‘Are you ashamed to wear it?’ Russia’s National Guard tries to defuse allegations that Chechen troops provoked protests from crimson berets by cheating their way to special forces distinctions

Crimson-beret trials in Tatarstan in June 2021Alexey Nasyrov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Spokespeople for Russia’s National Guard deny it, and the veteran founder of a special troops unit says it never happened, but questions linger after Komsomolskaya Pravda war correspondent Alexander Kots reported late on October 17 that some “Vityaz” soldiers removed their crimson berets in protest against supposed favoritism shown to Chechen competitors. The allegations, which stoke tensions going back to Russia’s Chechen War and highlight potential divisions within Russia’s security elite, have provoked vehement repudiations. 

On October 16, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, revealed on social media that trials for crimson berets took place between October 11 and 15 at a training center in the Stavropol Krai. (Alexander Kots also said initially that the exercises happened outside Stavropol, but they were actually held in Grozny.) Of more than 100 special forces members from the National Guard’s North Caucasian District, just 38 men were awarded the coveted crimson beret, including seven from Chechnya, according to Kadyrov.

The trials included a 10-kilometer loaded march that supposedly led to a mass brawl. Sharing a video on his Telegram channel that apparently corroborates the story, Kots said that several Chechen candidates for the crimson berets jumped into cars during the march. This attempt to cheat allegedly enraged the other men (and some of the instructors), and Igor Semilyak, the head of the National Guard’s Special Forces Main Directorate, had to intervene personally to stop the fight.

Kots says officials disqualified at least two of the Chechen men due to problems in the march and during other stages of the trials (like combat rappelling, according to the “mercenary channel” Reverse Side of the Medal). But these disqualified candidates nevertheless managed to receive crimson berets in the end, says Kots.

“I wonder if they themselves are ashamed to wear [the beret]? After all, it’s also a symbol that you’ve mastered yourself,” Kots wrote on Telegram. He also shared several audio recordings that he says came from eyewitnesses. In one of the tapes, someone speculates that the Chechen candidates cheated because Ramzan Kadyrov offered 1 million rubles (about $14,000) to any Chechens who managed to win a crimson beret. (Such payouts were reported in 2019, as well.)

The troops who allegedly removed their crimson berets were members of the “Vityaz” 604th Red Banner Special Purpose Center — a unit responsible for intense counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus when it still belonged to Russia’s Interior Ministry. It so happens that Kots has a history with the Vityaz unit: In 2003, he was embedded with them in Grozny when he witnessed an armed standoff with a group of local Chechen police.

The National Guard has denied the reports of a mass brawl and insisted that no special forces troops protested by removing their berets. “The crimson beret is a symbol of the special forces’ valor and honor. Our men wouldn’t remove them even in the face of the enemy, let alone to show disagreement with the results of a competition,” said the agency’s spokesman, Valery Gribakin, though he acknowledged that any contest provokes certain emotions. “As always, the strongest won,” he added, “and we congratulate the winning team on that.”

The founder of the tests for the crimson berets, Sergey Lysyuk, told News.ru that an inquiry by a National Guard advisory body found no evidence of any brawling during the trials. A decorated veteran himself, Lysyuk clarified that the Chechen candidate removed from the loaded march (Abdul-Kerim Kadyrov, one of Ramzan Kadyrov’s relatives) did not receive a crimson beret. Lysyuk also denies Kots’s reports that some special forces troops refused to wear their crimson berets in protest.

In an op-ed shared on Telegram by Russia Today, WarGonzo project founder Semyon Pegov argued that reports about fighting and protesting at the National Guard are part of a campaign to “weaken the country.” He reasoned that no Chechen candidate could have cheated his way to a crimson beret if Ramzan Kadyrov’s own relative was disqualified from the trials. “The fact that this has gotten a ton of coverage from the foreign press and liberal media, which usually doesn’t care at all about ‘crimson berets,’ says a lot,” wrote Pegov.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Text by Olga Korelina

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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