During the first year of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) not only became the de facto poster child for large, private militia groups that are not under the control of Russian state law enforcement agencies, but the organisation also became the defining symbol of Russian military aggression in the media. However, other paramilitary groups are also taking part in the hostilities: for example, experts estimate that there are approximately 15 thousand Cossacks currently fighting in the Russian army. These divisions have received less media attention than the Wagner mercenaries, despite having better organisation and being more ideologically attuned to the conflict. The rapid decentralisation of violence and the loss of the state’s monopoly on it, set against a background of military failures and the very real possibility of further political destabilisation, have created systemic conditions perfect for the outbreak of civil war in Russia.
Vladimir Putin likes to position himself as a statesman and is often perceived as such by those around him. This has allowed him to continue centralising power in Russia. However, in reality, personalist rule is destructive. This can be clearly observed in the chaos that has descended between competing power structures in Putin’s Russia; with each passing day, it becomes more and more apparent and harder to ignore. In addition to the seemingly constant replication of special services and law enforcement organisations such as the FSB, FSO, Rosgvardia, etc., private armies and paramilitary groups have also been springing up like mushrooms.
This process began during Putin’s initial ‘hybrid’ invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. One of the key takeaways for him back then was the idea that political issues can be solved via military means. The war in Syria then became an actual testing ground for the development of private mercenary armies.
Today, the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine are a strange combination of regular and irregular army units, each with very different motivations for being there and accountable to different people. In addition to the well-known armies of ‘warlords’' such as the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ and ‘Wagner’ group, other PMCs are also participating in the fighting(for more on this refer to the Meduza investigation on this topic), including the ‘DNRites’ (or the ‘People's Militia’ of the so-called DPR and LPR), volunteer Russian neo-Nazi battalions, and ‘regional’ volunteer and mercenary battalions (‘Novaya Gazeta. Europe’ counted up to 52 different structures competitively recruiting mercenaries). Moreover, according to the estimates of political scientist and Cossack expert Richard Arnold, in December 2022, there were up to 15.5 thousand Cossacks participating in the ‘special operation.’
In contemporary Russia, Cossacks officially hold the status of specific non-profit organisations. Along with other NGOs, they enjoy tax breaks and are able to receive grants and charitable support. But unlike other charitable organisations, they are endowed with certain rights when it comes to law and order and public safety. The Cossack movement in the post-Soviet era began as a grassroots conservative-nationalist initiative. Pretty soon, however, the state was able to co-opt the Cossack organisations and incorporate them into the state power apparatus, albeit as a private element.
The government began its work of streamlining the Cossacks in the 1900s, and this process was largely completed by the mid-2000s with the adoption of the law ‘On the public service of the Russian Cossacks.’ To date, all Russian Cossacks are included within 12 macro-regional structures — ‘military Cossack societies’ (‘troops’), united under the All-Russian Cossack Society. According to Richard Arnold, since the beginning of the 2010s, Cossack patrols have begun to protect ‘public order’ on the streets of some Russian cities. The government, in turn, has rewarded Cossack organisations with financial support, and has promoted the openings of Cossack cadet schools and other institutions.
Modern Russian Cossacks are somewhat eclectic as a phenomenon. Their ideology combines ‘Soviet’ (primarily the cult of the Great Patriotic War and Victory), ‘Orthodox’ (close connection with the Russian Orthodox Church) and ‘nationalist’ (far-right, traditionalist and anti-liberal) elements. And, this diversity is also evident in their structural organisation: Cossack organisations are simultaneously parastatal structures and grassroots movements of enthusiasts; they also play the role in the security forces of the Russian Orthodox Church and of individual patrons (Arnold highlights the connection between Cossack organisations and the ‘Orthodox oligarch’ Konstantin Malafeev).
With the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Cossack organisations demonstrated their support for the ‘special operation’ through both their public statements and direct participation in the conflict. However, this participation failed to acquire any sort of distinctive ideology, as might have been expected given the Cossacks' historical ties with the Ukrainian Sich. On the contrary, the Cossacks suffered the same fate as other extreme right-wingers who were active in the public domain before the invasion. The authorities were able to manipulate their revanchist and Soviet-Orthodox narrative in order to capitalise on the Cossacks as an ordinary ‘human’ resource for the war.
Richard Arnold illustrates that although, as of December 2022, the Cossacks were outnumbered by Wagner PMCs mercenaries, both paramilitary units achieved very similar rates of recruitment and mobilisation of new members. This is worth calling attention to, as recruitment into Yevgeny Prigozhin’s militia was openly facilitated by the government, while the Cossacks relied on existing networks and connections with regional elites to mobilise combatants. Unlike the recruits of Wagner and Prigozhin himself, the Cossacks are characterised by higher levels of ideological motivation, an absence of direct domestic political competition and opposition, as well as a solid organisational base. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Cossack army was primarily focused on reenactments of historical events, and had failed to identify its real purpose within Russian society. Now that it has become a genuine military organisation and gained actual combat experience, this Cossack militia will morph into a completely different version of itself.
Arnold also warns that if the war leads to political destabilisation in Russia, various political forces will likely compete to recruit the Cossacks as a powerful resource. However, the same is true for other private armies, which have already become an instrument of the political rivalry between Russia’s various ‘warlords’. This process, however, is currently unfolding only in the media and in the political apparatus. Conflicts, such as the one between Kadyrov and Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defence, or Prigozhin's conflict with the Presidential Administration and with Alexander Beglov (Governor of St. Petersburg) have become one of the key features of Russia's domestic politics over the past year.
Thus far, these conflicts appear to have been small and manageable, but in the event of new failures on the battlefield, it is very likely that various key players will be eager to point the finger at one another, which will lead to escalating tensions. Under these circumstances, Putin will be forced to choose sides and is unlikely to be able to act as a security guarantor for the opposing party in the dispute. Such a situation is a typical precursor to civil war.