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The Cossacks are coming (maybe)

by Mark Galeotti at 22/02/2012 21:10

The Cossacks have a special, even unique place in Russia’s image of itself and in the world. To some, ‘Cossack’ means repression, saberwielding storm troopers of the status quo. Or traditional values of sturdy self-reliance, hard work and community. Or a charming, picturesque anachronism. My English grandfather’s main memory of his deployment to the Transcaucasus during the Russian Civil War was learning Cossack dance.

In a lengthy discursion in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid out his vision of the military through to the 2020s. Much was simply a rehash of existing programs, although in the process he implicitly backed Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, possibly putting paid to talk of his imminent dismissal.

However, there was a striking passage in which he stated that “the mission of the state now is to help the Cossacks, draw them into military service and educational activities for youths, involving a patriotic upbringing and initial military training.”

Given that there are some 7 million people within Russia who identify themselves as belonging to the Cossack ethno-cultural group, with a tradition of service to the state in the often-rough borderlands of empire, this might seem a sensible step.

But beyond a colorful history what could the Cossacks really offer in an age of supersonic fighters and mechanized infantry? If anything, the experience of Cossacks in the Caucasus suggests a tendency towards indiscipline and counterproductive brutality.

The Cossacks’ possible role in a modern military is currently unclear

© RIA Novosti. / Gennnady Svetlanov

The Cossacks’ possible role in a modern military is currently unclear

There’s nothing new in such appeals. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin decreed the creation of Cossack regiments. Some units were formed within the Border Troops but, beyond that, little was done. In 2005, Putin himself introduced a law ‘On the State Service of the Russian Cossacks.’

There are notionally Cossack units – the 108th and 247th Air Assault Regiments and the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade – but it does not appear that all their soldiers are Cossacks or they have anything particularly ‘Cossack’ about them. The military seems in no hurry to recruit them as a community.

So maybe this is just some preelection political eye-candy, populist rhetoric to charm a sizeable enough constituency? Maybe, although in fairness the Cossacks are more likely already to be backing Putin.

But the idea, like the rest of Putin’s 6,500-word ode to the military, may also be part of an effort to shore up his hard-line, toughguy credentials. He’s making promises to spend money on everything from teachers’ salaries to child benefits. The generals are wondering how he can balance that with the 20 trillion rubles ($700 billion) he’s promised to spend on rearmament alone in the next 10 years.

Not only is a hat-tip to the Cossacks another way of signaling his muscular interests, if they can help prepare young Russians for national service, that could be a plus. But along with fitness and a gung-ho approach, the generals are looking for draftees who are technically educated for a modern, multi-role military. The Cossacks are unlikely to offer much there.

Meanwhile, Alexander Beglov, deputy chief of the presidential staff (and chairman of the Presidential Council for Cossacks), wants to encourage Cossacks to form private security firms and carry weapons. This is nothing new – by 1997, Cossack security companies were working for the Moscow city government – but in the current political turmoil it is hardly reassuring. 

Mark Galeotti (Twitter: markgaleotti) is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at http://inmoscowsshadows. wordpress.com. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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