Russian-Backed Luhansk Authorities Enlist Help of Local Cossacks

(Source: Reuters)

The authorities of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) are apparently seeking to extend their control over society in this Russian-occupied and Moscow-backed eastern Ukrainian region. As one notable sign of this trend, the newly created council of Luhansk atamans (Cossack leaders) recently met in a local government building. During the assembly, and LPR head Leonid Pasechnik, who was conspicuously in attendance, declared the intention to unite all Luhansk Cossack communities and strengthen their cooperation with the breakaway region’s authorities. Pasechnik declared, “This is a very important and significant event for our republic [sic]. I am sure that the Council of Atamans will become the platform that unites all the Cossack communities living on the territory of the LPR.” He continued, “[T]he work of our Council of Atamans will contribute to the development of relations between Cossack communities and the organs of government. I reckon that today it is very important and will have a beneficial effect on the social climate, the development of our republic, and, of course, on strengthening the defense of our country [sic]” (Dikoe Pole, July 12).

The meeting came a month after Pasechnik signed a decree creating the Council of Atamans on May 10. The decree reads that the Council “is created with the goal of consolidating Cossack societies, creating and working on a secure united mechanism to realize government regulations for the direction and development of Cossackry on the territory of the Luhansk People’s Republic; representing the interests of Cossack societies for the development of offers and planned meetings for the development of Cossackry on the territory of the Luhansk People’s Republic; and the coordination of the Council of Ataman’s activities with the administration of the city and/or region of the Luhansk People’s Republic” (, May 10). Thus, the LPR authorities appear to be seeking legitimacy through embracing elements of civic culture and heritage.

It has long been the case that Cossacks and Cossack formations have played a more significant role in the conflict in Luhansk than in neighboring Donetsk. Portions of the region do, after all, overlap with parts of the historical lands of the Don Cossack host, and local small Cossack communities pre-dated the current conflict there (, January 2019). It is therefore not surprising that the separatist authorities seek to harness social forces that aid their domination of the region and ally them to Russia in the manner with which they interact with their society.

Indeed, while there are Cossack societies in both Ukraine and Russia, the level of cooperation between the Russian state and quasi-autonomous Cossack organizations is deeper and much more institutionalized compared to Ukraine. Historically, Tsarist Russian armies recruited Cossacks to defend the borders of the Russian state. As a result of the Cossacks’ guardianship of lands in Siberia and the Caucasus, these groups retain a controversial image of Russian imperialism there to this day. And with Russia’s resurgence in international affairs, this image has been revived, with Russia’s Cossack formations wearing uniforms, policing streets, and even fighting in conflicts across the post-Soviet space, from Chechnya to Donbas (Radio Svoboda, June 30, 2014).
In partial recognition of this interest in serving the state, Russian President Vladimir Putin created a Council for Cossack Affairs in 2004, and its responsibilities have expanded over time. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the image of the Cossack has been fashioned after the Zaporozhian Cossacks, associated with freedom and a rejection of government influence. While there are Cossack organizations in Ukraine, their activities are more limited to the social sphere (for example, holding social sporting events and hosting summer training camps for youth throughout the country); government attempts to coordinate with them have been less successful. Although the exact scope of what is planned for the Luhansk Cossack council is undefined, the decision formally to enlist the help of local atamans in the LPR suggests a closer adherence to the Russian model.