Russia deploys ‘Cossacks’ as thugs and ‘witnesses’ in politically-motivated prosecutions in occupied Crimea
Russia’s Interior Ministry has announced that ‘Cossacks’ will be deployed, together with the de facto police, in patrolling occupied Crimea, as well as in ‘carrying out anti-drug measures and educational work with young people”. So-called ‘Cossacks’ were used, together with other armed paramilitaries, in 2014 to provide the violence and brutality that Russia did not want attributed to its soldiers, and there are strong grounds for fearing that a similar role is planned now. It is also likely that by ‘educational work’ is meant the propaganda for the Russian military that the Cossacks are already known to be involved in.
Under President Vladimir Putin, so-called ‘Cossacks’ have been frequently deployed in Russia as thugs, with their lack of official status or salary making it possible to deny any connection to the authorities. They were used to give a modicum of credibility to Russia’s denial of involvement in, first the invasion of Crimea, and then the enforced disappearances, abductions, torture, etc. that immediately followed.
In its announcement on 25 November, the Russian police in Crimea stated that there are already around 40 Cossack units in what they called the “regional register of people’s militia” in occupied Crimea. These, it was claimed, provide “serious assistance in averting and stopping crimes, take part in protecting public order, looking for people missing, and in circulating legal knowledge and explaining norms of behaviour in public places.”
It was also acknowledged that they “often” act as supposed official witnesses during searches and arrests, “and take part in investigative measures”. The FSB and other Russian enforcement officers invariably bring their own ‘witnesses’ when they burst into the homes of Crimean Tatars or other Ukrainians. Since they usually prevent lawyers from being present and do not let the people in the home see what they are doing, it is a grave violation of the arrested men’s rights that such ‘witnesses’ are clearly not in any way independent. There is nothing abstract about this. Many of the cases involving Ukrainian political prisoners have been evidently rigged, with ammunition or explosives supposedly ‘found’ during searches.
Iryna Sedova from the Crimean Human Rights Groups says that they have recorded cases where Cossacks have been involved, first in helping the police to exert pressure on people, and then in falsifying prosecutions against Crimean activists.
“Bluntly speaking, the police themselves, through these paramilitary formations, can commit illegal actions”.
Krym.Realii spoke with Yevgeny Titov, a Russian journalist who was a long-time correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta in the Krasnodar region of Russia where such a system of ‘patrolling’ has been in place for 7 years. He calls the plans for Crimea the latest increase in Russian enforcement bodies on the occupied peninsula, but one with an ominous difference. The police “are at least formally obliged to work in accordance with legislation, while the Cossacks have no such obligation. The authorities themselves do not conceal this.” He notes that back in 2012, the (Putin-chosen) governor of Kuban, Alexander Tkachev openly said that what is not allowed for the police, is OK for the Cossacks. That same year, Titov adds, there were two occasions where Cossacks attacked an exhibition as well as a young woman from an electoral commission. On neither occasion did the culprits face any consequences.
“In essence, this is a part of the state authorities, and huge amounts of money are spent on them. In this way, they have created a group of people who are willing to carry out any order, any dirty jobs, and nothing will happen to them. They have been allowed to act outside the realm of law. As a rule, it’s normally former FSB officers and marginal individuals who end up as ‘Cossacks’ – you don’t particularly have to have any skills, simply put on a uniform and do what they tell you.”
Oleh Slobodyan, a Ukrainian security specialist, believes that the Russian authorities are trying to do two things with such planned deployment. They want to “give the Cossacks work” so that they don’t turn aggression against the enforcement bodies or other people, but they also want to use them as an added form of pressure on those groups in Crimea whom the occupation regime see as a problem. While Slobodyan did not go into detail, most of the repressive measures under Russian occupation are against Crimean Tatars, especially civic activists and journalists, as well as ethnic Ukrainians who do not conceal their opposition to Russian annexation of their homeland.
As Titov pointed out, many of these so-called ‘Cossacks’ are nothing of the sort, just people willing to carry out dirty tasks, while wearing supposed ‘Cossack costumes’. Although both they and other armed paramilitary groups played a major role in helping Russia seize control of Crimea in 2014, it can only be guessed who specifically was responsible for a large number of enforced disappearances , not one of which was ever seriously investigated by the occupation authorities.
The role these purported ‘Cossacks’ have played in abductions, beatings and other illegal activities makes it particularly disturbing that they are taking part in activities aimed at glorifying war, the Russian military and enforcement bodies among young children. In October 2018, school children from occupied Kerch were involved in a ‘swearing in’ ceremony as cadets of the Gryphon ‘Cossack military-patriotic club’ and a ‘Friends of the FSB unit’.
A few days after that, on 19 October 2018, a monument to Cossacks who fought against Ukraine in Donbas and Crimea was unveiled in Simferopol at the so-called ‘Avenue of Cossack glory’ on the territory of School Lyceum No. 10.
In October 2019, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that Crimean Cossacks are involved in both Russia’s illegal conscription campaign in Crimea and attempts to promote the Russia army among children. These have again involved children being obliged to ‘swear allegiance’ to a Cossack unit. All of this is in flagrant violation of international law which strictly prohibits an occupying state from carrying out conscription and engaging in any propaganda of military service on occupied territory.