Russia’s Cossacks: ‘Fighters’ Versus ‘Cheerleaders’

Moscow may be drawing most of its conscripts for the war in Ukraine from ethnic minority regions such as Buryatia and Dagestan (see EDM, May 4), but there appears to be a wartime division of labor amongst the voluntarist Cossack movement as well. In particular, one can observe a distinction between “fighters” and “cheerleaders”—that is, those Cossacks actually engaged in combat in a war zone versus those tasked with maintaining morale back on the home front. Evidence of this seeming division of labor requires a close reading of the local media sources linked to the Cossack movement, such as the website of the All-Russian Cossack Society (Vsko.ru). As of early May, this site published a total of 70 articles related to Cossack involvement in the war effort, of which 21 named a specific host in the title. Fully one-third of those articles (7) concerned the Kuban Cossacks, with most reporting on that group’s combat role.

Based on analysis of the Cossack media landscape, the “fighters” are mainly members of the Kuban, Don and Tavrida battalions. Kuban Cossacks appear to be most widely involved in fierce battles in Ukraine. Reportedly, 400 Cossacks from the Kuban region (southwestern Russia) left to “defend a brother nation from neo-fascists, [and defend] our ancestral land, Russia! We are ready to carry our combat missions, carry the banner of the Cossacks with honor, and be worthy sons of our heroic ancestors! The fighting Cossack spirit is with us! God is with us!” (Vsko.ru, April 30). Another article features still more Kuban Cossacks joining the fight, predictably proclaiming that “defending the motherland is the historical mission of the Cossacks. In the Donbas, Russian soldiers liberate not only the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk from the Nazis, but also protect their native history and freedom.” The article goes on to confirm that “in the nearest term, another two Cossack detachments will enter the war in Donbas” (Vsko.ru, May 3).

Those from the Don region constitute more such “fighters.” Indeed, “the volunteer Cossack detachment named for the Archangel Michael from the Don Battalion prepares to carry out combat operations” (Kazak-center.ru, May 5). The Tavrida battalion seems to have no specific territorial origin. Reported casualties associated with this last Cossack host hail from across Russia, including Udmurtia (Vladimir Turanov) and the republic of Khakassia (Ilya Solomachyov). Turanov was killed in battles around Kharkiv and Solomachyov died fighting in Izyum (Vsko.ru, May 5). Another reported-on Cossack fighter comes from Kirov Oblast (Kazak-center.ru, May 5). Reporting on casualties reveals other regions of origin as well. For example, one news item notes that in late April, Volga Ataman Yuri Ivanov visited soldiers in the hospital accompanied by “representatives of regional executive power and the military commissioner of Samara Oblast” (Vsko.ru, April 29).

At the same time, Cossacks from other hosts spread around the country are supporting military and public morale—or “cheerleading.” The Kuban host seems to be engaged in both roles: 105 Kuban Cossacks, who were joined by 105 Terek Cossacks, marched in the Victory Day parade on May 9, on Moscow’s Red Square. The All-Russian Cossack Society website proudly declares, “Two months of training at the Alabina parade ground were not in vain… We dedicate the parade to the Cossacks-heroes of all wars and battles of Russia, Cossacks and compatriots who are today fighting neo-Nazis in the Donbas” (Vsko.ru, May 7). Similarly, Cossacks from the Central Military District provided reenactors for battles of the Great Patriotic War as well as carried out street patrols (Kazak-center.ru, May 5). According to reports, as many as 5,000 people came out to witness the reenactments. Moreover, Cossacks from the Volga region entertained volunteers fighting on the front lines in Donbas: “Volga Cossacks are again on the front line—they maintain the morale of the soldiers and officers of the second army” (Vvko-rossiya.rf, May 4). Indeed, most Cossack societies outside of the Don and Kuban hosts seem to be contributing almost exclusively to such home-front or non-combat “cheerleading” efforts rather than participating in battles inside Ukraine.

What explains this seemingly uneven distribution of labor? Two likely possibilities have to do with proximity and numbers. On the one hand, Krasnodar and Rostov regions—the territories associated with the Kuban and Don hosts—are particularly close to the Ukrainian border, and so it is logical to transport Cossack residents from there to Ukraine rather than those from further afield. That said, Cossack Artem Tugolukov, from Zabaikalsky Krai in the Russian Far East, reportedly “worked for two weeks as a volunteer in one of the refugee reception points in the [Ukrainian] Donetsk Oblast village of Besminnoie” (Vsko.ru, May 6); so it seems unlikely that such extreme distances would actually pose an obstacle to military service if Russia needs more Cossack volunteer fighters. On the other hand, the Kuban and the Don hosts are the largest numbers of registered members—146,000 and 126,000 respectively (Osw.waw.pl, 2017)—and so it makes sense that they would provide the most soldiers. Still, even taking these factors into consideration, the relatively sharp breakdown between Cossack “fighters” and “cheerleaders” is notable.

Most probably, the overrepresentation of Kuban Cossacks among Russia’s combat forces in Ukraine may have to do with the recent promotion of Nikolai Doluda, the former ataman (head) of the Kuban host, to the post of supreme ataman of the All-Russian Cossack Society. Part of the rationale for Doluda’s appointment in 2019 may well have been as part of longer-term preparation for a full-scale war against Ukraine, when the Russian authorities understood that they would need large numbers of extra men. Doluda’s rise helped that cause because of his ability to raise Cossack volunteers to join the military (see Commentaries, February 10, 2022; see EDM, March 2, April 25, 2022). Moreover, the presence of Cossack fighters in Donbas—who self-style themselves as one of the “repressed nations” (Vsko.ru, April 26)—may help assuage the concerns of Russia’s ethnic minorities that only they are risking their lives. Whatever the rationale, however, the longer the war drags on and casualties mount, the greater the likelihood of tensions and resentment developing between the groups of Cossack “fighters” and “cheerleaders.”

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