Russia Expanding Cossack Military Presence
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 5
The ongoing illegal invasion of Ukraine has created many changes in Russian society, one of which is the continued expansion of the Cossack movement. Two recent changes highlight this process: First, the creation of a new Cossack host (voiska) in Russia looks to be on the verge of realization (see EDM, October 17, 2022; September 12, 2022; July 25, 2022). Voiska—a term which translates either as “host” or “army”—are the main regional (but not oblast- or raion-level) organizational structures of the movement, which have been coordinated by a central office in Moscow since 2018. The number of Cossack hosts in Russia has steadily increased, with 10 regional movements by the end of the 1990s. The Central Cossack Host, which includes Moscow, was added in 2007, and one was created in annexed Crimea in 2015. Now discussion has begun about creating a Northwestern Cossack Host, which 70 Cossacks voted in favor of at a recent meeting of the All-Russian Cossack Society (VsKO).
During the meeting of the VsKO, the deputy of VsKO Ataman Nikolai Doluda, Igor Kazarezov, spoke on the ataman’s behalf: “Brother-Cossacks, a great responsibility lies before you! Saint Petersburg is one of the forward outposts of Russia. This territory borders the republics of Finland and Estonia, the latter of which is part of the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] bloc. Given the conditions of the current geopolitical situation, the Saint Petersburg Cossacks need to build up their strength, gain authority and in the future deservedly join the newly registered Northwestern Cossack Host” (VsKO.ru, November 14, 2022). Not only does Kazarezov neglect to mention Finland’s probable accession to NATO, but previous reporting suggested that Kaliningrad would also be included in this new VsKO structure (see EDM, October 17, 2022). The initiative for the new body, which began in November 2021—before the current war but most likely coming after the decision had been made to go to war—would act as another “binding” to hold Russians together, consistent with other initiatives (Window on Eurasia, November 17, 2022). The ultraconservative nature of the current registered Cossack movement in Russia makes the institutionalization of another host critical as a form of ideological glue and as a repressive apparatus in case of protest.
Another undeclared but notable development, which also suggests the continued rise of those Cossacks loyal to Putin’s Russia, is the fact that more of them are being sent to the front in Ukraine. A November 2022 report on the experience of one Cossack unit from the Ussuri Host in Primorsky Krai in the Far East is telling in this regard. In August 2022, a volunteer reserve detachment named “Tiger” was activated and began to perform military operations. In October, the 2ndbattalion of Tiger (previously named “Steppe”) was activated, with the anticipation of the 3rd battalion being activated by the end of 2022. The personnel of the 2nd battalion completed range training and combat-coordination training, and it was expected that they would soon begin to perform combat missions within the area of the special military operation (VsKO.ru, November 13, 2022). The regional administration of the Primorsky governor is providing all the necessary military supplies for the battalion.
As the conflict in Ukraine has progressed, a steady drip-flow of evidence has revealed the increasing role of Russian Cossacks loyal to the Kremlin in the illegal invasion of Ukraine, with reported numbers going from 4,000 in April 2022 to 8,000 in October 2022, 10,000 in November and, most recently, 15,000 in December 2022 (see EDM, April 25, 2022; VsKO.ru, October 13, 2022; November 4, 2022; December 17, 2022). While Western attention has spotlighted the Wagner mercenaries and Chechen Kadyrovtsy fighting in Ukraine, the Cossacks look set to soon have equal or greater numbers fighting in Ukraine but have largely remained absent from analysis.
These numbers relate solely to Russian Cossacks, however, as Ukraine has a claim as legitimate, or even better, than Russia’s, to the Cossack legacy. After all, the origin of the Cossack identity, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, is located in Ukraine, while part of Russia’s plans to pacify Ukrainian society after the war includes the construction of a Cossack host in Ukraine’s south (See EDM, October 27, 2022). Many of the soldiers in the Ukrainian military consider themselves Cossacks, and the Cossack legacy of the country is used to motivate their forces. This author, for example, has witnessed Ukrainian soldiers that sport Cossack tattoos or that style their hair in the manner associated with the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the osoledits. Furthermore, the obituaries of fallen Ukrainian soldiers invoke the Cossack legacy. For example, the remembrance of the deceased Ukrainian soldier, Yaroslav Shamanov, invokes his involvement in the Ukrainian Cossack movement in the first decade of the millennium and his work in a Cossack camp for youth sports and training. His “first experience” of command had been in these youth camps, and much of his identity seems to be bound with Ukraine’s Cossack identity (Ukrinform, November 7, 2022).
Many key differences exist between the Russian and Ukrainian Cossack movements, but the resonance of the historical archetype is substantial for both sides. It seems, furthermore, that Russian attempts to monopolize this legacy only provide further inspiration for the already highly motivated Ukrainian forces.