Moscow Promotes Ties Between Cossacks in Southern Russia and Eastern Ukraine

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 19

The Cossacks in Stavropol region are struggling with the contradictory goals of serving the Russian state and retaining their identity. The Cossacks try to argue that they have a distinct Cossack identity, but at the same time, they proclaim that their sole purpose of existence is to protect Russia. Cossacks often regard themselves as the protectors of Russia from the Muslims of the North Caucasus and other perceived threats. In exchange for these services, Moscow provides shadowy deals and preferences to the Cossack leaders. As a result, Cossack organizations are plagued with corruption and numerous internal conflicts.

The so-called Stavropol Cossack Force recently celebrated 25 years since its establishment in 1990. The Russian government has used the Stavropol Cossacks in nearly all the conflicts that have occurred in the former Soviet states. Now, it appears that the Cossacks from Stavropol are being primed to fight in Syria too. Pavel Zadorozhny, the supreme ataman (leader) of the Union of Cossacks of Russia, told the Kavkazskaya Politika news agency: “We have to help Syria. If, God forbid, Syria fails, all the militants will be here, in the North Caucasus. They will take over all the republics [of the North Caucasus]” (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 28).

The Russian state used the Cossacks, especially those in the southern Russian regions of Stavropol, Krasnodar and Rostov, to advance its interests in multiple wars in the Caucasus and, most recently, in Ukraine. In return, the Cossacks received some recognition both symbolic and material in nature.

Former Russian Cossack leader Aleksandr Martynov said in an interview for Kavkazskaya Politika news agency that Cossack uniforms had become part of the “normal routine of Russian life.” Martynov boasted of Cossacks having participated in the conflicts in Transnistria and in Abkhazia. By 1994, according to Martynov, the Cossacks manned as many as 29 full regiments in the Russian Federation. However, the tide has turned now, according to the Cossack leader, and the so-called Cossack military units no longer use Cossack symbols or draft Cossacks. Cossack military schools are being closed down, including one in Moscow. The former leader of the Cossacks of Russia also alleged that Moscow did not like the fact that the Cossacks had acquired so much power in the wars they fought on behalf of Russia (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 28).

The Stavropol Cossacks have received land from the government and other funding that is not entirely transparent. The lack of transparency causes numerous conflicts within the Cossack societies that sometimes appear to divide the Cossacks even within small villages. The Cossacks disagree on material issues as well as political, such as supporting the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The government-controlled Cossacks provide support to eastern Ukraine at the command of the Russian state, while other Cossacks do so on their own. Moscow, however, wants the Cossacks to support the insurgents in eastern Ukraine on its terms, rather than theirs (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 30).

The Terek Cossack Society and the Stavropol Cossack Society in particular have had trouble getting along, even though Stavropol region is the stronghold for both. After the authorities decided to merge the two Cossack societies, they become increasingly antagonistic toward one another, for both material and political reasons. The Stavropol Cossack Society wants to keep its statutes intact, while the Terek Cossack Society, which apparently has the backing of the Russian government, wants to absorb the Stavropol Cossack Society. The Stavropol Cossacks, for their part, appear to have a better support base in Stavropol region than the Terek Cossack Society, so the merger is not proceeding as smoothly as expected (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 30). The mantra about the unity of the Cossacks in the face of grave external threats to Russia fades when the Cossacks have to divide government funding. Currently, the Terek Cossack Society in Stavropol region receives the equivalent of $90,000 per year. If another Cossack society joins it, the funding will have to be divided (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 14).

Moscow has raised a warrior class of Cossacks in southern Russia, but it now faces the challenge of molding them into a pliant force fully loyal to the Russian state. Since the number of wars Russia wages seems to be growing, the government is likely to provide further support to the Cossacks, but organizing them into a unified force seems to be a formidable challenge.

In eastern Ukraine Russia found yet another use for the Cossacks from southern Russia. The Cossacks in the region derive from the Ukrainians and often speak so-called “Mova,” a form of broken Ukrainian. Moscow promotes cultural ties between the Cossacks in Stavropol region and eastern Ukraine to strengthen the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 14). At the same time, Moscow evidently does not want to give too much legitimacy to the Cossack nationalists and is blocking them from building their own distinct Cossack identity. With their own strong identity in southern Russia, the Cossacks would be able to challenge the current status quo and demand greater autonomy.