Russia is again having problems with the Cossacks and it has become a real back-to-the future moment. Despite 70 years of efforts by the communists to destroy the Cossack community, the Cossacks survived, mainly by concentrating on preserving their culture and not trying to fight the new communist run Soviet Union. By the 1990s there were millions of Russians and Ukrainians who could trace their origins to one of the 13 Cossack “hosts" (tribes) that were recognized by the czars over the centuries.
The Cossacks are also a uniquely Russian paramilitary force that, it turned out, largely opposed becoming part of the post-Soviet secret police. Although the government has, since the 1990s, aggressively recruited Cossacks for para-military units, most Cossacks opposed this new policy. Now the problem is that the majority of Cossacks are openly criticizing the government for misrepresenting them. Most Cossacks are more interested in obtaining official recognition as a distinct “national group” along with revival of the control Cossack hosts had over large areas of southeast Russia and the Caucasus. The Cossacks were allowed to be the local government in these areas in return for allegiance to the government (then the monarchy) and willingness to stand ready to mobilize quickly to deal with invasion or local disorder. That is not what the new, post-communist government approved Cossacks are all about. But the post-communist government now decides who is eligible to join a “Cossack” unit and the people in charge of these selections are not even Cossacks. The current government values loyalty over Cossack heritage and the majority of Cossacks see this as a betrayal of what the Cossacks long stood for (self-reliance, self-rule and self-defense).
Originating in southern Russia during the 15th century as informal organizations composed of Russians living on the frontiers of the empire, by the early 18th century czar Peter the Great agreed to give them official recognition and a defined role in Russia society. The Cossacks were, and still are, very nationalist, aggressive, persistent, independent minded and really keen on maintaining or expanding the Russian empire. This is what the Cossacks were doing for three hundred years before the monarchy officially recognized Cossacks as a distinct group.
The Cossack people are ethnic Russians with a distinct language and culture (not quite Russian) and strong ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (although they tolerated other religions, especially Moslems and Buddhists). There are currently about seven million Cossacks in Russia, Ukraine, and other portions of the former Soviet Union. Their involvement in Russian wars goes back over 500 years. During Tsarist times, Cossacks formed special cavalry units in the Imperial Russian Army, as well serving, by the 19th century, as instruments of state repression. The Russian Empire had a special arrangement with the Cossacks whereby, in exchange for frontier land, greater political autonomy, and special social status, Cossacks contributed military forces, providing their own horses, weapons, and equipment. The Cossacks were mostly reserve units but kept themselves ready so that when an emergency arose they were almost immediately ready to fight. The Czar and Russian military planners found this capability very useful, especially in border areas. Unique, exclusively Cossack military formations have been a staple of Russian history in one way or another for many, many centuries. Cossacks were also notorious for their willingness to do the czar’s dirty work, especially in the Caucasus and whenever there were popular uprisings against the czar or determined resistance to Russian rule. The Cossack “hosts” were associations of freemen for mutual defense. They elected military leaders and were eager to acquire military training and combat experience.
Opinions on the actual military value of Cossack units is widely divided, as are opinions of the Cossacks themselves. At many points in Russian military history, the Cossacks proved themselves to be determined and fierce, sometimes to the point of recklessness. They considered themselves warriors and there are examples of entire Cossack units fighting to the death against impossible odds. During the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russia in 1812 Cossack units, mostly as light cavalry, operated extremely effectively as scouts and raiders, harassing the retreating French army mercilessly. Their performance against regular troops in open battle was less than great, but then that wasn't their role anyway.
On the other hand, Cossack units, from the days of Peter the Great (czar 1682-1725) until modern time, have a well-deserved reputation for brutality, anti-Semitism, and looting. They have always been notoriously difficult to control, with Russian officers in past wars becoming frustrated and enraged with drunken, seemingly mutinous Cossack soldiers. During the Russian Civil War, Cossacks fought for both sides, but most frequently for the anti-Communist White forces. Whichever side they choose the Cossacks were still often divisive, unreliable, and preoccupied with looting and general mayhem. Also, many Russians regarded them as potential rebels, given their unruly history, large numbers, and independent-minded spirit. Those familiar with pre-Soviet history know that for a two century period, every major rebellion against the Russian Empire was led by Cossack troops. During the Soviet period, Cossacks were among the many ill-treated minorities, having their distinct culture and language suppressed by the Communist authorities. Cossacks were not allowed to serve in the Soviet military until 1936 and proved particularly effective during World War II, but not as separate Cossack units but as individuals in the Red Army.
