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The Rise of the Cossacks Amidst Russia’s Decline

Despite all the big talk in the Kremlin about revived Russian demographics, the reality seems clear: Russia’s Slavic, Orthodox population is shrinking, and its Muslim populations are growing rapidly. This demographic change is unsettling everywhere, nowhere perhaps more so than in and around the Caucasus where historically Islamic ethnic groups from the mountains are gradually but inexorably settling lands being slowly abandoned by the ethnic Russians.

President Putin isn’t the kind of man to take this threat to Mother Russia lying down, and in a blast from the past officials are training and promoting armed bands of Cossacks in the borderlands. The new Cossacks, it appears, will mostly act as a kind of semi-official militia, to fight Chechens and other groups moving in on Russian turf. The New York Times has a rundown of this fascinating new development:

Cossacks are revered here for their bravery and pre-modern code of honor, like cowboys in the United States or samurai in Japan. But their legacy is bound up with battle and vigilante-style violence, including campaigns against Turks, Jews and Muslim highlanders.

These days men in Cossack uniforms are making appearances all over Russia, carrying out blustery raids of art exhibits, museums and theaters as standard-bearers for a resurgent church. But here on Russia’s southern flank, the Cossack revival is more than an idea. Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.

President Putin came to power promising to restore Russian greatness, but history is working against him. Most of his grand schemes have failed; the Ukraine is not moving toward any kind of deep embrace of Russia; the shale gas revolution is turning Russia’s most important asset into something much less valuable; China continues to overshadow Russia in Asia, China is effectively competing with Russia in Central Asia and despite Russia’s victory over minuscule Georgia in their brief war, the situation in the Caucasus is not going Russia’s way. In the Middle East it is largely sidelined, and a dynamic and assertive Turkey further complicates the picture on Russia’s southern flank. Russia seems to have more to fear from the 21st century than any other great power, and no great nation state today rests on such insecure foundations.

Russia’s decline, and the struggles of its leaders to manage that decline and mitigate its effects, is likely to be one of the most important and potentially most explosive stories of the decades to come. Internal ethnic and religious tension will be a big part of the story. Reviving the Cossacks shows the Kremlin in a defensive, wagon-circling mode. It’s instinct is to double down on Great Russian ethnic solidarity and cultural identity rather than pushing a multi-ethnic and religious identity for a new kind of Federation. That approach seems unlikely to change, and that in turn suggests that ethnic and religious competition will play an increasing role in the affairs of this fascinating society as the demographic balance continues to change.

Condoms rather than Cossacks might be Putin’s most effective weapon in the coming struggles; if the birthrate of Russia’s Muslim minorities falls to the Slavic level, Russia will be a more stable place.

[Oleg Pchelov /]

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