The Russian Cossacks: Strategic Asset or Financial Liability?

The movement of Cossack renewal in southern Russia (and beyond) since the collapse of the Soviet Union is marked by two parallel trends. On the one hand, there is Cossack activism based on appeals to ancestral identity. This aims not only to revitalize the culture and way of life of the Cossacks immortalized by Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Sholokhov, but also to convince the Kremlin that, despite the reprisals of the Soviet era, the Cossacks are still a force to be reckoned with. count, and that they could serve as protectors of Russian interests, especially in border regions. “The main objective of the Cossack in the North Caucasus is to serve as a guarantor of the Russian presence in this geopolitically important region of the country,” he added. ataman (head) of a Cossack organization in the south of the Russian Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia said in an interview in early October (Daily EAD, October 7).

On the other hand, Cossack groups pressured Moscow for favorable legislation and government subsidies. More than a dozen laws, decrees and amendments relating to the Cossacks have been adopted over the past decades, highlighting the importance of this group for the Russian authorities (see EDM, May 2, 2014). The Cossacks were also successful in securing government funding. Just a few weeks ago, the administration of Rostov Oblast announced its intention to allocate 8.3 billion rubles ($ 115.5 million) to support Cossack groups and communities in the region (Riafan.ru, September 28). Considering that there are only 29,682 people in the whole oblast who identified themselves as “ethnic Cossacks” in the 2010 census (Yuga.ru, August 19, 2016), it sounds like a substantial amount of money per capita.

Cossacks in neighboring Krasnodar Krai enjoy even greater privileges. “The land fund of the Cossack host of the Kuban has grown from 5,000 to 26,500 hectares in five years,” the regional administration recently announced (Kommersant, October 8). “Since the start of 2021, the Cossacks have received more than 1,700 hectares. We must develop serious […] projects that can become engines […] and a solid financial base for the Cossack communities, ”said the regional vice-governor and ataman from the host of the Kuban, Alexander Vlasov. Since 2012, when the governor of Krasnodar, Alexander Tkachov, himself of Cossack origin, embarked on a populist anti-migrant campaign, hundreds of his fellow Cossacks have been put in the government’s pay with the task of patrolling the towns of the region (FT, August 4, 2013). Only 5,261 people in the krai identify themselves as Cossacks (Yuga.ru, August 19, 2016); but thanks in large part to Tkachov and his predecessor as governor of Krasnodar, Nikolai Kondratenko (see Prism, April 3, 1998), they strike well above their weight in terms of impact on the life of the region.

The statute of Krasnodar Krai only lists Russians and Cossacks as indigenous inhabitants, with no mention of the Circassians who lived on these lands long before the 19the wars of conquest of the century and who were forced into exile en masse at the end of these wars. The Krasnodar Hymn is a Cossack folk song that refers to the glorious struggle against “pagans”, anyone who is not Cossack or Russian Orthodox Christian. These clear signs of xenophobia are a source of great frustration for minority communities in the region.

The Cossacks may have turned out to be effective lobbyists, but their military exploits, despite their frequent claims to the contrary, are much less impressive, which begs the question: The funding they receive from central government money is- are they well spent? Two examples of the Cossacks’ involvement in Russian Federation military enterprises call this spending into question.

In early 1996, the Russian Defense Ministry dispatched a Cossack battalion to Chechnya (see EDM, May 2, 2014) to fight alongside the 21st Airborne Brigade. The 800-man force was named, rather provocatively, after Alexey Yermolov, a Tsarist general who is still universally hated by the indigenous peoples of the Caucasus for his scorched earth tactics and collective retaliation against them. Initially, the Cossack battalion was tasked with maintaining a checkpoint on a strategic bridge over the Terek River, where they immediately gained notoriety by extorting money from local motorists and harassing refugees fleeing fighting in the south. from Chechnya. Ten days later, the army command, apparently tired of reports of lax discipline among the contracted Cossack soldiers, ordered them to advance on Grozny and gain a foothold in the Zavodskoy district, the industrial center of the republic (Kommersant, March 3, 2001).

This is where the Cossacks distinguished themselves for the second time in less than two weeks, this time for their spectacularly low level of military professionalism. Members of the battalion, who advanced in an armored convoy, were ambushed by a Chechen mobile unit and attacked at close range with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. Two Cossack soldiers were killed and 17 wounded in the fighting, later claimed the chief of the military leadership of Terek’s Cossack army, Colonel Alexander Voloshin (Kommersant, March 3, 2001). Perhaps this is an understatement given that the Chechen hunter-killer team struck the first two and the last two vehicles of the battalion in order to trap the column and destroy it completely. After the battle, Voloshin admitted, 90 people deserted the Cossack unit, with the total number of desertions after three months of fighting rising to 130. The total number of killed and wounded among the Cossacks in those three months was 300 men, forcing the army’s order to disband the group.

Charges of lack of discipline, low motivation and lack of military skills were also leveled against the Cossack formations deployed in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Perhaps the most well-known Cossack group that fought with the Ukrainian separatists in the Donetsk region was the Cossack National Guard, under the command of Nikolai Kozitsyn, ataman from the Almighty Don Host. Its force of several thousand men, equipped with artillery and heavy weapons, operated as a proxy for the Russian armed forces in the mining towns of Antrasit and Krasny Luch. But when Ukrainian government troops tightened the noose around Krasny Luch in August 2014 and called on the separatists to surrender, Kozitsyn and most of his Cossack fighters fled the city (Youtube, August 9, 2014). “The Cossacks ran, according to their tradition,” wrote sarcastically Colonel Igor Strelkov (alias Girkin), commander of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine (Moscow Komsomolets, August 9, 2014).

For years the Russian Federal Center and various local governments, apparently concerned with the growing assertion of non-ethnic Russian republics and relying on Cossack support in crisis situations, funded various Cossack-related initiatives, sparking resentment among other nationalities, including ethnic Russians (non-Cossacks). Largely the product of the Kremlin’s retreat from its previously declared modernization of Russia and its march towards traditionalism and conservative values, the Cossacks today have little to show for all that money. Admittedly, their leadership benefited greatly from the patronage of the state: the former governor of Krasnodar, Tkachov, would have become the richest landowner in Russia (Forbes.ru, June 18, 2019) while Ataman Kozitsyn was implicated in “extortion, theft, [and] the forcible diversion of humanitarian aid and its redistribution ”(see Jamestown.org, September 3, 2019). But the majority of Cossacks still suffer from the same problems as other Russians: poor economic conditions, corruption, deprivation of civil rights, falling birth rates and low life expectancy.


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