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.