The shashka — a single-edged saber adopted by the Cossacks — had sacred meaning, symbolizing one's rights and freedom. Credit: Handout.

The name Cossack is derived from the Turkic kazak (free man), meaning anyone who could not find his appropriate place in society and went into the steppes, where he acknowledged no authority.

Deeply feared, they were legendary for their swift and violent attacks and use of guerilla warfare tactics.

It is said that a Cossack’s horse riding skills were so great (called jigitovka from the Turkic word, jigit – meaning “skillful and brave rider”), he could pick up items or a wounded comrade off the ground while the horse was galloping, to take cover from enemy fire behind the galloping horse’s side, and to ride backwards and shoot at enemy horsemen who were chasing him, Russia Beyond reported.

Jigitovka turned the Cossack rider into a powerful and deadly strike weapon.

Expressing his high opinion of the Cossacks’ skills, Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “With just the Cossacks alone, I could conquer Europe.”

According to a report in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, Moscow is now deploying Cossack groups along the Russian-Ukrainian border near the Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiy regions.

Such revelations may presage a new Russian move against Ukraine, but at the same time, they are the latest sign that the Kremlin wants to have groups with which it can maintain plausible deniability in destabilizing operations, the report said.

In late March, Oleksandr Belokobylsky of Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian Service reported that Moscow had dispatched Federal Security Service (FSB) specialists to prepare new paramilitary formations and to integrate them into Russian Army.

According to Belokobylsky, President Vladimir Putin effectively signaled the importance of the Cossacks in these and other domestic and foreign siloviki (security services) operations by naming Ataman Nikolai Dolluda as commander, the report said.

Moscow is now deploying Cossack groups along the Russian-Ukrainian border near the Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiy regions. Credit: Handout.

Notably, Dolluda was actively involved in the annexation of Crimea six years ago.

According to Cossack historian Vladimir Melikhov, who himself has been persecuted, Russian authorities in the last ten years arrested genuine Cossack leaders and closed down Cossack groups lest the Cossacks become a national movement.

Yet, at the same time, Moscow has used neo-Cossacks in Crimea as well as Donbass and has promoted the inclusion of “Cossack” units in the Russian military, the report said.

These organizations are Cossack in name only and have been used against the Kremlin’s opponents domestically and abroad.

They have attacked liberal galleries, theatres and opposition activists. They whipped Pussy Riot members as they attempted to perform an anti-Putin song at the Sochi Olympics, The Independent reported.

Yevgeny Titov, a Russian journalist, said many of these so-called Cossacks are just people willing to carry out dirty tasks, while wearing supposed “Cossack costumes.” 

According to Human Rights in Ukraine, the role these new Cossacks have played in abductions, beatings and other illegal activities makes it particularly disturbing in that they are taking part in activities aimed at glorifying war to young school children, under the guise of patriotic Cossack cadet clubs.

The genuine Cossack groups — as opposed to the state-created Cossack units — are currently pressing hard to be listed as a separate nationality in the 2020 Russian census.