Berkut: Yanukovich’s stormtroopers?

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Berkut at Work

As the terrible events in Kiev unfold, I’m getting increasing media queries about Berkut (‘Golden Eagle’), the Ukrainian riot police busily out on their skull-cracking work, so I thought it might be useful to post a quick summary here. In short, they are the descendants of the Soviet OMON and thus very similar to their Russian OMON counterparts (the acronym now stands for Special Purpose Mobile Units, even since the militsiya was renamed politsiya and no one much liked OPON as a new name). They even wear the same blue urban camouflage or black uniforms (although just to show that they are their own men, they wear maroon berets instead of their Russians’ black ones). In other words, Berkut (click here for a gung-ho recruitment video) fulfills a range of roles, from armed support to the regular police (such as in raids on gang headquarters), through additional patrollers on the streets. However, their prime and backstop role, as here, is in public order duties. Members either apply directly or are recruited from regular police and disproportionately served in the paratroopers or Naval Infantry (marines). Whatever one may feel about what they do, in fairness they are pretty good at it: they know how to pick the right kinds of recruits, train them well and keep them at a good level of physical and moral conditioning. As I say, this is a technical observation about their skills, not a moral judgement…

There is a Berkut unit in every city and region of Ukraine, although its size depends on population and perceived need. Kiev, needless to say, has the largest, with 900+ of the 4,250 Berkut officers around, in two distinct regiments.

However, there seem to be more Berkut police than that in Kiev. It’s entirely possible that some have been brought in from elsewhere (I’m sure elements of the Kiev Region Berkut, for example, are there), but it is also worth noting that not every man in riot armor needs to be a member of this unit. Ordinary Ukrainian police can also be issued riot gear and and are, and you can also expect the MVS (Ministry of Internal Affairs) Interior Troops (MVS VV) to potentially play a role, especially the Bars (‘Snow Leopard’) special purpose brigade. The Northern MVS VV Command, which covers Kiev, is under Major General Mikola Mikolenko and has three units in Kiev itself: Unit 2260 (the 22nd Special Purpose Brigade, largely responsible for guarding embassies), Unit 3030 (the 25th Special Motorized Police Brigade) and Unit 3066 (the 3rd Brigade, which especially protects courts and the like).

To be honest, though, I hope the cops and VV play as little a role as possible. Why? As Berkut have already shown, they are entirely willing and able to use violent means when ordered to do so. However, they are the experts in this, selected, trained and equipped for it. They are unlikely to hold back from what they see as their duties, but it is essentially a job for them and they will do what they are told. The regular police and the Interior Troops receive much less training for this kind of thing and likewise less psychological conditioning. It would be possible that they might refuse orders to disperse protesters — though unlikely — but perhaps more probable is that if they were deployed and found themselves in a tough spot, they would be more likely to over-compensate, to not know when to stop. Fortunately, the higher command of MVS: Kiev is probably smart enough to make sure that if deployed, they do not carry firearms, but that is always the nightmare scenario, that a scared, angry, adrenaline-hyped young man turns to his gun and makes a terrible situation far, far worse. Kiev does not need a Bloody Sunday.

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8 Comments

  1. Interesting blog and its always good when scholars turn toward a largely overlooked topic such as Ukrainian law enforcement. That said, I wanted to explain one error and perhaps disagree with your conclusion about trusting the experts in force the Berkut.
    Your statement about wearing either black or blue cammo confuses the Berkut with the black uniformed and black helmeted Interior troops. The vast majority of the riot gear officers shown in the media around Ukrainian buildings and forming the shield lines are interior troops. If it helps the interior troops have their commands in white numbers at the back of their black helmets (the Berkut wear black helmets as well with their blue urban cammo) and they do not wear the blue and yellow eagle patches of the Berkut.
    More importantly, I want to challenge your statement that:

    “[you] hope the cops and VV play as little a role as possible. Why? As Berkut have already shown, they are entirely willing and able to use violent means when ordered to do so. However, they are the experts in this, selected, trained and equipped for it.”

    First, I would argue that the interior troops receive more, not less, training in riot control then the very busy Berkut. The Berkut are similar to the warrant units of the US Marshals in that they are busy all day making arrests. In the Soviet and post-Soviet models, most police/militia do not take the lead if an arrest encounters significant resistance or if their are expectations that will be the case. Thus, the Berkut are doing building entries or difficult arrests as their primary role at least in terms of policing. Whereas, the interior troops are generally waiting for a natural disaster or training for riot / crowd control.

    More importantly, why do you think Berkut methods are favorable to the general police officer in handling riot situations. Perhaps you are saying that Ukrainian general police are so poor in handling riot situations that more will get hurt?

    As a case in point, please look at the following video of a typical case in Ukraine. Here its a soccer game where an unarmed nearby paratrooper unit was the general crowd security that day with a handful of general police. The paratroopers failed to help the police get the sizable soccer hooligans in trucks for their booking so the Berkut are called in which you will see toward the end of the tape. I ask you to watch that tape and explain again why you think the Berkut are experts in the use of force. Sure they are efficient but that hardly reduces violence or casualties. I am curious if you favor the same methods in the US?

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  December 6, 2013

      Thanks for your comments, Robert. On the black uniforms, we’ll have to agree to differ: I’ve seen officers in the distinctive Berkut maroon beret and badge in black uniforms. It may be that they are ‘imports’ from units outside Kiev brought in to help, if none of the Kiev Berkut use them. Yes, Interior Troops do wear black in riot duty.

      On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the latter are more proficient than Berkut in riot duty; that certainly has not come across in the recent day’s events, in which they tend to stick to static defensive duties or large-scale gradual crowd-clearing. Important work, and I’m not saying they’ve done at all a bad job, but not evidence of surpassing skill. Furthermore, the ability to handle public order duties well is very much linked to morale and teamwork and while yes, Berkut is busy on the streets rather than spending all their time in drill, these very much help foster those characteristics. The Interior Troops spend quite a lot of their time on (parade) drill, servicing their weapons, firearms training and light infantry combat tactics training, given that they also have a militarized security role.

      Paratroopers, incidentally, will make bad riot cops. They are trained to fight, primarily with weapons, and to kill. Unless you want to murder a mob, you’ll keep the paras unarmed, under tight rules of engagement, and/or carrying batons which they have not really been trained to use. Of course they will lack the confidence, skills and kit to do this job, just as Berkut would be chewed apart in a high-intensity conventional battlefield.

      I’ve given you the courtesy of a response even though your closing comments about whether I’d favor Berkut-style tactics in the US were at best provocative and at worst offensive. Nothing I have said in any way suggests the Berkut are fine fellows and an example to us all. Instead, I made the point that officers with less training and practical experience in extreme public order duties may be more likely to go beyond their orders when put under pressure. You say “Sure they [Berkut] are efficient but that hardly reduces violence or casualties” — the brutal methods they use are are, alas, because that it how they are trained and those are the orders they are given. Their point would presumably be that they get the job done, that the violence (such as the horrific beatings administered in that clip) is an inevitable part of getting the job done: the very “efficiency” you cite. But it is violence to a purpose. As, under distinctly different circumstances and with far more bloody consequences, we saw in Chechnya, making armed men scared and vengeful is a recipe for disaster.

      Reply
      • Dr. Galeotti,
        Thanks for your response. I must confess I remain unconvinced that the Berkut strategy is a recipe for success in Chechnya or elsewhere but as you stated we must agree to disagree.

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