We would like to share an interesting analytical article by Maksym Maiorov, a Strategic Communications and Information Security Center expert. The article references many earlier studies and OSINT-investigations by InformNapalm and assembles a puzzle that presents comprehensively the opportunities that can be used in Ukraine’s interests.
A Comeback to the Historical Arena
The hybrid war is like a masquerade—it has brought some colorful characters to the fore. These characters include a familiar image of Russian Cossacks in sheepskin hats and vibrant uniforms with many medals.
There is a misconception that the Russian Cossacks are the same as the Ukrainian Kozak communities, with people wearing their costumes and uniforms and participating in community life on the same basis as other non-governmental organizations and associations.
However, they aren’t. Instead, the Russian Cossacks (from the Don, Kuban, Terek, and elsewhere) act as a force that is much more intricately connected with the government and even claims a part of state power in certain areas they consider to be historically Cossack lands.
They are a fairly numerous, rather passionate, but, at the same time, an extremely heterogeneous element of the Russian society fraught with internal contradictions. Cossacks are constantly mentioned in the reports about crime, political adventures, hot spots, ethnic hatred, and confrontation with the democratic opposition.
Cossack societies cropped up en masse back in the late-USSR times. Cossacks engage in incessant disputes among the Whites and the Reds, democrats and strongmen fans, separatists and adherents of a strong government, ancestral Cossacks and those who just registered as Cossacks. In addition, Cossack communities bring together politicians, business people, retired security personnel, gangsters, and adventurers that share the hierarchy, corporate culture, and ideology of the movement.
Cossacks have been mentioned in the Russian Law On Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples (April 1991) among other repressed cultural and ethnic communities entitled to the restoration of the territorial integrity that existed before the anti-Constitutional policy of the violent redrawing of borders, the restoration of ethnic entities that existed before their abolition, and the compensation for the damage caused by the state. For this reason, the Cossacks started demanding the restoration of their territorial entities, such as the Province of the Don Host.
Constituent Big Assembly of the Cossacks Union in Moscow, 1990
It was physically impossible to restore “fair borders” for everyone because administrative boundaries were shifting within the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic all the time in favor of one community or the other.
Russian Cossacks have most of their territorial disputes with the indigenous ethnic groups of the North Caucasus that also engaged actively in state-building. In Caucasian politics, the Cossacks’ orientation was far from being consistent. They treated the Ingush and Adyghe as enemies but were friends with the Nogai and Ossetians; they supported the Armenians in Karabakh but attacked them in regions of Rostov, Krasnodar, and Stavropol. From time to time, the Cossacks were at peace with the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. Together with the hostile mountain peoples, the Cossacks fought against Georgia on the side of separatist Abkhazia.
Cossack Brigands in the 1990s
The Russian Cossacks made numerous self-determination attempts by proclaiming separate “republics” or “hosts,” often taking an anti-government (anti-Moscow) stance. Here are some examples of this activity.
- Dagestan, November 4, 1990. The Extraordinary Congress of the Nogai and the Terek Cossacks adopted the Declaration of Self-Determination of the Indigenous Peoples of the Nogai Steppe and proclaimed the Cossack-Nogai Republic.
- Karachay-Cherkessia, August 10, 1991. The Kuban Cossacks proclaimed the Batalpashinsk Cossack Republic.
- Karachay-Cherkessia, August 17, 1991. The Kuban Cossacks proclaimed the Cossack Soviet Socialist Republic (Zelenchuk-Urup Cossack Republic).
- North Ossetia, November 17, 1991. The Grand Assembly of the Terek Cossacks put forward a proposition to proclaim the Terek Cossack Republic
- Karachay-Cherkessia, November 30, 1991. The Batalpashinsk and Zelenchuk-Urup Republics merge into the Upper Kuban Cossack Republic
- Armavir in Krasnodar Krai, December 14, 1991. The congress of the Cossacks of the Labinsk Region of the Kuban Cossack Council proclaimed the Middle Kuban Cossack Republic.
- Rostov Oblast, March 21-22, 1993. The Council of Atamans of the Cossack Union of the Province of the Don Host issued an order to declare a state of emergency in the Don Host, set up the Host government, introduce martial law, guard all administrative buildings and critical infrastructure, and set up a military tribunal to deal with those who actively oppose the order. The armed Cossacks cordoned off the regional administration building; there was unrest and clashes with the police in some areas.
- Stavropol region, Mineralnye Vody, August 7, 1993. The Terek Cossack Host organized a sit-down protest on the railway tracks and Rostov-Baku highway to protest the lack of response by the federal government to the threats against Russians and Cossacks in republics of the North Caucasus.
