I’ve just written in the Moscow Times about Putin’s assertion, in his latest policy statement on Russian military reform (especially well-analyzed here, here and here), that “the mission of the state now is to help the Cossacks, draw them into military service and educational activities for youths, involving a patriotic upbringing and initial military training.” I’m honestly skeptical about the value of Cossacks as fighting forces, and frankly the General Staff seems no more enthused given that the main “Cossack” units formed to date (the 108th and 247th Air Assault Regiments and the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade) really are no more Cossack than the British Coldstream Guards are affiliated with south-east Scotland: it is a matter of heavily-mythologized regimental history rather than anything else.
They may have some role in reinvigorating a largely-moribund ‘military-patriotic education’ system for pre-drafting training of young men (there is already a small cottage industry in ‘Cossack schools’ and ‘Cossack training’), but even then it will probably be the myth rather than the reality of Cossack tradition that matters: an interesting way in which the “theme parking” of an historical experience can be used for practical political purposes.
Beyond that, there is the inevitable concern that Cossacks, whether in direct state service or at arm’s length, hired through new Cossack private security firms, might become tools of social or political repression. I noted that following the passage of a particularly Neanderthal anti-gay law in St Petersburg, its author, local assembly deputy Vitaly Milonov suggested that it needed to be enforced by ‘morality police’ and that “Voluntary troops are a good idea. I think the Cossacks will help us… There is a law about Cossacks. Here you go, they are both a voluntary organization and believers.” Nonetheless, beyond possibly being used as local strong-arms, I don’t see there a particular market or need for them as contractors of vigilante violence and violent vigil.
Overall, then, it probably just reflects a new staple of nationalist rhetoric, akin to US politicians invoking the Founding Fathers at any opportunity, without any real reference to much of what they really thought or did. Nonetheless, the very choice of rhetorical flourished Putin is choosing to use says worrying things about the nationalist, conservative audience to which he is playing and his own sense of the situation in which Russia is finding itself. It will be interesting to see if he calms down a little after the elections next month and once he feels a little more secure.