Cossacks Now Challenging Moscow on Multiple Fronts
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 49
The Cossacks present broader and more serious challenges to the Kremlin than perhaps any other ethnic or regional group in the Russian Federation, challenges that increasingly affect the country as a whole. The Vladimir Putin regime recognizes this reality and has been taking various steps to try to control the Cossacks. However, these steps, ranging from census manipulation (Kavkaz-uzel, April 20, 2021) and the creation of regime-controlled Cossack organizations (Kavkaz Realii, June 19, 2021) to repression and propaganda attacks, including on this author (Mos.news, November 18, 2022), have largely failed or even backfired despite Moscow’s media efforts to present them as successes (Window on Eurasia, October 31, 2020). Now, with Russia’s war against Ukraine and new attention to both the US Captive Nations Week resolution, which speaks of an occupied Cossackia, and the Russian law on rehabilitating nations that were repressed in Soviet times, the Cossacks, inspired by activism abroad (Window on Eurasia, June 30, 2020), are becoming increasingly active and leaving the Kremlin with few effective policy options (Freenationaleague.org, July 22, 2022; November 13, 2022).
Since the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow has viewed the Cossacks as both an opportunity and a danger, and this combination has often confused observers as to what exactly is the Kremlin’s overarching plan (see North Caucasus Weekly, June 10, 2015). On the one hand, the Russian government sees the Cossacks as a potential ally in maintaining the size of the Russian nation, within which almost all Cossacks are officially counted. Additionally, they can play a key role in holding ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus and other non-Russian regions from which they are leaving and in providing cadres for Russia’s police force and military. For these purposes, Moscow has created what are known as “registered Cossacks.” These “Cossacks” have been given both enough money and attention that, at times, it seems that they are the dominant or even only group of Cossacks.
Yet, on the other hand, the size of these groups pales in comparison to the true, unregistered Cossacks, whom Moscow typically views as a threat because they see themselves as self-organizing democratic communities that continue to be oppressed by the Kremlin. If the registered Cossacks number roughly 150,000, the unregistered number as many as five to seven million, according to Russian officials (Rg.ru, February 11, 2010; see North Caucasus Weekly, June 10, 2015; see EDM, August 9, 2018; February 21, 2019).
Inspired, if not led, by Cossack diaspora organizations abroad, the unregistered Cossacks are seeking to live their own lives and gain recognition as a nation—and not just as a social stratum and sub-ethnos within the Russian nation as Moscow views them today. This status would represent a crucial first step toward achieving their own state. All this is at odds with the totalitarian aspirations of Putin. However, perhaps even more important, these Cossack steps are affecting other nations within Russia as well.
First of all, the Cossack push to be a self-standing nation, even if Moscow continues to reject their nationhood, helps promote regionalism within the Russian Federation by highlighting the fundamental weakness and fragmented nature of the Russian nation. If the Cossacks succeed in breaking away from the Russian nation, not only does that mean that Russia will lose another seven million members and 5 percent of the country’s population, but it will also set the stage for a more general rise in regionalism as a political force. That could lead to a more radical disintegration of the Russian Federation than merely the departure of the non-Russian federal subjects, who form less than one-fifth of the country’s population. If similar nations to the Cossack one, which are found from one end of Russia to the other, leave and then are followed by Siberians, residents of the Urals and those in the Russia’s northwest, the Russian Federation would be reduced to something less than Muscovy.
The notion that Putin is worried about such a possibility is suggested by his remarks on February 28 about how outsiders hope to use nationalism and regionalism to destroy Russia (RBC, February 28). Putin, of course, is incapable of acknowledging that the sources of this threat are found within Russia’s borders. And the Cossacks are clearly Exhibit A of that reality, something that makes them and their supporters the all too obvious targets of attacks by the Putin regime. (On regionalism as the form of nationalism that will trigger the next wave of Russian disintegration, see Region.expert, December 18, 2016; News18.com, December 9, 2022)
Second, what Moscow has been doing to the Cossacks is affecting other non-Russian groups, radicalizing them further. Cossack activists say that Putin’s efforts to create parallel “registered” Cossacks to do away with the “unregistered” majority and thus homogenize the Cossacks into a single Kremlin-approved package represent a model of what Putin wants to do to all non-Russian nations within Russia (Facebook.com/Nationality-Cossack, accessed March 22). For the Kremlin leader, Cossacks must be Russian Orthodox in religion and work as servants of the state, a vision at odds with how different and varied Cossacks have been in the past and remain so today. For example, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist Cossacks have existed in the past and significant Muslim and Buddhist Cossack communities remain today (Window on Eurasia, May 31, 2016; Russian7.ru, September 5, 2016). And while some Cossacks have worked for the state, others have fled the empire in search of a free and independent life (see EDM, February 20, 2018).
Such pluralism is attractive to many inside the Russian Federation, and at least some non-Russians have been affected by this Cossack argument. Among them are the leaders of Dagestan who have resisted and so far blocked Moscow’s plan to set up a “registered” Cossack community there, something Makhachkala clearly fears could become a matrix for use against the peoples of the North Caucasus republic (Window on Eurasia, December 27, 2021).
Third—and most dramatically, but perhaps not most importantly—an increasing number of Cossacks believe that, in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the Cossacks will have the chance to form their own state(s) in alliance with Kyiv and the West against what remains of Russia—thus achieving what they failed to do after 1917 and 1991. Some have even begun speaking of Cossackia as an “unrecognized” state rather than a long-term goal (Novayagazeta.eu, March 17) and even as a “potentially powerful bulwark against Russian imperialism” (see EDM, March 14). None of this will necessarily happen, but it is becoming more apparent that Cossackia is no longer some “impossible dream” that can be ignored (see EDM, February 21, 2019). And it is the true Cossacks, not Putin’s “registered” Cossacks, who are the real actors in the next act of this historical drama in Eurasia.