Russian State Duma deputy in the Committee on Defense Viktor Vodolatsky, who is also the supreme ataman (head) of the Union of Cossack Forces in Russia and Abroad, openly admitted that Russian Cossacks are actively engaged in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Moscow-backed separatists. The supreme ataman asserted that about 5,000 Cossacks, citizens of Ukraine, are members of Cossack organizations in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions (together, the area is commonly known as Donbas). Apart from that, about 30,000 Cossacks from Russia “may come and do come” to help the separatists. Vodolatsky stated that Cossacks killed in the fighting are being buried in Donbas because they “want to be buried in this land of their ancestors.” The Cossack leader also emphasized that for the Cossacks there “are no borders.” According to Vodolatsky, Cossacks come “to their friends and acquaintances” and defend “their clans’ villages,” although they are citizens of other states. He also promised that, if necessary, the number of “volunteers will grow exponentially to tens and hundreds of thousands” (UNIAN, June 19).
The Cossacks were a special peasant-military social group in Tsarist Russia. They guarded Russia’s borders and supplied manpower for various wars on the Tsar’s orders. The Cossacks also served as personal guards to the Tsar. As compensation, the Cossacks enjoyed significant social autonomy, owned large swaths of fertile land, and were relieved of taxes (“Cossacks, Cossack groups, Cossack military forces,” Military Encyclopedia, Ed. by V. F. Novitsky et al., Saint Petersburg, I. V. Sytin Co., 1911–1915).
Though banned during Soviet times, Cossack organizations started to revive at the beginning of perestroika. In 1990, the Union of Cossacks of Russia was established. And a year later, the Union of Cossacks of South of Russia was created to unite the Don Cossacks, including the Cossacks from Rostov oblast in Russia and the Cossacks from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine. In 2000, the socio-political movement Cossacks of Russia was set up.
From their initiation, these Cossack organizations were permeated with imperialist ideology and Christian Orthodox religious fundamentalism. The Cossack groups believe that the ideology of contemporary Russia should be modeled on the ideology of Tsarist Russia. “Ideology and nationalism should always make up the state,” Cossack leader Vodolatsky told the pro-Kremlin journal Odnako on November 8, 2013. “Before 1917, Russia had a mighty spiritual-patriotic and Orthodox ideology and the Russian Empire was built on it… Later all this was destroyed, but after 1917, we constructed the new ideology of upbringing—the Little Octobrists, Young Pioneers, Komsomol and the Party. The Soviet Union had huge achievements. But that was a new ideology, without a centuries’ long foundation, and in 1992, it was quickly destroyed,” he added.
The liberalism that was ushered in after the Soviet Union’s collapse created nothing of value to the Russian state, he argued, adding that it only served to divide up the national wealth while entirely forgetting about the individual. “Spirituality should serve as the basis of the national idea in contemporary Russia,” Vodolatsky concluded (odnako.org, November 8, 2013).
Following the fracturing of the Soviet Union, Cossacks actively participated in the military conflicts in Transnistria in 1992 and in Abkhazia in 1993, which this author repeatedly encountered while reporting on these wars. They always stated that they participated in these wars to defend (ethnic) Russians. At the same time all of them had quite negative attitudes toward the then-president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, as the “traitor of Russians, who sold them out to the West” (see EDM, July 11). Many of these people defended the Russian parliament from the government forces in 1993. The imperialist and nationalist views of these Cossacks, as a rule, coincided with their adventurousness. For the majority, participating in a military action was more important than the goal of the military campaign itself (Igor Rotar, Pylauschie Oblomki Imperiy, Moscow: Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2001).
Given the anti-government sentiment among the Cossacks during the 1990s, the Kremlin used them in armed conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union with great caution. The only officially known Cossack group in the Russian Armed Forces was formed in January 1996, when the 694th Motorized Rifle Battalion was established within the 135th motorized brigade of the 58th army of the North Caucasian Military District. The battalion consisted of 800 men and took part in the first Russian-Chechen war (1994–1996). The Cossacks in the battalion unofficially named their unit after General Petrovich Yermolov. The commander of the first stage of the Russian-Caucasian war, until 1827, General Yermolov was known for his brutality toward the mountaineers. Already by June 1996, the 694th Battalion was disbanded (fstanitsa.ru, accessed August 13).
After Vladimir Putin came to power and, especially after the annexation of Crimea in March of this year, relations between the Cossacks and the Kremlin rapidly improved. In 2013, the presidential Council for Cossack Affairs allowed for Cossack patrols to protect public safety alongside the police, on a contractual basis. Cossacks, for example, helped the police to patrol streets at the time of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. In March 2014, First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Gorovoi thanked Kuban Cossacks for their service at the Sochi Olympics and handed them special medals For Assistance to the Interior Ministry of Russia (TVTs, December 19, 2013; Argumenty i Fakty, April 23, 2014).
Additionally, about 1,000 Cossacks went to Crimea at the time of the annexation of the peninsula by Russia, and 18 of them received awards from President Putin for protecting public safety at the time of the referendum (Argumenty i Fakty, April 23). And more recently, Supreme Ataman Vodolatsky proclaimed the Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk “historical territory of the Great Military Force of Don, which was illegally annexed in 1922 by the Council of People’s Commissars and joined to Ukraine (UNIAN, June 19).
The Kremlin may thus be tempted to increasingly use the divisions of Cossack lands across the post-Soviet space to justify conflicts with other neighboring states. For example, Ural Cossacks reside today both in the Russian Urals and in Kazakhstan. Interestingly, back in 1997, the former “prime minister” of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Boroday, then employed at the nationalist newspaper Zavtra, wrote an article about alleged persecutions of the Ural Cossacks in Kazakhstan (Zavtra, March 17, 1997). But as recent historical evidence suggests, Russia’s Cossacks will only be willing to support such irredentist claims as long as the Russian leadership continues to glorify and promote the country’s Orthodox imperialist past.