ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA —
The Kalashnikov corporation's recent unveiling of a fully armored anti-riot vehicle already has Russia's political opposition organizers up in arms.
Slated to go into service for Russia's newly formed National Guard less than a year before Russian presidential elections, the gargantuan armored tactical vehicle — replete with water cannons, ballistic projectile loopholes and a 24-foot reinforced retractable shield capable of protecting up to 38 officers — is technically not classified as a weapon.
Although the monstrously large "Shchit," or "Shield," is designed to disperse unauthorized rallies, Alexey Krivoruchko, Kalashnikov Concern's chief executive, told journalists the vehicle was not designed under Kremlin contract.
"This new special equipment was developed in the spirit of innovation," Krivoruchko said. "Besides the Shield, we're also working to introduce new design solutions for wheeled armored vehicles in the domestic market and for export deliveries."
According to the state-run RIA Novosti news outlet, Kalashnikov Concern, known for creating the iconic AK-47 assault rifle, routinely secures Russian defense industry contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Andrei Pivovarov, coordinator of the St. Petersburg branch of the opposition Open Russia democratic alliance, told VOA's Russian service that the Shield represents an unprecedented step toward an increasingly hard-line approach to cracking down on political rallies in Russia.
"I've never seen images of such monsters in any other countries," Pivovarov said, adding that the vehicle puts Russian security personnel in the global vanguard of militarized civilian police forces. "Even in countries where there is quite serious unrest — Venezuela, for example — police have individual shields. But this? This is a work of military art."
National Guard deployment of the Shield, he added, indicates the Kremlin anticipates robust street protests ahead of the presidential elections set for early 2018.
"Why else would the Internal Affairs Ministry buy something like this?" said Pivovarov, who has repeatedly been detained at anti-Kremlin protests. "It's not about investing in education, not health care. It's about preserving the current political system."
Russian officials have not issued a statement about the vehicle.
"Everything about this shows that the common people have a desire to take to the streets and express their displeasure," Pivovarov added. "And clearly the authorities are preparing for this."
Maxim Reznik of Russia's Party of Growth, which has representatives in several local legislatures, largely echoed that sentiment.
"The use of this armor will only pour more oil on the fire of conflict," Reznik told VOA. "Contact between society and the state is degrading so much that it's leading to an explosion."
An increasingly militaristic response to Russian street protests, he added, will only further alienate politically conscious youth.
"People will now be a bit more afraid to go to a protest rally, sure, but they will hate power even more," he said. "In general, the brave isn't the one who isn't afraid, but the one who overcomes his fear. In that regard, no amount [of] powerful cars will help."
Gennady Gudkov, a former State Duma deputy, told VOA that deployment of the Shield suggested the government of President Vladimir Putin was "preparing for war with their own people."
"We see this in the stiffness of actions of the riot police, who grab protesters for coming out with white ribbons, and of course the government won't follow any norms of humanity and law," he said.
"Look, it's armored to protect flanks of riot police ... and squeeze people from the rally," he added, claiming the vehicle is also capable of firing tear gas "or live ammunition."
Ports for weapons use
Although Russian police have not said they intend to equip the vehicle with munitions, the machine has ports in the shield for firing projectiles.
"It is clear that there will be injuries, fractures and so on, and everything will go unpunished and painless for those who will be inside these cars," Gudkov said.
Equipping guardsmen with such a formidable piece of equipment, he said, is a significant symbolic gesture by Putin.
"He wants to show that he is not as soft as Mikhail Gorbachev. No, he's cool, he's macho and will not let anyone down," Gudkov said. "The very fact of the publication of photographs of armored vehicles indicates that the Kremlin people are ready to fight the people of Russia with rather ruthless methods of punishment.
" ... You can safely predict that a protest [confronted by this vehicle] will be radicalized in the most rapid manner. And the huge experience of street fighting accumulated by our people, beginning with the revolution of 1905, and including the partisan struggle of the Second World War, should not be written off from accounts," he said.
"It won't frighten people who are ready for decisive steps," Gudkov added.
According to the Russia's TASS news agency, Kalashnikov's sales in 2016 reached RUB18.3 billion ($319 million), a 123 percent increase over 2015.
Kalashnikov's website claims it has already generated $57 million from government contracts in the first of half of 2017.
This report originated in VOA's Russian service.