Berkut was a system of special units of the Ukrainian police within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and they were successors of the Ukrainian Soviet special forces commonly known as OMON. After the Maidan events in Ukraine, the agency was dissolved by the new government, which held it responsible for the deaths of many of the Heavenly Hundred civilians during the protests. The agency was replaced with the National Guard of Ukraine.
Berkut, Alpha, Omega, Falcon, and Titan are the names of special units within the Ukrainian Security Service SBU and secret police. Both the border guards and the army also have special units. In recent years, however, the Berkut unit has garnered attention and outrage due to the unnecessary brutality and aggressiveness of its members toward protesters. These actions have shocked and concerned citizens.
Berkut was a special police unit in Ukraine directly affiliated with the Ministry of Public Security. The name Berkut is an acronym for “Separate unit for special tasks militia,” and it was disbanded after the Maidan demonstrations amid allegations of its members using illegal force against citizens. Prior to this, Berkut had a unit in every major city or region in Ukraine. In addition to other special police units, Berkut became synonymous with all special units of the Ukrainian police. Easily recognizable by their distinctive uniforms, Berkut police units in Ukraine wore a special symbol on their shoulders – a white eagle (Berkut means royal eagle in Ukrainian). This symbol helped to distinguish them from other police units.
Orders for the creation of OMON special-purpose police units in Soviet Ukraine were issued on December 28, 1988. The first units were established in the cities of Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, Lviv, and Donetsk. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was decided to maintain OMON units in every central region, which took effect on January 16, 1992. A new rapid response unit named Berkut was fully implemented in early 1993. The Berkut units were responsible for maintaining law and order and were equipped with the necessary resources and training to handle various special operations.
The primary mission of the Berkut unit was to ensure public order and maintain civil order during mass public events such as demonstrations, parades, sporting events, concerts, and more. In addition, Berkut was also responsible for responding to areas with higher criminal activity. As the unit’s responsibilities expanded, it also began to provide protection for VIPs and witnesses in important and potentially dangerous cases. Overall, the Berkut unit played a critical role in maintaining law and order in Ukraine and at its peak they were tasked with high-risk operations such as hostage crises and arrests.
Berkut was a reserve unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine and was divided into regional bases within the regional ministries. From 1997, it was under the direct supervision of the Chief Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GUBOZ). When other rapid response units called Sokol (Eagle) were formed under the direction of GUBOZ, Berkut was transferred by the directive of the Directorate of Public Security to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine.
The size of the Berkut battalions varied depending on the region, ranging from 50 to 600 members. In some cases, the unit was organized as a regiment. As of January 2008, the unit consisted of two regiments, six battalions, and 19 separate units, with a total of approximately 3,250 members. One regiment was based in Kyiv and the other was located in Crimea. The main identifying feature of Berkut members was the red beret, which was part of their ceremonial uniforms.
Berkut was the successor of the Soviet Ukrainian OMON and was responsible for high-risk police operations such as hostage crises and arrests, in addition to its other duties. After the Maidan events, the agency was dissolved by the new Ukrainian government, which held it responsible for the deaths of many of the Heavenly Hundred civilians. The agency was replaced with the National Guard of Ukraine.
Dissolution of Berkut
In March 2014, Berkut units stationed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol defected to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs during the annexation of Crimea by Russia, which approved the territories as federal subjects. As a result, Berkut effectively became an agency of Russia, with units allowed to retain their old name and serve within the National Guard of Russia as the gendarmerie for Crimea.
The Berkut special intervention forces, which had become particularly hated among protesters in Ukraine, were officially disbanded on February 25, 2014, when interim Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced the dissolution of the unit on his Facebook page. In the post, Avakov wrote, “Berkut no longer exists. I have signed Decree No. 144, dated February 25, 2014, on the dissolution of the special units of the Berkut police.”