Cossackia, the land east of Ukraine and north of the North Caucasus in the Russian Federation, is the traditional home of the three largest Cossack communities: the Don, Kuban and Terek hosts. As such, it has the potential to become a powerful bulwark against Russian imperialism, a defender of Ukraine and an ally of the West, its activists argue (T.me/Ertaul, March 11). But despite these very real prospects given the territory’s enormous natural wealth and geographic location astride the north-south and east-west trade routes Moscow has relied on to project power, Cossackia as a potential country remains more often a subject of dismissive laughter for the West than one that evokes serious attention. Three major reasons undergird this failure, and not one is justified.
First of all, many Western analysts remain not only Moscow-centric with regard to all communities outside the Russian capital but also prisoners of Hollywood and Soviet propaganda, in particular about the Cossacks. This propaganda blames the Cossacks for pogroms others ordered them to take part in and fails to pay much attention to the Soviet genocide of the Cossacks (Window On Eurasia, January 29, 2020; January 28). Second, those who know more about the Cossacks doubt that any Cossack state is possible due to the enormous diversity of the Cossack community and its geographic dispersion. As a result, they refuse to recognize the three largest hosts as predominant. And third, the West has not recognized that, in Putin’s Russia, two very different groups of people are referred to as Cossacks and that, following what happens to one group, mentions nothing about how that affects the other.
The first of these groups consists of the three to five million people who trace their ancestry to the Cossacks of the Tsarist period, view themselves as a distinct nation and celebrate their tradition as free people who govern themselves by electing their own leaders. They are often at odds with Moscow and continue to be subject to repression of various kinds, including officially gaming the census so their growing numbers do not become too obvious and forcing many of their leaders into silence or emigration (Kavkaz-uzel, April 20, 2021).
The second and much smaller group, certainly numbering fewer than 200,000, has no links to these Cossack traditions besides the names it claims and the fancy uniforms it receives from the Russian government. This group has been formed on the assumption pushed by the Kremlin that only someone who is Christian Orthodox and in service of the state can be a Cossack. Thus, these “Cossacks” take their money and orders from the Kremlin. In many cases, such groups are little more than armed thugs now routinely being used as irregular forces both against protesters domestically and in Ukraine. But because they are supported rather than repressed by the regime, a great deal more information is available about them. As such, often these “Cossacks” are treated in the West as if they, and not the other group, are the real Cossacks—precisely what Moscow wants.
While it may be easier to cover Putin’s pseudo-Cossacks than to follow the true Cossacks, it is far more important to do the latter. This makes a recent declaration from one of the émigré leaders of the Cossackia movement especially key. On his Telegram channel, Ezikovy Ertaul, presents perhaps the most cogent argument yet on why Cossackia must gain independence and why the West should support that goal. Ertaul writes pointedly that Cossackia must become independent if Russia is to cease to be an empire and a threat to the world. He adds that in his view, as well as that of many fellow Cossacks, an independent Cossackia could de-imperialize Russia in much the same way that many a generation ago thought Moscow’s loss of Ukraine would do (T.me/Ertaul, March 11). The new country “will be able to quietly exist and develop as a federation of ethnic groups and territories without any control from Moscow; but Moscow will not be able to fully function as an empire without this” and the access it gives to the Caucasus and the world’s oceans. Potentially even more important, he suggests, an independent Cossackia could give Russians elsewhere an alternative model they can follow to lead them away from the imperial center as well.
The West must recognize, Ertaul continues, that “one of the factors that made possible the strengthening of the Russian Federation and the unleashing of the largest conflict in Europe since World War II has been Moscow’s uncontested control of Cossack lands and the logistical and geographic advantages that this gives the center.” In his view: “This is really a strategically important region for Moscow and its loss could be equal to a serious expulsion of Russia from Europe and thus be a guarantor of a certain level of security and stability.” Despite the neglect Cossackia and the Cossack movement feel they have suffered in the past, the Cossack activist says that three primary reasons explain why he and his nation are now more optimistic: First, not only are the pseudo-Cossacks losing membership, but other Cossacks and ordinary Russians are turning against these groups, viewing them as frauds and giving the real Cossacks a sense that time is on their side (see EDM, July 18, 2019; Window on Eurasia, January 24, 2022; Nazaccent.ru, December 1, 2022). Second, Ukrainian officials are offering their support to the Cossacks, and the Cossacks in turn are seeking to encourage Kyiv to recognize them as an occupied group, just as the Verkhovna Rada has done for the Chechens (Freenationsleague.org, November 13, 2022; see EDM, January 24).
And third, there are signs that Washington, too, may finally be ready to do more for the Cossacks. At present, the United States is the only country that has officially recognized the Cossacks as an enslaved nation, something it did in a 1959 congressional resolution during Captive Nations Week, which has been marked every year since. In truth, many felt that this had become a mere formality; but in 2022, US President Joe Biden did something that gives the Cossacks and others new hope. Instead of focusing solely on what the remaining communist countries are doing to their captive nations, his proclamation spoke about how repressive regimes in general, including Russia’s, are behaving (Whitehouse.gov, July 15, 2022).
All this gives the true Cossacks hope that Cossackia is no longer an impossible dream (see Commentaries, March 24, 2014; see EDM, February 21, 2019). They are likely to act on that; and this possibility, at the very least, should give the Kremlin pause.