Cossack Divisions Now Threaten Kyiv the Way They Already Do Moscow

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 105

Moscow-backed Cossack groups fighting against Ukraine (Source:

Like the Russian Federation, Ukraine has created registered Cossack communities to integrate them into the state and society. That move has put these groups at odds with independent Cossack groups, some of which are opposed to such integration on principle and, in certain cases, are exploited by Moscow to weaken Ukraine. Crucially, however, Cossacks play a far more central role in Ukrainian life than they do in that of the Russian Federation. Some experts point out that Ukraine would not even be called “Ukraine” (which translates to “Borderlands”) were it not for the historical role of the Cossacks there; while others suggest the Cossacks define many of the inherent differences between Ukrainians and Russians to this day (, June 25, 2019;, March 13, 2019). Consequently, splits among Cossacks in Ukraine—especially between those “registered” with the state (that is, officially recognized, whatever their exact relationship with the civil and military authorities) and all other groups—are not only fraught but deepening at the present time.

For Ukrainian officials, as for Russian ones, Cossacks are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Cossacks and Cossack traditions play an important role in the definition of the nation and even in projecting power both into Ukraine by Russia and into Russia by Ukraine. (Perhaps five million Cossacks reside in the Russian Federation, and several million are found in Ukraine as well.) But on the other hand, and precisely because of their central importance, Kyiv like Moscow, has concluded it has no choice but to take greater control of the Cossacks by registering those it is confident will cooperate with the state. Yet this categorization sets the “registered” Cossacks apart from and often at odds with the Cossack groups that do not want to or cannot obtain such government recognition. The Russian authorities have been especially active in coopting its Cossacks and then used them against Ukraine (see EDM, June 25, 2019 and April 9, 2020). But Kyiv has responded in various ways. First, it has worked to expose the Cossacks Moscow has recruited to use in Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea. Second, it is securing the backing of domestic Cossacks for Ukrainian national projects like the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (, January 7, 2020; see EDM, March 19, 2019).

In doing so, however, the Ukrainian government increasingly faces many of the exact same problems Russia has been dealing with. Most importantly, Moscow’s efforts to deracinate Cossacks so that they can be used for Russia and against Ukraine has outraged numerous other Cossacks who see this policy as an attack on their distinctive nationhood (see EDM, February 20, 2018 and August 9, 2018). Not only are large numbers of Cossacks in Russia furious at Moscow for what it is doing, but many of them are now more willing to support nationalist agendas that may ultimately threaten the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (see EDM, February 21, 2019).

As Russian commentator Valentin Lesnik observes, “Ukraine is a Cossack land, but only one Cossack host (the Zaporozhian) arose spontaneously by itself. All the remaining Cossack formations there were created by order of the Russian monarchs. Moreover, many of these Cossack areas overlapped what is now the Russian and Ukrainian border, which means many Cossacks in Ukraine are less Ukraine-focused than Kyiv would like to believe, and many identify in terms of Cossack communities that extend into Russia and are more Russified (Odnarodyna, June 20, 2021).

Kyiv has sought to overcome that by creating a registered Cossack system much like Russia’s, at least in intent. Today, there is a unified Ukrainian Registered Cossack organization, which functions on the basis of laws adopted in the early post-Soviet period. At the same time, however, more than 150 other Cossack groupings exist in the country. Some of them are large and some exist only on paper, but many are animated more by Cossack unity than by Ukrainian nationalism and are more sympathetic to Cossacks in Russia—and thus to Russia as well—than Kyiv would like. Such attitudes, Lesnik says, also infect the registered Cossacks of Ukraine; and as a result, Ukrainian regular army commanders reportedly are unwilling to make use of them in combat lest they fail to perform and cost the lives of other Ukrainian soldiers.

In March of this year, Hetman Anatoly Shevchenko, the head of Ukraine’s registered Cossacks, even complained to the Verkhovna Rada (national parliament) that many commanders ascribe to his men what they see among unregistered Cossacks and, thus, are reluctant to have them join their commands. Russian media, not surprisingly, has been playing up these concerns, both to undermine the unity of the Ukrainian forces and to promote fraternization between Cossacks in Ukraine and Cossacks in the Russian Federation. And writers like Lesnik contend that one sign of all this is that the roughly 20,000 Cossacks from Russia who came to fight in Crimea and Donbas vastly outnumber the Cossacks from Ukraine who have resisted them (Odnarodyna, June 20).

Indeed, there are suggestions even in the publications of the registered Cossacks that Kyiv views them less as a reliable military force than as a folkloric institution for show when foreign leaders come. Such suspicions, by their very nature, can feed on themselves, especially if accompanied (as now appears to be the case) by an intensified effort to “nationalize” the Cossacks in Ukraine. That approach will undoubtedly lead in Ukraine to what comparable policies have already led to in the Russian Federation: greater anger among both registered and unregistered Cossacks, increasing conflicts between them, and an expanded opportunity for outside powers to play on these frictions to weaken the country (, accessed July 1).

Moscow undoubtedly welcomes what is happening in Ukraine and even actively promotes it. But the Kremlin clearly fails to recognize that the same divisions are deepening at home and for the same reason—a heavy-handed approach to integrate a community whose current leaders define themselves in terms of the ideals of freedoms stolen from them in the past, however often some of their ancestors served the governments under which they live.