- The Kremlin has expanded the state-registered Cossack movement within Russia and the illegally annexed regions of Ukraine.
- The Cossack institutions established in the Luhansk region aim to foster the militarization of the population, especially youth.
- Moscow has supported initiatives to establish a registered Cossack host in the Zaporizhzhia region, with an emphasis on recruiting more Cossack fighters for the war effort as well as uniting the registered and unregistered Cossacks.
The state-registered Cossack movement is now being expanded inside Russia and the illegally annexed territories in Ukraine. This approach has helped the Vladimir Putin regime consolidate its hold over Russian society. Recently, the Kremlin launched what seems to be a new initiative to unite the “public” and “ancestral” elements of the movement, in part through the appointment of a new chief ataman of the all-Russian Cossack host, Vitaly Kuznetsov (see EDM, January 16). This implies more resources are being devoted to the state-registered movement and the creation of new Cossack institutions throughout the country. These developments highlight Moscow’s increased use of Russian “Cossacks” to support its war effort in Ukraine and maintain control at home as public sentiments sour due to heavy losses on the front (see EDM, December 21, 2023).
The total number of Cossack hosts in Russia now numbers 14 (13 regional, one national). Most recently, the North-West Cossack Host was established in December 2023 and brings together the St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad Cossack societies. The All-Russian Cossack Society reported on the creation of the new organization. “On December 23, a foundation circle of the North-West Cossack host was held. Its participants passed a new statute and elected an ataman [from] the Baltic Cossack Society of Kaliningrad Oblast, Cossack General Maksim Buga,” the all-Russian host declared. Similar to its peer institutions in Russia proper, the new host will organize effective help for government services, engage in the military-patriotic education of Russian youth, and pursue connections within Moscow’s “power vertical.” In response to this development, Chief Ataman Kuznetsov said, “Today is a historic day for all Russian Cossackdom. First, we unite the Cossacks of 11 regions of Russia and consolidate their efforts. Now, we continue to work in the cause of the ‘special military operation’ ” (VsKO, December 24). Given the growing concerns that Russia may use the Suwalki Gap to invade the Baltic states and Poland, the North-West Cossack Society may prove useful for the Kremlin’s designs in the near future (LRT, December 4, 2023).
In remote Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, the local Cossack society “of six cities and stanitsa [the Cossack word for a village or hamlet] Cossack societies” became part of the Ussuri host. A recent regional meeting reviewed progress on implementing a federal policy for Russia’s state-registered Cossacks. Deputy Chairman of Kamchatka Krai Pavel Yasevich noted, “In the past year, we managed to see significant results: new classes with a Cossack component were opened in several schools on the peninsula [and] a regional center for Cossack culture was opened that will engage in the systematic development of Cossack identity in the region” (Kazachestvo.ru, January 19). Moscow’s institutionalization of its version of Cossack identity and culture is proceeding apace—and not just within the internationally recognized borders of the Russian Federation.
In the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic,” Cossack institutions have been formalized by ostensibly independent activists. It is highly likely, however, that these activists did so at the Kremlin’s behest. Before the Russian Civil War (November 7, 1917–June 16, 1923), Luhansk Oblast was part of the lands of the Don Cossack Host. This legacy has now been revived and is being actively celebrated. With the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture and Prombank, the local historical museum in the stanitsa of Luhansk has opened an exhibit consisting of five rooms that chronicles the region’s Don Cossack history. The exposition ends “with a hall dedicated to the ongoing struggle of Novorossiya for self-identification and self-determination”—a central tenet of the Russian state-registered Cossack movement (Kazachestvo.ru, December 1, 2023). Additionally, Cossacks from the Yenisei Assault Corps recently visited the Starobilsk Cossack Cadet Corps (known by the Russian acronym “KKK”) in Luhansk (Kazachestvo.ru, January 15). Perhaps most revealing, an institution for the military-patriotic education of youth in the Luhansk region identical to those in Russia has been established. The proliferation of KKK institutions throughout Russia over the past year is a hitherto unrecognized consequence of Moscow’s war against Ukraine, which has profound implications for the militarization of Russian society, especially youth.
The Kremlin also seems intent on establishing a state-registered Cossack host in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine. On January 5, the Russian-appointed ataman of the Zaporozhian Sich, Andrei Zhidkov, held a meeting styled as a skhod (old Cossack term for “gathering”) and invited atamans “from all corners of the region.” The somewhat archaic term skhod reveals the self-conception of the gathered Cossacks as a term reminiscent of the ebullient mood prior to the outbreak of World War I. After explaining the distinction between registered and unregistered Cossacks in Russia and answering related questions, Zhidkov unveiled the new host’s flag, structure, and emblem. He also mentioned the recruitment of Cossacks to fight against Ukraine and the taking of the “Cossack Oath” by new members of the “Dnepr” brigade on January 19 (Voinlife.ru, January 5; ZP-news.ru/, January 22). The meeting provided further instruction on war-related activities, including combat-readiness and drone-operation trainings. It ended with the unanimous decision of all atamans present to join the Russian state-registered Cossack movement and became the “starting point for the creation of the Zaporozhian host” (Voinlife.ru, January 5).
The ambition to unite the “ancestral” and “public” elements of the Russian Cossack movement seems to have worked in the formation of the Dnepr brigade. The 11th Cossack Reconnaissance and Sabotage Brigade has been “actively defending the Kinburn Spit” as Ukrainian forces make gains in and around the Dnipro River. A video bringing together an ancestral Cossack from the Don host, Zhidkov (representing the Dnepr brigade), and Nikolai Dyakonov, the supreme ataman of the Union of Cossack Warriors of Russia and Abroad discussed options for further uniting state-registered and unregistered Cossacks in Russia, Ukraine, and beyond (Union of Cossack Warriors of Russia and Abroad, January 14). These discussions underscore that the reclaiming of Cossack “ancestral lands” is becoming increasingly important to the Kremlin and those Cossack combatants fighting on the Russian side in Ukraine (see EDM, November 28).