Circling the Lion's Den

Maroon Berets to help OMON

Irina Borogan

We continue to investigate the anti-extremism campaign, which as we have established, is leading to an increased police function of the state. We have already reported on how of late the number of police special forces have increased, the OMON and OMSN, and how new systems of moving divisions from region to region have been developed. We had intended to conclude our focus on this subject with the section on the special divisions' activities in the anti-extremist campaign, but unfolding events made that impossible.

On January 31 2010, at a protest in defense of Article 31 of the Constitution (Right to freedom of assembly) held on Triumfalnaya Square, our correspondent noticed Internal Troops in uniform bearing the Spetsnaz emblem. The spetsnaz weren't involved in dispersing the protestors, simply observing proceedings from the comfort of their buses. Until recently it had been thought that the Internal Troops were needed for military backup: that's how they were actively used in the North Caucasus. However the Internal Troops presence at this peaceful, and frankly not very well attended, protest, that had been held previously in the city and that had passed off without violence, seemed strange.

However, it's no coincidence. The new state policy stipulates that Internal Troops, including the spetsnaz, will find themselves increasingly used during protests and mass events. This was a tendency Ministry of the Interior head Nurgaliev confirmed in an article published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on October 27 2009 regarding the latest round of reorganization in the Internal Troops. His view was that, deprived in the 1990s of their prisoner escort and protection duties, the Internal Forces had significantly expanded their role in protecting public order.

Of course, some sections of the Internal Troops had for several years already been working to bolster public order in the capital. Those serving with the Dzerzinsky and Sofrinsky 21st brigades have long been accustomed to this. During this police strengthening, they started to appear in the metro and on the streets, but their primary function was in dealing with football fans exiting stadiums after the match.

It was only a few years ago that the spetsnaz started to play a role during mass events in Moscow and other cities. In the words of IF Commander Nikolai Rogozhkin, these spetsnaz sections were used during the 300th Anniversary celebrations in St Petersburg, the 1000-th Anniversary celebrations in Kazan and the May 2007 Russia-Common Economic Space summit in Samara. During a conflict in Kondopoga in 2006 between the local population and people from the Caucasus a separate operational brigade, and spetsnaz division from Archangelsk was brought into action.

In late 2006 a new spetsnaz division was created specially to deal with mass public disorder in Moscow: Peresvet, which came under the 55th Internal Troops division. Many of the fighters who filled its ranks had seen action. As an armed force they had guns, bullet-proof vests, plastic shields and police gas at their disposal, as well as armored people carriers.

The creation of the division is based on the fact that there ought to be another sub-division in the capital that is targeted at ensuring public safety during mass popular events and that can respond quickly, with force, to developing situations said Nikolai Rogozhkin.

Unlike the 16th spetsnaz division of the Internal Troops, Peresvet had not seen action in Chechnya, since, as the police-chiefs saw it, it should be prepared for mass public disorder on the streets of St Petersburg and the Moscow suburbs. It is based in Moscow, in the military suburb of Leningradskoye road.

The division is regularly used to ensure public safety during football matches and public holidays. As MK reported, during the famous Manchester-Chelsea match in May 2008 6 spetsnaz groups from Peresvet, each comprising 50 officers, were on hand, in case they were needed.

Recent training sessions that the Internal Troops participated in confirm that they are seriously prepared to take an active role in protecting public order in Russian cities. In August last year the 55th Internal Troops division worked together with the police on tactics to intervene in mass public disorder in Moscow and Moscow Region. The next training sessions the Internal Troops participated in took place in October 2009 in Balashikha and ended in scandal.

There were media reports that, according the the training plan the Internal Troops Spetsnaz forces were supposed to disperse a group of pensioners who were blocking a road, using water cannon and tear gas. The Ministry of the Interior clarified the situation, saying that rather than pensioners, they had been extremists, that water canon was used simply to frighten them.

The Internal Troops' spetsnaz forces have been consistently increasing in number: if in 2003 they numbered around 10,000, then in 2007 this had increased to 17,000 people. Apart from that, Internal Troops are currently able to monitor the situation in cities across the country in real time. New Internal Troops command and control centers have been kitted out with the most modern communication systems, which are integrated with the Ministry of the Interior's Safe city e-system. This transmits a picture of events on city squares and streets in 53 regions of Russia, where video surveillance cameras have been stationed, in real time. Putin demonstrated how this system works back in June 2007 in Rostov-on-Don, where there's a new military command center for the North Caucasus District of the Internal forces.

As with any military structure, the Internal Troops spetsnaz forces have their traditions and characteristic peculiarities. The GRU spetsnaz is known for their resourcefulness, secrecy and unwillingness to appear in the public eye. The FSB spetsnaz are known as elite, as all their operational positions are for ranked officers, and the Internal Forces spetsnaz is known for a brutality cultivated for show.

The qualifying exam to wear the red beret involves an assessment of the candidate's ability at hand to hand fighting, rather than their ability to carry out the objective set. Given these demands, the units are filled with a particular kind of recruit: with a closed value system, understood only tot their peers. It guarantees loyalty under any circumstances but it is hardly suited to action in densely populated city centers in peacetime. The question of whether these officers are capable of dealing with peaceful protestors, and why the authorities even need them to, remains open.

Agentura.Ru, November 10, 2010