In the 1990s, with the communists out of power, things began to change. Many Cossacks had become career soldiers during the post-World War II period and some rose to high rank. These men did not hide their Cossack origins but were proud of it and made a point of trying to emulate their ancestors when it came to being professional soldiers. By the late 1990s, these Cossack officers agreed with government suggestions that Cossacks be “rehabilitated” and again allowed to defend the state.
Since the 1990s Cossacks were once again involved in Russian conflicts. In an effort to bolster national pride and recover some of the distinct Russian heritage that was suppressed during 70 years of Soviet rule Russia has officially brought back the formation of exclusively Cossack military units, and in a big way. This has accompanied a general explosion of Cossack culture since the late 1990s. Cossack military schools have been established, where student ages 10 to 17 attend classes in army fatigues and learn military tactics alongside regular academic subjects. An entire Kuban Cossack Army, headquartered in Krasnodar, has been established and is incorporated as a unique, but fully integrated, part of the Russian Army. The Russian Minister for Cossack Affairs, General Gennady Troshev (until his death in 2009) was a Cossack himself and had been instrumental in the remilitarization of the Cossack society. Troshev was not alone and career army officers realized there were a lot of Cossacks among them.
Irregular Cossack paramilitary units fought on the Russian/separatist side in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which saw South Ossetia taken from Georgia and made a de facto part of Russia. Cossack volunteers by the hundreds mobilized during the Georgian attack of South Ossetia and crossed the border to engage Georgian forces. Cossacks in nearby North Ossetia apparently organized a relatively efficient and rapid system for clothing, equipping and transporting their paramilitaries into the breakaway province to feed them into combat. Cossack fighters entered South Ossetia by bus, having been issued combat uniforms and gear on the way to the border, and were issued small arms and light weapons once they arrived at the border. Cossack volunteers formed the second major paramilitary force in the war, the first being the South Ossetian militias. According to reports, the Cossack forces fought with dogged determination. Russian army commanders noted the effectiveness of the Cossacks in Georgia which appears to be why the Cossacks showed up in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) six years later. The big difference with Donbas was that Russian forces soon withdrew from most of Georgia while in Donbas the conflict has gone on for years and is still unresolved.
Paramilitary forces and semi-standing armies of "volunteers", of various ethnic and political lines, are a major part of the armed conflicts in Russia and the former Soviet Union, particularly among Slavic ethnicities. Such forces exist in disputed territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where a majority of ethnic Armenians live in the unrecognized Republic of Nogorno-Karabakh. The Nogorno-Karabakh Defense Army is the formal defense force of the Nogorno-Karabakh Republic. Similar forces exist in both breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Azkaban. Now Cossacks are trying to settle down in eastern Ukraine (parts of which were once “Cossack lands”) and that is not going well.
By 2015 the Russian policy was to encourage, with cash investments and monthly payments to adult Cossacks willing to undergo military training, the establishment of Cossack communities in the Caucasus. These towns and villages would be in touch with the surrounding non-Cossack population and able, if there were problems with the non-Russian natives, to defend themselves until Russian reinforcements show up. That’s a strategy that is centuries old and Russia sees it as succeeding again. The Caucasus natives have a long-standing dislike for the Cossacks, but at the same time fear and respect them, especially when the Cossacks are acting as paramilitary forces.
But in Ukraine, where in Tsarist time the Cossacks often led Ukrainian rebellions against the Russian government, the Cossacks were not as effective. That distant memory is now being reexamined in Moscow and the policies of how to use the Cossacks were reconsidered and in early 2018 it was decided to try reviving some of the czarist traditions by forming all Cossack reserve units as part of the new National Guard. This plan involves moving slowly and first forming small units (platoon and company size), noting how well they perform and then deciding how much, and how fast to expand the program. Whatever the case since the 1990s the Cossacks have been returning to their traditional role as defenders of the Russian empire, a role that was merely interrupted for 70 years by the disastrous Soviet experiment, which collapsed in 1991.
In early 2018 Russia formally allowed all-Cossack units to be formed for the National Guard. This was but one of many new government policies meant to restore the Cossack community to their pre-communist role of voluntary militia that was always ready to serve the empire and defend Russia from external and internal enemies. This time around the emphasis was on “internal enemies”. Cossacks in uniform are now encouraged to compile lists of actually or potentially disloyal Russians. It’s the old communist era “enemies of the people” routine all over again and most Cossacks oppose these practices. This particular assignment was very unpopular with traditional Cossacks.
