Slightly over a year ago, I – and half of Ukraine, probably – hated the Berkut unit with a passion. Time shows, however, that the issue was slightly less clear-cut as many Maidan supporters would like it to be. Russian agitprop milked the ‘poor little Berkut’ image to the hilt (conveniently forgetting that getting beaten by rioting mobs is their job) for about, I don’t know, three months after Maidan won? Even the Russian knockoff unit gradually faded into the woodwork and stopped making headlines. Part of the reason was that Russia had other superstars to fawn over (like Mr. Girkin or the amiable duo of Motorola and Givi), but another part of the reason was this:
C’est vrai! Apparently, despite the unit being officially disbanded and pretty much hated by a lot of people, not all Berkut troopers decided to throw their lot in with Russia and Mr. Strelkov’s Lonely Novorossiya Hearts Club Band. Okay, sure, many did, but most Berkut detachments continued first serving, and then fighting, on Ukraine’s side. As far as I know, many of them still do. Quite a few ended up literally sharing the same trench with former Maidan protesters they were up against a few months back. If this is not how countries unite, I don’t know what is.
Of course, for many people ‘Berkut’ is a colloquial word for police brutality; I’ve heard the volunteer Kyiv-1 unit being compared to Berkut, and that was not a favorable comparison. Kyiv-1 has a better image, though; and anyway, riot police is pretty much a necessary evil. It’s when it becomes a tool of political persecution that it stops being necessary; in this regard Berkut’s stellar human rights record started all the way back in 1998, when Luhansk Oblast Berkut troopers violently dispersed a miner strike. To no surprise, it was done on orders of Luhansk’s former feudal overlord, Oleksandr ‘Dickface’ Efremov, previously Yanukovych’s left hand.
Berkut, despite its image, was hardly uniform. It had largely separate detachments in each oblast; thus, while Kyiv and Crimea Berkut were the most vicious (and the most involved in harassing opposition, Euromaidan dispersal, Maidan standoffs, etc), Lviv or Ivano-Frankivsk Berkut were considered unreliable and mostly relegated to reserve. Even Dnipropetrovsk or Zaporizhzha Berkut were second line at best. That’s right: during Maidan Yanukovych ordered all Berkut units posted in Kyiv’s government district. Not all of them ended being used against the protesters, but the stigma attached itself to pretty much everyone.
After being disbanded, Berkut continues in an ordinary ‘patrol police’ role. This is why it is sometimes impossible to distinguish former Berkut troopers from ordinary patrol militsiyamen, although some former Berkuts continue wearing the unit’s bird insignia. Of particular notoriety is the ‘Kharkiv Berkut’, which apparently harasses volunteers and journalists on checkpoints. Given how some of these volunteers and journalists behave, it’s hardly unexpected; but then, these people have little reason to like Berkut, and the feeling is mutual. Others serve closer to the front; law enforcement in the Donetsk Oblast is pretty paramilitary at this point. Again, this is a necessary evil: you can hardly turn down extra manpower when you have none to spare. Maybe some Berkut troopers will be redeemed for their service after all.
As far as I know, Donetsk and Luhansk Berkut mostly joined the separatists wholesale. Kyiv and Crimea Berkut now continue as Russia’s knockoff unit. Some Berkut officers fled to Russia thanks to Ukrainian judicial branch exercising its independence (i.e. judges releasing suspects on parole, whereafter said suspects immediately flee the country); some others are either under investigation or already in jail.
Most Berkut troopers, however, are just fine.
Although I wouldn’t want them to continue serving in Ukraine’s new police force when the war ends. Necessary evil only goes so far.
On a less related note, ironically Berkut jump-started my newfound interest in riot police forces, and thus my gradual acceptance of them. This was especially handy when it came to writing my (soon-to-be finished) book: it’s not all about riot cops beating people up, but it certainly has riot cops beating people up. Riot cops being the good guys.
When exactly did I fall that low?