Although Berkut has been recently disbanded, I am certain that many of its men in one way or another will take part in what is happening in Ukraine. When observing the situation on Ukraine, you might say the Berkut stood guard over the ruling elites rather than over social security.
Of course, we have to remember that Berkut was only a tool in the hands of politicians. However, shouldn’t that kind of tool in the 21st century be at least a bit intelligent? On the streets of Kiev, the name is identified with violence, brutality and death. Having said that, from today’s perspective, its motto “The Safety of People – The Highest Law” seems sadly ironic.
So who exactly hides behind the name Berkut? In a straight line, Berkut was a successor of the special Soviet militia unit OMON (Отряд милиции особого назначения), which was set up in 1985 within the Ministry of Internal Affairs in USRR. In 1991, after Ukraine had gained independence, OMON was transformed into Berkut. Its main aim was to fight organized crime, crowd control and protective custody of certain individuals.
At the very beginning, the scope of task of Berkut was concentrating mainly on fighting crime that was and still is a very serious problem in a new Ukraine, specifically: maintaining public order in areas where crime levels were high; enforcement during mass events and emergency situations; riot and illegal demonstration control; arresting dangerous criminals, hostage rescue; helping in police operations. Personal protection and witness protection were relatively new tasks.
Although not that clear in the early days, with time it became a tool for political powers. It was relatively easy, as the unit had never clearly stated their competencies, and there was a lot of room for abuse of power. Only in January this year, the Ministry of Justice legalized special units what made Berkut a legal force.
And who were the people behind the shields, armed with modern equipment and opening fighting the demonstrators?
To join its ranks, you needed to be over 20, of good physical and mental health, fit, after the basic military service, ideally with special forces experience. Relatively high salary was definitely an incentive. It was an equivalent of more or less two thousand Polish zloty a month (about 660 $), which for Ukraine was very good.
After wining the presidential elections in 2010, Victor Yanukovych promised to increase the budget on militia. He also added that, “Of course, I will be expecting positive outcomes of your work and ensuring my future.” But Yanukovych was not the first one to use Berkut for its own purposes.
In 1995, Berkut prevented the burial of Patriarch Volodymyr in a violent incident called “Black Tuesday.” There are also known cases of violating electoral silence by the Berkut men. One of the most notorious incident took place in 2008, in a restaurant in Uzhorod, where militiamen from Berkut got into a fight with the Traffic Police. Overall, a few dozens of Ministry of Internal Affairs took part in in it.
On 19 August 2013, a few Berkut militiamen smashed a window and forced their way into the Kiev City Council premises. A few deputies from the Supreme Council of Ukraine were badly beaten. Three months later, Berkut conducted an operation of dissemination, so called “the Revolution of Dignity” – Yevrorevolutsiya. During the operation, more than forty people were injured.
Berkut was in a way a reserve army of the Internal Affairs Minister. Their founders created an organization that might be described as a state within a state. Berkut did not report to the regional authorities, but directly to the National Security Office that is a part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
According to the “Arguments and Facts” newspaper, the “Golden Eagle” was indeed a mobile army whose soldiers could have been easily transported in any area of Ukraine. In January 2014, according to the official data, Berkut consisted of one regiment in Kiev, seven separate, regional battalions – two in Kiev and Crimea, and five in the biggest regional centers: Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv. There were in total three thousand soldiers in Berkut forces.
The Crimean battalion consisted of training platoons, just like in counterterrorist units.
The type of specialization that Berkut militiamen had were assaulter, breacher, sapper, sniper and diver. Each battalion had its own combat vehicles, sometimes two. The weapons were mostly typical for the former Warsaw Pact armies, but with some modern equipment added: AKM, AK-74, MP (APS) handguns, Fort-12, sniper rifle SVD, machine guns RPK-74, COP-23 rifle, stun grenades, smoke grenades and gas grenades. Also, as some journalists claim, they were also equipped with “Bumblebee” (Russian “Shmel”) flamethrowers, which are currently used by the chemical and biological defense units of the land forces.
Although it seemed like a monolith, the recent events in Ukraine proved the unit was deeply divided, like the country itself. A few days ago – almost simultaneously – a group of militiamen begged for forgiveness from the protesters in Lviv, while others got a hero’s welcome in the Crimean capital, Sevastopol.
It will be interesting to see what will happen with Berkut soldiers, which side they’ll join, and whether they become guns for hire as the situations in Ukraine is getting more difficult. On Saturday, the Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the Parliament to send over troops in order to “stabilize” the situation.
(Featured Image Courtesy: International Business Times)