almaz Central Design Bureau offered the Project 20380P (a version of the Project 20380 corvette) and Project 12441P (a version of the Novik frigate) designs to the border service. But during a subsequent tender the service chose another Almaz design, the Project 22100 Okean large patrol ship.11 The first such ship was laid down in May 2012 at the Zelenodolsk shipyard. The launch is scheduled for 2014, and the ship will enter service with the Coast Guard in 2015. The 2,700-tonne ship has an autonomy rating of 60 days; it carries a hangar for a Ka-27PS helicopter, and an AK-176M automatic 76mm cannon. With its reinforced hull, it can sail though ice up to 80cm thick. The design incorporates many imported systems and components, including the main diesel engines made by Germany’s MTU, and Norwegian-made speedboats. Its navigation and tactical systems were designed by Russia’s Tranzas. The expectation is that if the first ship successfully passes the trials, up to nine more could be built for service with Coast Guard units in the Arctic and the Pacific. The price tag of the ship has not been disclosed in open sources, but it must be at least 150m dollars.

The Coast Guard’s second most expensive project is the Project 22460 Okhotnik medium patrol ship. The first three ships, the Rubin, the Brilliant and the Zhemchug, were built by the Almaz shipyard and launched in 2010-2012. Last year Almaz landed a contract for another two Project 22460 ships worth 2.128bn and 2.162bn roubles. Meanwhile, the Vostochnaya shipyards in Vladivostok received its first order for such a ship, worth 2.25bn.12 It is expected that up to 30 Project 22460 ships will be bought over the coming years. They are likely to be equipped with Gorizont Air S-100 helicopter-type UAVs. Designed by Austria’s Siebel, these UAVs are made under license by Russia’s Gorizont in Rostov-on-Don. They have passed trials on the first ship of the Project 22460 series, the Rubin. Last year the FSB placed a 156.5m-rouble order with Gorizont for the first set of the S-100 model.13

Judging from the contracts advertized on government procurement websites, in recent years the FSB has begun to buy relatively large numbers of various boats for the Coast Guard. According to the FSB procurement schedule, in January 2013 it was planning to place an order for five Project 12150 Mangust boats, costing 138.5m roubles each, and eight Project 21850 Chibis boats (29.9m roubles apiece). In 2011-2012 the FSB placed orders for a total of eight Mangust and four Chibis boats.14 In 2012 it also signed contracts for two Project 1496M boats (worth a total of 378.8m roubles); five Project 12150 (663.75m roubles); two Project 12260 (86.4m roubles); and one Project 21850 boat worth 59.84m roubles.15 Based on the data posted on procurement websites, in 2012 alone the government placed almost 13bn roubles worth of orders for various ships and boats for the FSB Coast Guard. Extrapolation of these figures suggests that the total value of all the ships and boats to be bought for the Coast Guard under the arms procurement program by 2020 will be 100bn roubles at the very least.

1. V. Bakatin. Getting rid of the KGB. Moscow, 1992.

2. FSB Border Service website, History of the Border Service section. http://ps.fsb.ru/history/general/text.htm%21id%3D10320628%40fsbArticle.html.

3. FSB chief Nikolay Patrushev’s briefing for the Russian media. Russian Security Council website, media digest / http://www.scrf.gov.ru/news/138.html.

4. FSB Border Service website, Border Agencies section / http://ps.fsb.ru/department/part/details.htm%21id%3D10320616%40fsbArticle.html.

5. Russia’s wings. Historical review / Moscow, Granitsa, 2008./Chapter 8, “Formation and development of the FSB Aviation Service”, P. 439 onwards.

6. From http://russianplanes.net/airline/1850.

7. The Coast Guard is a law-enforcement agency. Interview with V.A. Trufanov/Granitsa Rossii, No 30 (4120), August 3-9, 2011.

8. Oleg Vorobyev, Ivan Cheberko. Ukraine to make money on a Russian aircraft contract worth 19bn roubles / Izvestiya, December 24, 2012, http://izvestia.ru/news/542085.

9. Author’s information.

10. Aleksey Mikhaylov. FSB to give “the smuggler hunter” night eyes / Izvestiya, January 21, 2012, http://izvestia.ru/news/543165.

11. Aleksandr Mozgovoy. A word about a corvette / Natsionalnaya Oborona, No 1, 2013.

12. Entry on the blog alexeyvvo.livejournal.com citing announcements on government procurement websites / http://alexeyvvo.livejournal.com/26183.html.

13. Aleksey Nikolskiy, Anton Trifonov. FSB buys an Austrian unmanned helicopter. Vedomosti newspaper website, August 6, 2012. http://www.vedomosti.ru/tech/news/2558581/fsb_pokupaet_avstrijskij_bespilotnyj_vertolet.

14. Entry on the blog alexeyvvo.livejournal.com citing announcements on government procurement websites / http://alexeyvvo.livejournal.com/28803.html.

15. Entry on the blog alexeyvvo.livejournal.com citing announcements on government procurement websites / http://alexeyvvo.livejournal.com/26183.html.

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