The Geography of OMON Deployments in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 13

On March 17, Russian official news agencies reported that a rebel group in the North Caucasian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (KBR) had a day earlier tried to destroy an armored car with five police officers inside using a roadside bomb. The vehicle was damaged but luckily none of the officers were hurt (Chechnya Weekly, March 20).

The policemen were driving to the settlement of Khasanya on the southern outskirts of Nalchik, the KBR capital, to man a checkpoint near the settlement. The most striking aspect of the incident is that the five officers in the car were not locals. According to the RIA Novosti and Interfax agencies, they were officers of the Police Special-Task Unit (OMON) from Nizhny Novgorod, a Russian city located more than 500 miles from the North Caucasus. The bombing of the car on the outskirts of Nalchik on the evening of March 16 reveals that Russian authorities have started to send additional police troops to the western part of the North Caucasus, where the situation used to be considered relatively calm and local police structures seemed capable of combating insurgents without the assistance of their colleagues from others parts of Russia.

Last year, a group of Russian human rights activists conducted a study to find out how missions to the North Caucasus affected the physical and mental state of the Russian policemen themselves. The study’s findings were very gloomy. “Russian policemen lose their qualifications and professional skills during their duty tours in Chechnya,” it stated (Chechnya Weekly, July 5, 2007). While the human rights activists’ report was discussed at the Research Institute of the Russian Interior Ministry, the ministry apparently drew conclusions diametrically opposed to those of the report: the length of the tours of duty in the North Caucasus was extended (policemen now have to spend six mouths in the North Caucasus instead of three); moreover, police officers are now not only being sent to Chechnya, but to all the region’s republics, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

The geography of police units deployed for tours of duty in the region continues to be quite impressive, giving the appearance that the whole of Russia is involved in the Caucasus war. While Russia’s national press declares that everything is being normalized in Chechnya, Russian regional media report that police troops from the Far East to the Baltic Sea are being deployed to the North Caucasus by train and plane. On January 29, the Sever DV agency reported that a unit of the police special forces (OMSN) from Magadan—located near Alaska, 10,000 miles away from the Caucasus—had been sent by plane to Chechnya. Just two months earlier, on November 14, Vesti reported that a plane had landed in Kaliningrad, a Russian city that is adjacent to Poland and Germany, bringing home members of the Kaliningrad special-task police unit (OMON) from another tour of duty in Chechnya.

Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that all 89 of Russia’s regions are involved in the Chechen/Caucasian campaign. The question is why the Kremlin needs so many policemen in the Caucasus, and especially in Chechnya, when thousands of local officers and Russian troops are already there. In 2001, Sergei Ivanov, who was then Russia’s Defense Minister, complained that the government had to send troops to Chechnya from all of Russia’s regions and it was a burden for the budget. It seems that this is still true, at least when it comes to police forces. Policemen from Magadan continue to be deployed in the Caucasus despite the high cost of bringing them from Russia’s Asian Far North to its volatile European South.

In Chechnya, police units from other Russian regions are stationed in all parts of the republic. Colonel Sergei Kondobaev, commander of the police special forces from Irkustsk (Eastern Siberia), told a Siberian newspaper that there are at least 10 combined groups consisting of policemen and FSB (Federal Security Service) officers operating in the republic (Vostochno-Sybyrskaya Pravda, November 21, 2007). For example, a unit of OMON from the Russian town of Lipetsk is located Borozdinovskaya, a village that is in the calm northern part of Chechnya. Policemen from Tatarstan are stationed in the city of Gudermes (there is also a group of Tatar police officers in Ingushetia), while units from the Urals and Siberia are concentrated mostly in the town of Argun and Kurchaloi District.

In addition to the Russian police, the federal Interior Minister sends special units to Chechnya and the North Caucasus on a regular basis, including criminal investigators and experts on organized crime and corruption. These personnel are mainly concentrated in the Chechen capital Grozny and the Russian military base at Khankala. Hidden behind fortified walls, they deal with detainees who are brought to them for interrogation by their colleagues from police special units.

Russian policemen are present in most strategically important checkpoints in Chechnya, such as the post near the village of Chiri-Yurt (Volgograd OMON) that is at the foot of the mountains, the Kavkaz-1 post (Kursk OMON) located at the administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and the post located near the village of Benoi in Vedeno District (Perm OMON). It seems that the Russian military still does not trust Chechen policemen to guard Chechen territory.

The role of police officers from other regions has also increased in the neighboring Dagestan. Today all police operations in the republic are coordinated by Sergei Chenchik, deputy head of the Russian Anti-Organized Crime Department. An additional 400 policemen were deployed to Dagestan from other Russian regions on the eve of the presidential elections that took place early March (Regnum, March 2). Police squads from Stavropol, Tolyaiti and Moscow are stationed in Khasavyurt District, an area of Dagestan adjacent to Chechnya. OMON units consisting of ethnic Russians also take part in sweep operations in Dagestan’s heartland—the Buinaksk and Utsukul districts.

Russian police units play the main role even in North Ossetia, the most loyal of the republics of the North Caucasus. Units of OMON from Arkhangelsk and Lipetsk serve at checkpoints in North Ossetia’s cities and on its roads.

Despite the fact that the Kremlin sends police units to the Caucasus from all Russian regions, geography is still a factor. The smallest units of 20-40 fighters come to the Caucasus from the Far East, Siberia and Kaliningrad. Yet the closer a region is to the North Caucasus, the larger are the units taken from it. According to local Russian media sources, there are up to 200 officers from Lipetsk in the Caucasus, more than 200 from Voronezh and about 150 from Bryansk (the Bryansk OMON is stationed in Chechnya’s mountainous Shatoi District). As for officers from the regions adjacent to the North Caucasus, like Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol or Rostov, they spend more time in the Caucasus than at home.

It is a closely guarded secret how many police officers regularly do tours of duty in Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus, but it would be safe to assume that at least several thousand of Russia’s best policemen leave their homes every six months to go to the North Caucasus to maintain Russian domination over the region.

It is these OMON fighters and policemen, together with FSB officers and Russian army servicemen, not Ramzan Kadyrov or any of the Kremlin’s local clients, which are in fact the backbone of Russian rule in the Caucasus. That is why any proposals to bring them home are non-negotiable for the Kremlin.