Amidst the Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine and speculation about whether the Kremlin will, indeed, again invade (see EDM, January 18, 20, 27), the analytical discussion has focused less on what pretext(s) for war Moscow might put forward to “legitimate” any such invasion. However, one such candidate has recently come from the mouthpiece of the Dikoe Pole (“Wild Field”) Cossack Army in occupied eastern Ukraine.
Cossacks have become an instrument of Russian “hybrid war” as well as “soft power” throughout the former Soviet space and around the world (see Jamestown.org, June 25, 2019; Ponarseurasia.org, December 13, 2021), a development that stems from the Kremlin commandeering Cossack revival groups since the 1990s. Moscow-organized Cossack “armies” or “hosts” (the Russian term can be translated either way) now exist in practically every region of the Russian Federation as well as in other countries and focus mainly on education, military preparation, and ecological service, such as fighting forest fires (though some non-Kremlin-organized movements persist as well). In certain Russian regions, Cossacks also provide security through street patrols, although the scope of their legal powers remains unclear. Over the past year, the Kremlin took steps to institutionalize a genuinely national Russian Cossack movement, appointing Nikolai Doluda as the ataman (“chief”) of the new entity (Vsko.ru, accessed January 31, 2022; see EDM, January 22, 2021; see Commentaries, May 21, 2021).
In Ukraine’s war-torn eastern Donbas, the Moscow-backed separatist Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) features its own, local Cossack organizations (see Commentaries, July 16, 2019)—including the aforementioned Dikoe Pole Army. The origins of this Kremlin-aligned movement in occupied Luhansk are unclear; but the earliest dated entry in what seems to be the official blog of the Dikoe Pole Cossacks comes from November 2019. This first post notably refers to an administrative decision to establish symbols and uniforms for the Cossack Cadet Corps, a children’s organization in the LPR (Dikoe-pole.info, November 11, 2019). Like many such officially recognized Cossack hosts in Russia, the central stated concern of this Cossack organization in the LPR is ostensibly education and assisting with public activities, such as New Year’s festivities or organizing a charity run to raise money for healthcare in Luhansk (Dikoe-pole.info, January 1, 2022). Dikoe Pole resembles an authentic civil society actor but is, in fact, what social scientists refer to as a government-organized non-governmental organization (GONGO)—a front for the authorities.
The Dikoe Pole Army’s potential role—even if a small or partial one—in legitimating a Russian reinvasion of Ukraine scenario is tied to the group’s efforts in recent weeks “to convey the truth about what is happening in Donbas through foreign media.” Namely, the organization’s aforementioned blog has reported on a meeting between Italian journalist Alessandro Cassieri and Olga Kobtseva, who heads the LPR’s delegation to the working subgroup on exchange of prisoners of war within the Trilateral Contact Group on conflict resolution. Their conversation was purposely held at an entry-exit checkpoint “that is not working due to the opposition of the Ukrainian side” (Dikoe-pole.info, January 15).
Cassieri works for one of the most popular Italian television channels, RAI 1. Bringing the Italian media to the Donbas frontline is presumably an attempt by the Russian proxies to make their complaints look legitimate and raise the status of the dispute. Speaking to the Italian journalist, Kobtseva explained that “the infrastructure [at the checkpoint] has been idle for a year and a half,” adding, “it was completed in November 2020, but through the fault of Ukraine, it has not been used up to now. The checkpoint provides a road corridor for residents of the LPR and Ukraine but, unfortunately, only periodic humanitarian convoys come in.” Kyiv and the LPR authorities reached an agreement in March 2020 on two new checkpoints in the areas of Schastya and Zolotoye but failed to concur about security and other issues. Ukraine then “unilaterally” (on its own terms) opened these checkpoints in a move that “the Republic [LPR] considers a provocation” (Dikoe-pole.info, January 15).
Relatively minor issues, such as a dispute over two checkpoints have the potential to develop into more significant conflicts in Donbas. In this case, the dispute refers to the detention of an observer from the LPR by the Ukrainian authorities. The security of the personnel involved with such checkpoints is supposed to be guaranteed by the Joint Coordination and Control Center (JCCC), but Ukraine detained the LPR observer appointed to the JCCC, Andrei Kosiak. Though born in Luhansk region, Kosiak holds a Russian passport. The Security Service of Ukraine declared him to be part of a LPR Cossack militia and arrested this individual in October on suspicion of using his JCCC certification as a cover for a terrorist plot (Sharij.news, October 19, 2021). Kosiak’s alleged links to a Luhansk Cossack group may explain why Dikoe Pole is now involved in publicizing the purported debacle at the entry-exit checkpoints in Donbas.
For their part, the Russian authorities took six days to react to Kosiak’s detention; and when they did it was, as foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova put it, to “urge Ukrainians to inform us of the location of Russian citizen A.V. Kosiak and provide him access to Russian consular services.” The Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group responded rather sharply, saying that “this is Moscow’s official recognition of the participation of Russian citizens in the conflict in the East of Ukraine. After eight years of lying that Russia has nothing to do with the conflict, this is an important admission that it was Moscow that unleashed it and supports it. Now Ukraine can use this recognition in international organizations of the highest level—the [United Nations] Security Council, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and other organizations, and it will be much more difficult for Russia to argue that it has nothing to do with the conflict in the Donbas” (Disinfo.md.ru, October 20, 2021). Quite apart from demonstrating Moscow’s involvement, the recent weeks’ deliberate moves of the LPR and its Cossack proxies in raising the visibility of this issue for the international media suggests larger plans on the part of the Kremlin.