Russia’s Cossacks: Strategic Asset or Financial Liability?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 157

Russian Cossacks (Source: Time Magazine)

The Cossack revivalist movement in southern Russia (and beyond) since the collapse of the Soviet Union is marked by two parallel tendencies. On the one hand, there is Cossack activism based on appeals to ancestral identity. This is geared not merely toward the revitalization of Cossack culture and way of life immortalized by Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Sholokhov but also toward convincing the Kremlin that, despite the Soviet-era reprisals, the Cossacks are still a force to be reckoned with, and that they could serve as protectors of Russian interests, especially in frontier regions. “The main goal of Cossackdom in the North Caucasus is to serve as the guarantor of Russian presence in this geopolitically important region of the country,” the ataman (chieftain) of a Cossack organization in the southern Russian Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia said in an interview in early October (EADdaily, October 7).

On the other hand, Cossack groups have lobbied Moscow hard for favorable legislation and government subsidies. Over a dozen laws, decrees and amendments related to the Cossacks have been adopted in recent decades, underscoring this group’s importance to the Russian authorities (see EDM, May 2, 2014). The Cossacks have also been successful in extracting government financing. Just a few weeks ago, the administration of Rostov Oblast announced plans to allocate 8.3 billion rubles ($115.5 million) to support Cossack groups and communities across the region (, September 28). Considering that there are only 29,682 people in the whole oblast who identified as “ethnic Cossacks” during the 2010 census (, August 19, 2016), this looks like a substantial amount of money per capita.

Cossacks in neighboring Krasnodar Krai enjoy even greater privileges. “The land fund of the Kuban Cossack Host increased from 5,000 to 26,500 hectares in five years,” the regional administration recently announced (Kommersant, October 8). “Since the beginning of 2021, the Cossacks have received more than 1,700 hectares. We need to develop serious […] projects that can become drivers […] and a solid financial basis for Cossack communities,” said the deputy regional governor and ataman of the Kuban Host, Alexander Vlasov. Since 2012, when then–Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachov, himself of Cossack extraction, embarked on a populist anti-migrant campaign, hundreds of his fellow Cossacks have been put on the government payroll with the task of patrolling the region’s cities and towns (FT, August 4, 2013). Only 5,261 people in the krai identify as Cossacks (, August 19, 2016); but thanks largely to Tkachov and his predecessor as Krasnodar governor, Nikolai Kondratenko (see Prism, April 3, 1998), they punch well above their weight in terms of their impact on the region’s life.

Krasnodar Krai’s statute lists only Russians and Cossacks as indigenous inhabitants, with no mention of the Circassians who lived on those lands long before Russia’s 19th century wars of conquest and who were forced into exile en masse at the end of those wars. Krasnodar’s anthem is a Cossack folk song that refers to the glorious fight against “heathens”—anyone who is not a Cossack or Russian Orthodox Christian. These overt signs of xenophobia are a source of great frustration to minority communities in the region.

Cossacks may have proved to be efficient lobbyists, but their military exploits, despite their frequent claims to the contrary, are much less impressive, which raises the question: is the funding they receive from the central government money well spent? Two examples of the Cossacks’ involvement in the Russian Federation’s military enterprises cast that spending into question.

In early 1996, the Russian defense ministry dispatched a Cossack battalion to Chechnya (see EDM, May 2, 2014) to fight alongside the 21st Airborne Brigade. The 800-man force was named, rather provocatively, after Alexey Yermolov, a Tsarist general who is still universally hated by indigenous Caucasus peoples for his scorched-earth tactics and collective reprisals against them. Initially, the Cossack battalion was charged with manning a checkpoint on a strategic bridge over the Terek River, where they immediately gained notoriety by extorting money from local motorists and harassing refugees fleeing the fighting in the southern parts of Chechnya. Ten days later, the army command, apparently fed up with reports of lax discipline among the Cossack contract soldiers, ordered them to advance on Grozny and gain a foothold in Zavodskoy district, the industrial center of the republic (Kommersant, March 3, 2001).

That is where the Cossacks distinguished themselves for the second time in less than two weeks, this time by their spectacularly low standard of military professionalism. The battalion’s members, who advanced in an armored convoy, were lured into an ambush by a Chechen mobile unit and attacked at close range with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. Two Cossack soldiers were killed and 17 wounded in the fighting, the head of the Military Directorate of the Terek Cossack Host, Colonel Alexander Voloshin, later claimed (Kommersant, March 3, 2001). That may be an understatement considering that the Chechen hunter-killer team hit the battalion’s first two and last two vehicles in order to trap the column and totally destroy it. After the battle, Voloshin acknowledged, 90 people deserted the Cossack unit, with the total number of desertions after three months of fighting rising to 130. The total number of killed and wounded among the Cossacks during those three months was 300 men, forcing the army command to disband the group.

Accusations of poor discipline, low motivation and lack of military skills were similarly leveled against the Cossack formations deployed to eastern Ukraine in 2014. Perhaps the most well-known Cossack group that fought with Ukrainian separatists in the Donetsk region was the Cossack National Guard, under the command of Nikolai Kozitsyn, ataman of the Almighty Don Host. His force of several thousand men, equipped with artillery and heavy weapons, operated as a proxy for Russia’s armed forces in the coal-mining towns of Antratsit and Krasny Luch. But when Ukrainian government troops tightened the noose around Krasny Luch in August 2014 and called on the separatists to surrender, Kozitsyn and most of his Cossack fighters fled the town (YouTube, August 9, 2014). “The Cossacks ran, in keeping with their tradition,” Colonel Igor Strelkov (a.k.a. Girkin), the commander of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, wrote sarcastically (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 9, 2014).

For years, the Russian federal center and various local governments, apparently concerned about the increasing assertiveness of non-ethnic Russian republics and counting on Cossack support in crisis situations, funded various Cossack-related initiatives, sparking resentment among other nationalities including (non-Cossack) ethnic Russians. Largely the product of the Kremlin’s rollback of its previously declared modernization of Russia and march toward traditionalism and conservative values, Cossacks today have little to show for all that money. True, their leadership has benefited handsomely from state patronage: former Krasnodar governor Tkachov is reported to have become the wealthiest land-owner in Russia (, June 18, 2019) while Ataman Kozitsyn has been implicated in “extortion, theft, [and] misappropriation by force of humanitarian aid and its further redistribution” (see, September 3, 2019). But the majority of Cossacks still suffer the same problems as other Russians do—poor economic conditions, corruption, disenfranchisement, plummeting birth rates and low life expectancy.