Cossack Fighters Replace Wagner Forces in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 5

(Source: Rossiiskaya gazeta)

Since becoming ataman of the Cossacks in November 2023, Vitaly Kuznetsov has charted a new direction for the state-registered movement that replicates the Wagner Group model in some ways. In a December interview, Kuznetsov made clear that one of his main tasks is the unification of the Cossack movements, both state-registered and “public” (or ancestral). Russia’s war against Ukraine is a powerful agent in accomplishing that goal. Kuznetsov stated, “I always said that, on the frontlines, there are no registered and public,” only Cossacks (Kazachestvo.ru, December 18, 2023). The number of BARS (Russian acronym for Combat Reserve Forces) battalions and other units with Cossack affiliations are growing in Ukraine. Kuznetsov made clear that specific criteria for membership is not important, as “in our Cossack units, the doors are open for all who want to defend the Motherland” (Kazachestvo.ru, December 18, 2023). The Kremlin has used the Cossacks, among others, as a means of filling the gaps left by Wagner personnel leaving their positions on the Ukrainian front and as key elements of war propaganda.

The number of self-described “Cossacks” regularly rotating on the Russian frontlines continues to increase. In October 2023, the number of reported “Cossacks” who had seen deployment in Ukraine was 25,000 (see EDM, October 10, 2023). Kuznetsov updated that estimate at the end of last year, claiming that “today 6,300 Cossacks are on the line of military contact.” He added that “over 27,000 Cossacks participate and have participated as part of 20 battalions, including the partial mobilization of Rosgvardia [Russian National Guard] and other formations” (VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023).

The table below represents an attempt to chart the force structure of the Russian Cossacks in Ukraine. While not comprehensive, some basic takeaways can be gleaned from the data: (1) several Cossack units are affiliated with the BARS system, (2) the Cossack corps include the Cossack reconnaissance and assault brigades; (3) Cossack detachments are growing; and (4) some Cossack units have been integrated into Rosgvardia. The Dnepr Cossack Brigade marks another unreported development—namely that, in the “new regions, many Cossacks already expressed the desire to join the composition of the All-Russian Cossack Society” (Kazachestvo.ru, December 18, 2023).

 

Force Structure of Russian Cossacks in Ukraine

Affiliation

Battalion or Brigade Names (If Known)Sources

Kuban Cossacks

 “Kuban” (BARS-1 and BARS-11) and Special Purpose Battalion “Kuban”

Smotrim.ru, October 30, 2023; VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023

Don Cossacks

 “Rostov” (BARS-18) and “Aksai”

VsKO.ru, December 13, 2023

Terek Cossacks

“Terek,” “Scythian,” “Baltika,” and “Caspian” (BARS-18)

VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023

Black Sea Cossacks

“Tavrida” and “Tavrida” (Rosgvardia)

VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023

Orenburg Cossacks

 “Fortstadt” (BARS-6)

Ural56.ru, September 21, 2023

Volga Cossacks

 “Ermak” (BARS-15)

VsKO.ru, December 10, 2023

Central Cossacks

“Khoper” (Rosgvardia)

VsKO, December 19, 2023

Yenesei Cossacks

Cossack Reconnaissance and Assault (CRA) Brigades “Siberia,” “Angara,” “Irtysh,” and “Yenesei”

Vz.ru, August 24, 2023

Siberian Cossacks

CRA Brigades “Siberia”; “Angara”; “Irtysh”; “Yenesei”

Vz.ru, August 24, 2023

Irkutsk Cossacks

CRA Brigades “Siberia,” “Angara,” “Irtysh,”and “Yenesei”; Special “Thunder” Battalion

Vz.ru, August 24, 2023;Kazachestvo.ru, December 12, 2023

Ussuri Cossacks

“Tiger” and “Pyotr Beketov” Detachments

VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023

Trans-Baikal Cossacks

“Tiger” and “Pyotr Beketov” Detachments

VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023

Northwest Cossack Host (see VsKO.ru, December 24, 2023)

“Baltika” (With Terek

VsKO.ru, December 19, 2023

Cossack Volunteer Assault Corps“Don,” Terek,” “Dnepr,” and “Siberia”Kp.ru, August 24, 2023

Similar to Wagner, most Cossack units generated through the BARS system are of dubious legal status. In August 2022, following Moscow’s full-scale invasion, Russian human rights lawyer Sergey Krivenko claimed BARS was being used for the “creation of illegal armed groups by the Ministry of Defense” (The Moscow Times, August 17, 2022). Some members of the Wagner Group, one of these “illegal armed group,” provided training for Cossack formations, teaching basic military tactics and combat medicine procedures to the “public” Cossacks in Kuzbass (SKVRiZ, December 4).

The increased use of Cossacks in Ukraine has given momentum to Kuznetsov’s aim to unite all Cossacks under one banner. In December, the Cossack ataman declared a second meeting of the “Big Circle” (Bol’shoi Krug) of Russian Cossacks in Moscow on  February 17, 2024 (VsKO, December 19, 2023). The Council of Cossack Atamans roundly endorsed the announcement. The Cossacks increasingly occupy a key role in Russian propaganda, and the meeting in Moscow will likely underscore this trend. The event itself will be a follow-up to the “Big Circle” meeting held in November, where Kuznetsov was elected ataman, and will focus on further consolidating and strengthening the state-registered Cossack movement (see EDM, November 18, 2023). In numerical terms, the Russian Cossacks are fast approaching the size of Wagner.

One example of Cossacks being used as a straight swap for Wagner in Ukraine is the Konvoy private military company (PMC). Konvoy refers to two legal entities: a Cossack society registered in St. Petersburg and a private security entity that became a PMC. The leader of both is Konstantin Pikalov, who was known by the call sign “Mazai” in Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group. In November 2022, Pikalov created a Telegram channel and immediately posted an announcement calling for “volunteers to join a Cossack company for the war with Ukraine” (T.me/convoywe, November 14, 2022). After receiving support and funds from Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, Konvoy created a training center in Crimea. The Russian-appointed governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, has encouraged local businessmen to support Konvoy by donating money to “respectable” Cossack organization for the purchase of new military equipment for the PMC (Dossier, August 24, 2023).

All this has given renewed attention to the question of defining what makes someone Cossack. Kuznetsov has repeatedly mentioned that specific criteria is not needed for defining who is Cossack (Kazachestvo.ru, December 18). An article on a new Cossack website—itself a representation of Kuznetsov’s attempts to unite the two wings of the Cossack movement—makes it clear that the Kremlin is trying to delegitimize the conception of the Cossacks as a separate national community. Asking whether the Cossacks are “an ethnos, a separate people, or a sociocultural society,” the article agrees with the definition used “in the strategy of state politics for the Russian Cossacks from 2021 to 2030 as a historically formed sociocultural community.”  That standard stipulates that the Cossacks “occupy a special place in the history of Russia [and] that they have always been a people of service.” Invoking dubious genetic definitions of Russia’s various nations, the article claims that “recent studies have shown there is no fundamental difference in the DNA of Cossacks and other Russian people” (Kazachestvo.ru, December 12 2022).

Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought a substantive change in the characterization of the state-registered Cossack movement itself. The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between those with ancestral Cossack roots and those that self-identify as such. The war itself has become a means by which Moscow can co-opt the Cossacks to pursue its own interests.