- August 27, 1994. A Friendship and Cooperation Treaty between the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the Great Don Cossack Host was signed by Dzhokhar Dudayev, the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and Nikolay Kozitsyn, the Ataman of the Great Don Cossack Host (the latter was later seen taking part in the events in Donbas).
- Stavropol Krai, Mineralnye Vody, December 13, 1996. The Terek Cossacks blocked the railway tracks and entrance to the airport again, putting forward various demands to stop prosecuting Cossacks for possession of weapons, and grumbled because of the loss in the First Chechen War. The unrest among the Terek Cossacks continued from December 1996 to January 1997.
Overall, the Cossacks proved themselves a well-organized and effective force during the turbulent 1990s. As a result, Moscow started working with Cossacks to avoid trouble and to channel their potential in the desired direction. Back then, many Cossacks willingly became a tool for attaining imperial goals—they fought in Transnistria, Abkhazia, Bosnia; they destabilized the situation in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Map of the Revived Great Don Cossack Host in Lieu of Rostov and Volgograd Regions of Russia. A Goal for Contemporary Don Cossacks
In the Service of the State
In August 1995, Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s President, signed a decree On the State Register of Cossack Communities in the Russian Federation, to keep a record of Cossack communities and vest them with government service functions. The Cossacks were registered and allowed to set up territorial paramilitary formations commanded by atamans and engage in special and military training. The government started engaging the Russian Cossacks in law enforcement activities, civil and territorial defense, protection of the state border, military and patriotic education of young people, and other functions.
The Cossack communities have been given such broad powers only in Russia and nowhere else. However, the followers of the Russian Cossacks in Ukraine and other countries also engaged in paramilitary training and presented themselves as an active pro-Russian force.
Everyone and their mother, even pro-Russian Chechens, started registering as Cossacks, seeking prestige or preferences.
Thus, the Kuban Cossacks took part in the occupation of Crimea, and the Don Cossacks took part in the invasion of the Donbas in 2014 as organized hierarchical communities rather than as spontaneous volunteers. The overall concept of aggression assigned specific roles and areas of responsibility to the Cossacks.
Thugs from the Taman Region of the Kuban Cossack Host Blocking Entrance into Crimea near Perekop in March 2014
Thugs from the Cossack National Guard in the Occupied City of Perevalsk (Luhansk Oblast), September 2014
According to some reports, Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation and Director of the CIS Countries Institute, and a member of the Cossack Council under the President of the Russian Federation supervised the use of the Cossacks in the hybrid aggression against Ukraine.
There are many military and law enforcement officers and veteran fighters of different generations in the Cossack communities. It is there that their specific experience is accumulated, turning the Cossacks into an excellent recruiting tool for Putin’s private military companies.
Turning the Cossacks into a tool of the state in Russia is ongoing. In November 2019, the All-Russian Cossack Society was established as a union of 11 host-level Cossack communities based on Putin’s decree. Goals declared by the organization include “strengthening the role of the Russian Cossacks in addressing state and municipal issues.”
The latest trends call for including the Cossacks into the Russian Guard and establishing special Cossack forces as a part of this uniformed agency.
Cossack Formations in the Russian Armed Forces
In addition to establishing paramilitary formations, Moscow offered the Cossacks an opportunity to set up Cossack units in the regular Russian army.
The presidential decree On Reform of Military Structures, Border and Internal Troops in the North Caucasus Region of the Russian Federation and State Support to the Cossacks (March 1993) called for the approval of a list of Cossack units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and giving Cossack-styled names to attract Cossacks for the military service. In addition, the decree called for developing a policy of land allotments to the Cossacks in military service.
During the First Chechen War, the 694th General Yermolov Separate Motorized Rifle Battalion consisting of Terek and Kuban Cossack volunteers took part in combat as a part of the federal forces. This unit did not last long and was disbanded even before the end of the war.
However, another Cossack unit that stained itself with blood while fighting in Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, and Ukraine, has a longer track record. In November 1993, the Cossacks of the Caucasus Line Cossack Host reached an agreement with Oleg Lobov, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, to vest the 21st Separate Airborne Brigade with the status of a Cossack brigade. At least a third of its personnel had to be Cossacks. The following year, the brigade was renamed “Stavropol Cossack Brigade” after its home station.
After the First Chechen War, the brigade was reorganized into the 247th Airborne Caucasian Cossack Regiment (military unit 54801, Stavropol). It became a part of the 7th Air Assault Mountain Division.
Emblem of the 247th Airborne Caucasian Cossack Regiment
Occupiers from the 247th Cossack Regiment were spotted during the combat near Ilovaisk in August 2014. In October of the same year, the commander of this regiment’s 2nd battalion Stanislav Ershov assumed the duties of the deputy commander of the 6th General Platov Separate Motorized Rifle Cossack Regiment of the 2nd Army Corps of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).
