Russia is again having problems with the Cossacks and it has become a real back-to-the future moment. Despite 70 years of efforts by the communists to destroy the Cossack community, the Cossacks survived, mainly by concentrating on preserving their culture and not trying to fight the new communist run Soviet Union. By the 1990s there were millions of Russians and Ukrainians who could trace their origins to one of the 13 Cossack “hosts” (tribes) that were recognized by the czars over the centuries.
The Cossacks are also a uniquely Russian paramilitary force that, it turned out, largely opposed becoming part of the post-Soviet secret police. Although the government has, since the 1990s, aggressively recruited Cossacks for para-military units, most Cossacks opposed this new policy. Now the problem is that the majority of Cossacks are openly criticizing the government for misrepresenting them. Most Cossacks are more interested in obtaining official recognition as a distinct “national group” along with revival of the control Cossack hosts had over large areas of southeast Russia and the Caucasus. The Cossacks were allowed to be the local government in these areas in return for allegiance to the government (then the monarchy) and willingness to stand ready to mobilize quickly to deal with invasion or local disorder. That is not what the new, post-communist government approved Cossacks are all about. But the post-communist government now decides who is eligible to join a “Cossack” unit and the people in charge of these selections are not even Cossacks. The current government values loyalty over Cossack heritage and the majority of Cossacks see this as a betrayal of what the Cossacks long stood for (self-reliance, self-rule and self-defense).
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Since the 1990s Cossacks were once again involved in Russian conflicts. In an effort to bolster national pride and recover some of the distinct Russian heritage that was suppressed during 70 years of Soviet rule Russia has officially brought back the formation of exclusively Cossack military units, and in a big way. This has accompanied a general explosion of Cossack culture since the late 1990s. Cossack military schools have been established, where student ages 10 to 17 attend classes in army fatigues and learn military tactics alongside regular academic subjects. An entire Kuban Cossack Army, headquartered in Krasnodar, has been established and is incorporated as a unique, but fully integrated, part of the Russian Army. The Russian Minister for Cossack Affairs, General Gennady Troshev (until his death in 2009) was a Cossack himself and had been instrumental in the remilitarization of the Cossack society. Troshev was not alone and career army officers realized there were a lot of Cossacks among them.
Irregular Cossack paramilitary units fought on the Russian/separatist side in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which saw South Ossetia taken from Georgia and made a de facto part of Russia. Cossack volunteers by the hundreds mobilized during the Georgian attack of South Ossetia and crossed the border to engage Georgian forces. Cossacks in nearby North Ossetia apparently organized a relatively efficient and rapid system for clothing, equipping and transporting their paramilitaries into the breakaway province to feed them into combat. Cossack fighters entered South Ossetia by bus, having been issued combat uniforms and gear on the way to the border, and were issued small arms and light weapons once they arrived at the border. Cossack volunteers formed the second major paramilitary force in the war, the first being the South Ossetian militias. According to reports, the Cossack forces fought with dogged determination. Russian army commanders noted the effectiveness of the Cossacks in Georgia which appears to be why the Cossacks showed up in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) six years later. The big difference with Donbas was that Russian forces soon withdrew from most of Georgia while in Donbas the conflict has gone on for years and is still unresolved.
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These personnel are assigned to the new National Guard which swears to protect the president of Russia (currently Putin), not the Russian people. This is how czarist era Cossacks operated. What a coincidence.
Thus when Russia ran into trouble taking Donbas (eastern Ukraine) away from Ukraine in 2014 Cossacks in the area were prominent among the Russian nationalists who volunteered to serve as irregulars in Donbas in an effort to restore the area to the empire. One reason for sending more Russian troops into Donbas was to try and get the Cossacks to do what Russia, not Cossack leaders, wanted.
That’s not the only problems the Russians are having with Cossacks. Historically the Cossacks were a number of things, including righteous. Although poorly treated by the communists, the Cossacks are believers in collectivism and tend to be very hostile to corrupt leaders they come across. This has caused problems in Russia and again in Donbas because some of the local separatist rebel leaders are, for want of a better term, quite corrupt. Cossacks accused these leaders of stealing Russian aid and taking care of themselves and their armed followers rather than sticking with the goal of an independent Donbas or incorporation into Russia. But by 2015 it was feared that the troublesome and righteous Cossacks were triggering a civil war among the rebels.
The Cossacks were welcome arrivals when they showed up in 2014 because the original local Donbas rebels quickly lost their enthusiasm when their uprising triggered a nationalistic fervor throughout Ukraine and inspired Ukrainian troops and armed volunteers to fight a lot harder than the rebels expected. Russia, which sponsored and encouraged the rebels from the start soon found that the only way they could take territory was to send in Russian troops and heavy weapons (tanks, artillery, rocket launchers, missiles). The special operations units (Spetsnaz) were the best for this because these guys knew how to pretend (that they were Ukrainian rebels) and were very effective fighters. But there was not enough of them available and the most effective of the local Russian volunteers were the Cossacks, who proved effective in maintaining the peace among the civilians in the half of Donbas that the Russian backed rebels gained control of before a ceasefire halted offensive operations by both sides. There the situation remains, brought to you in part by Cossacks.