The National Guard was created in 2016 as a paramilitary organization of some 400,000 soldiers and police. This National Guard is officially a “rapid reaction” force for dealing with terrorism or any other threat to Russia that requires quick and decisive action. There was opposition in parliament to proposed new laws that allowed the National Guard to fire on Russian citizens whenever the government wanted to without warning. In addition, National Guard leaders are to be immune to any prosecution for anything they are ordered to do. This reminds too many people of the kind of power the Soviet era KGB had. But it is also similar to the role the pre-communist Cossacks played in defending the czar and his government.
When the Czar was replaced by the Soviet Union a KGB army replaced czarist era secret police and Cossacks. In 2016 the National Guard took most of the best trained and most effective units from the Interior Ministry. That was seen as weakening an existing force that could prevent a new KGB from misbehaving. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, was now the head of state and he also made the National Guard immune to FSB (the post-Soviet KGB) oversight. Another interesting aspect of the National Guard is that the many para-military groups formed by the pro-Putin government of Chechnya are now considered part of the National Guard. A growing number of Russians are calling the National Guard “Putin’s Private Army.” The new Putin version of the KGB army already contains the most militarized police units available to the Interior Ministry (the national police and various riot control, SWAT and special operations forces) as well as investigators and intelligence experts. These personnel are assigned to the new National Guard which swears to protect the president of Russia (currently Putin), not the Russian people. This is how czarist era Cossacks operated. What a coincidence.
Thus when Russia ran into trouble taking Donbas (eastern Ukraine) away from Ukraine in 2014 Cossacks in the area were prominent among the Russian nationalists who volunteered to serve as irregulars in Donbas in an effort to restore the area to the empire. One reason for sending more Russian troops into Donbas was to try and get the Cossacks to do what Russia, not Cossack leaders, wanted.
That’s not the only problems the Russians are having with Cossacks. Historically the Cossacks were a number of things, including righteous. Although poorly treated by the communists, the Cossacks are believers in collectivism and tend to be very hostile to corrupt leaders they come across. This has caused problems in Russia and again in Donbas because some of the local separatist rebel leaders are, for want of a better term, quite corrupt. Cossacks accused these leaders of stealing Russian aid and taking care of themselves and their armed followers rather than sticking with the goal of an independent Donbas or incorporation into Russia. But by 2015 it was feared that the troublesome and righteous Cossacks were triggering a civil war among the rebels.
The Cossacks were welcome arrivals when they showed up in 2014 because the original local Donbas rebels quickly lost their enthusiasm when their uprising triggered a nationalistic fervor throughout Ukraine and inspired Ukrainian troops and armed volunteers to fight a lot harder than the rebels expected. Russia, which sponsored and encouraged the rebels from the start soon found that the only way they could take territory was to send in Russian troops and heavy weapons (tanks, artillery, rocket launchers, missiles). The special operations units (Spetsnaz) were the best for this because these guys knew how to pretend (that they were Ukrainian rebels) and were very effective fighters. But there was not enough of them available and the most effective of the local Russian volunteers were the Cossacks, who proved effective in maintaining the peace among the civilians in the half of Donbas that the Russian backed rebels gained control of before a ceasefire halted offensive operations by both sides. There the situation remains, brought to you in part by Cossacks.
Elsewhere in Russia, the Cossacks have been less trouble and more useful. The Cossacks are also being used to try and replace all the Russian inhabitants of the Caucasus who have been driven out by nationalist rebels and Islamic terrorists. Russia had, over the last two centuries, encouraged ethnic Russians to settle in the Caucasus in order to help maintain Russian control of an often-hostile native population. With the collapse of the empire (the Soviet Union) in 1991, there was no money left to subsidize the ethnic Russians in the Caucasus. That, as much as the anti-Russian attitudes of the natives, prompted most Russians to leave. Now the Russian government is using an old solution to get more ethnic Russians back into the Caucasus; it’s sending in the Cossacks. Unlike the old days, most Cossacks are not interested in becoming armed settlers in areas hostile to Russia. This is especially true in the Caucasus, one part of the old empire that was never completely pacified (and still isn’t). Apparently, the Cossacks have become troublesome in ways only the czars really understood and learned to deal with.