The 247th Regiment was often mentioned in combat reports at the new stage of the Russo-Ukrainian war that began in February 2022. Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov, a company commander from the regiment, became the first dead Russian soldier officially recognized by Moscow (however, given his name and place of birth, he most likely was a Lak by ethnic origin and hardly considered himself a Cossack).
The Cossack paratroopers and the other Russian troops were repelled valiantly by the defenders of Ukraine. For instance, colonel Konstantin Zizevsky, commander of the 247th regiment, was killed on March 5.
Cossacks against the Empire
Compared to the 1990s brigandism, the Russian Cossacks seem to have grown fully symbiotic with the Putin regime. Moscow gave the Cossacks broad powers and privileges. While in the service of the dictatorship, they tarnished themselves as murderers and aggressors.
However, one still can attempt to look at the Russian Cossacks as a force that can be re-used against Putin’s empire to Ukraine’s benefit without belittling the severity of the crimes, whose perpetrators must be prosecuted.
The relationship between the regime and the Cossacks is far from being blissful. The current lack of opposition voices does not mean the absence of the opposition sentiment.
Firstly, the Cossacks keep professing the self-determination ideal in the form of their own self-governing territorial entities. Neither of the regions of Rostov, Krasnodar, or Stavropol fit the bill.
Without being able to recreate the Don Cossack Host in the Rostov Oblast, Kozitsyn’s Cossack National Guard attempted to do so in the occupied Luhansk Oblast. As a result, a bitter conflict broke out between the Don Cossacks and the administration of the self-proclaimed LPR in late 2014. There were armed clashes and mutual public accusations. The Don Cossacks lost in this confrontation, with some of them killed, some expelled from the self-proclaimed statelets, and the rest subordinated to the centralized command of the Russian terrorist forces.
The tensions between the Terek Cossacks and highland peoples have not been solved. The Terek Cossacks are losing to the indigenous people of the Caucasus demographically. In addition, the Putin regime decided to rely on Kadyrov and, by doing so, buried the Cossacks’ dreams of the Lowland Chechnya lands on the Terek’s left bank.
Secondly, the “ancestral” Cossacks are strongly dissatisfied with the transformation of the Cossacks into a legion of Putin’s thugs. According to the “ancestral” Cossacks, most of the registered Cossacks in Russia are “fancy-dressed reenactors” and preference seekers.
The “ancestral” Cossacks are convinced that only the Cossacks by origin, those with Cossacks among their ancestors, are genuine. For this reason, the “ancestral” Cossacks perceive their movement as an ethnic self-determination movement.
These opposition-minded Cossacks idealize the pre-revolutionary Cossacks and the White Russian movement and consider Putin’s regime to be rooted in the KGB and Bolshevik history.
While the opposition-minded “ancestral” Cossacks are in the minority, their voices are still heard. They earned their high standing in the field of the Cossack revival and the reputation of martyrs because of their persecution by the Kremlin regime. These people include, for instance, the All-Cossack Civic Center headed by the ataman Aleksandr Dzikovitsky and the entourage of Vladimir Melikhov, a Cossack philanthropist and educator. They have taken a pro-Ukrainian and pro-Western stance after 2014.
Ataman Aleksandr Dzikovitsky
The burden of the war and sanctions will raise the issue of potential options for mitigating the negative consequences by separating from Moscow for regions and organized communities in the Russian Federation. Although, some of them will probably not find the courage to take this path; some will not find a reliable social footing and ideological background for the secession.
However, the regions with strong Cossack traditions have both the potential and the tradition of fighting for independence. They do not need to be pro-Ukrainian; the question will be about survival, not about their sympathies. It is very much in Ukraine’s interest to have small, even unfriendly, Cossack republics as neighbors rather than a single huge and hostile Russia. Undoubtedly, making this interest come true will require effort.
On a final note, I will say a couple of words about the Kuban Cossacks. Ukrainians romanticize this region as the largest Ukrainian ethnic mass abroad. The Kuban Cossacks and the Ukrainians derive their traditions from the Zaporizhia Kozaks. Some Ukrainian is still spoken in the region despite decades of Russification.
However, the Kuban has become even more alienated from Ukraine than the neighboring Russian-speaking Don. The political focus of the Kuban and Terek Cossacks has developed under the influence of the competition and confrontation with the indigenous North Caucasian people. For this reason, there the attitudes in the Kuban region are much more chauvinistic and aligned with the idea of a strong Russian state. For Kuban Cossacks, the cultural affinity with Ukraine seems more of an irritant rather than a basis for solidarity.
There are, of course, genuine Ukrainian patriots among the Kuban Cossacks, but they do not set the general tone. If one is to work with the Kuban, it will make much more sense to focus on achieving the Kuban Cossack independence rather than trying to bring about the Ukrainian unity from the San River to the Caucasus Mountains.