Putin’s Pseudo-Cossacks Assume Larger Role, but Real Cossacks Refuse to Go Along

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 120

"Cossacks" clearing Moscow protesters, May 5

Since the Kremlin deployed “Cossacks” to disperse an anti-government demonstration in early May (see EDM, May 17), the Russian government has pumped enormous sums of money into this pseudo-movement, giving it increasingly sordid tasks, and playing up its support for the regime via state-controlled media. But Putin’s latest project has run into a wall: genuine Cossacks are refusing to go along. Their break with pro-government groups highlights the extent to which the regime’s fake “Cossacks” are yet another “hybrid” operation.

From “the little green men” in Crimea to the Wagner “private military company” in the Central African Republic (see EDM, April 30), Vladimir Putin has used nominally independent groups abroad to carry out “unconventional” missions in ways that offer him plausible deniability among the credulous. Putin has also made use of similar groups within the Russian Federation, including, most prominently, those that his officials and his media identify as “Cossacks.” In doing so, they hope to recall pre-1917 Russian practice and to exploit the often negative image of that people promoted by Hollywood and others.

The Kremlin leader has been remarkably successful on both counts. But his reliance on these groups ultimately shows the weakness, rather than the strength, of his regime, and highlights the ways in which he routinely exploits well-known collective labels, applying them to groups where they do not fit at all (see EDM, May 17; Afterempire.info, May 7; Polit.ru, May 22; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 7, 22)

Nevertheless, his success has led Putin to expand the use of the pseudo-Cossack units his regime has created in new and dangerous ways. Among the steps the Kremlin has taken since May:

– The Russian government has given Putin’s “Cossacks” $1 million to begin compiling lists of “enemies of the people.” They can hand the lists over to the government, target listed individuals on their own, or make the lists public so that others in favor of greater repression can act independently (Ekho Moskvy, July 30; Rusmonitor.com, accessed August 9).

– The Kremlin has orchestrated statements by its “Cossacks” in support of wildly unpopular regime policies, including boosting the pension age: One “Cossack” group called on the regime to do away with government pensions altogether (Newsland, August 5).

– Moscow has dispatched “Cossacks” to go after opposition groups in the non-Russian republics, most prominently in Karelia, where people who identified themselves as “Cossacks” sought to disrupt a meeting devoted to the victims of Joseph Stalin (Ekho Moskvy, Graniru, August 6).

– Russian officials have announced that they will use armed “Cossacks” to guard Moscow courts, a move that will discourage any protests against repressive legal actions by the regime in the Russian capital (Znak, August 7).

– And the Russian government has introduced draft legislation in the Duma (lower chamber of parliament) that would have the effect of certifying as genuine those “Cossacks” who support the regime, effectively depriving real Cossacks of the right to use that “brand” to promote their own national identity (Znak, August 7).

Not surprisingly, real Cossacks are furious, both at the effort to delegitimize them, and at the Kremlin’s hijacking of their name. They have begun to take action: More than 200 Cossacks in Ryazan announced that they will have nothing more to do with the pro-Kremlin Central Cossack Host. The Central Cossack Host was responsible for the aforementioned May attacks, and is headed not by a Cossack, but by a retired Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant general (7×7, July 25).

Their declaration makes it clear just how angry the real Cossacks are. It specifies that “as a result of the usurpation of supreme power in ‘the Central Cossack Society’ by persons of non-Cossack origin, views and convictions, and as a result of the transformation of the host into a multi-tiered structure to obtain money from the government, the goal of which is to create an externally beautiful picture that has nothing in common with Cossack content, WE [sic] declare our principled disagreement with [that body] and WE are leaving it” until the host is restored to its original purpose, one which does not work against the interests of genuine Cossacks (Kazak Center, July 24).

Other Cossacks across the Russian Federation feel much the same, not only because of recent events, but also because of what has, in fact, been a ten-year Kremlin war against the real Cossacks, a group that Putin and his regime fear and hope to discredit through their use of pseudo-Cossacks for nefarious ends (see EDM, June 21).

Putin has good reason to fear the real Cossacks. The survivors of the 13 tsarist-era hosts number as many as five million, and they are present in many regions of the Russian Federation. In some places, they are demanding the restoration of Cossack land and even the formation of Cossack national territories (see EDM, June 4, 2013). In the North Caucasus, for example, they are especially active. Moscow clearly fears that their efforts could destabilize the situation. But there is a much larger reason for the Kremlin’s concern: The Cossacks, despite their martial image in popular media, are a genuine nation and a remarkably tolerant one as well. In many cases, they welcome Muslims and Buddhists into their ranks; they thus represent a direct challenge to the Russian nation as Putin understands it (Idelreal.org, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 31). As so often happens with Putin’s policies, however, his reliance on pseudo-Cossacks and his attacks on the real article are generating a backlash—and doing far more to help that nation make a comeback than anything it might have done on its own.