Few recent events have alarmed Russian society as much as the on May 5 Cossack whip (nagaika) attacks in Moscow on street demonstrators who had been organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The incident had obvious echoes of the tsarist government’s use of Cossacks to suppress demonstrators and attack Jews and other minority groups. But in addition, it illustrated the threat such irregular forces inevitably pose to civil society, allowing the Kremlin to utilize them to carry out tasks it does not want to take responsibility for and then to disown those groups if it comes under too much criticism (Graniru.org, May 7; Vedomosti, May 6).
In fact, this Russian government use of Cossacks is nothing new. Moscow has been employing nominally Cossack units in the North Caucasus to back up the local police for at least four years. And they are being utilized across the country both to provide security as well as to perform other government tasks such as fighting fires in Siberia. The latter has proven particularly important after Moscow stripped that region of much of its fire-fighting capacity in order to send planes and personnel to cities that will soon be hosting the World Cup (Ekho Moskvy, May 10; Sibreal.org, May 12; and Newsru.com, May 13).
Yet, it seems the Kremlin has crossed a Rubicon of sorts by using Cossacks to attack protesters in Moscow. Many Russian liberals in the past had approved the use of Cossacks outside the capital but are now expressing outrage that they are being deployed against their fellow residents of Russia’s largest city. Of course, their incense inadvertently underscores how socially removed Muscovites are from the rest of the Russian Federation (Kasparov.ru, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 13).
Some opposition figures are talking about this in apocalyptic terms: One commentator, for example, described the Cossacks used on May 5 as “bandits” and declared that “when a state gives power” to such people, it is “doomed” to failure and collapse (Afterempire.info, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 7). Such hyperbolic language is unlikely to be appropriate for the immediate future, but there are three reasons why Moscow’s use of Cossacks highlights the weakness of the Russian state and threatens to mobilize more Russian citizens, including many Cossacks, against it in various ways:
First, by relying on non-government actors like the Cossacks, Moscow has undermined the principle that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Not only does that raise the possibility that it will eventually lose control of such empowered groups, but it unwittingly encourages others, including those it has attacked, to consider arming themselves to defend against similar attacks in the future (Kasparov.ru, May 13). That raises the specter of clashes between various factions in the streets of Russian cities—recalling the street fights between the left and the right in Weimar Germany. Such a possibility is less unlikely than many assume given rising levels of gun ownership in Russia (Svoboda.org, May 15; see EDM, April 11, 2017).
Second, by using Cossacks as its private force of paramilitary enforcers, the Kremlin is unintentionally calling Russians’ attention to something it almost certainly would prefer to keep under wraps: namely, the regime’s coercive resources are not unlimited, and in many cases are insufficient to pursue President Vladimir Putin’s coercive domestic policies. Indeed, despite the expansion of the siloviki (special services personnel) over the last two decades, internal government forces are incapable of responding to all the challenges the state faces if it is going to continue to try to rely on coercion alone. The illusion of total control may further slip if, in response to this display of the regime’s weakness, Moscow’s opponents in the North Caucasus or elsewhere decide that they can act against it with impunity if they come together in large enough numbers. Putin has been fighting those attitudes since 1999: his decision to deploy the Cossacks show how far from victory he remains.
And third, the Kremlin’s use of one group of Cossacks in Moscow has had the effect of highlighting divisions within the broader Cossack community in Russia. In particular, it has led some Cossack factions to demand their own territorial autonomy or even independence as a separate nation. Most discussions about the Russian government’s use of Cossacks on May 5 have treated that group as a single whole. But that is a fundamental mistake. Three distinct sub-groups of Cossacks now exist in the Russian Federation, and each of them further divides in various ways as well. First, are the traditional Cossacks—the descendants of the pre-Soviet Cossack hosts largely destroyed by the Communist system. Then, there are the neo-Cossacks—groups that have taken up Cossack ideas even though they have no clear ties to the pre-1917 tradition. And finally, the third sub-group includes government-organized Cossack organizations like the ones that were deployed in Moscow on May 5. Notably, that latter grouping was led by a “retired” Federal Security Service (FSB) general. The exact size of each of the three sub-groups is in dispute, as there is no good census data. The first has perhaps a million members; the second as many as three million; and the third may number several hundred thousand at most. Relations among them are often hostile, as reactions to the May 5 actions exemplify.
Traditional Cossacks and many of the so-called neo-Cossacks disowned the nagaika attack and insisted, given the government’s failure to do so, on punishing those who took part. In at least one case, the traditional host members gave the Cossacks who attacked the Navalny demonstrators a taste of their own medicine by whipping them as well (Mbk.media, May 7; Kasparov.ru, Sobkorr.ru, May 16; Versia.ru, May 17).
This response is likely to renew demands by traditional Cossack groups that they be recognized as a nation and not “a stratum” of society as the Russian government insists, that their territories in the southern portions of the country be recognized and given autonomy, and, in at least some cases, that Moscow acknowledge their right to seek independence under the principle of national self-determination (Apn.ru, July 3, 2015) For all these reasons, the Kremlin may ultimately rue the day it decided to use Cossacks against demonstrators in Moscow.