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‘Something's about to go down’ Cossack troops and Donbas veterans might start helping police disperse Moscow's election protests
The election protests that have rocked Moscow since July are set to continue, and government officials are looking for new ways to contain them. Five sources told Meduza that Cossack groups and members of the Union of Donbas Volunteers are currently negotiating with government representatives about the possibility of helping police and National Guard forces disperse protesters at forthcoming demonstrations. Three sources said that Russia’s presidential administration is responsible for the initiative, but they also added that no funds have yet been allocated for it.
“I called [Moscow Ataman Andrey] Shustrov and invited him to join in an excellent cause: Giving the Navalnyites a pounding,” a source close to the Moscow Cossack community told Meduza. “Shustrov said, ‘I’m sorry, but we aren’t going to do that. We’ve got the fall draft coming up and a ton of work to do as it is.”
Ultimately, it fell not to Moscow’s Cossacks but to Russia’s federal Cossack leadership to take the job, a police veteran familiar with the group’s negotiations told Meduza. He said, “They’re bringing out [Ivan] Mironov’s people,” referring to the head of the Central Cossack Troops (TsKV). The TsKV itself did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment, while Ataman Shustrov recommended “reaching out to the president’s administration.” The administration’s press team said in turn that its officials “don’t deal with those kinds of issues.”
“Something’s about to go down,” said an independent Moscow City Duma candidate who asked to remain anonymous. “Now, the enemy side during protests is going to be a combination of Cossacks and Borodai.” Alexander Borodai leads the Union of Donbas Volunteers (SDD), an organization for current and former separatist fighters in the eastern Ukrainian war. The police veteran as well as another source close to the FSB both confirmed to Meduza that Borodai may be involved in future protest policing. “Right now, all the administration’s people are getting back from vacation, so maybe they’ll be allocating funds to this project,” the source close to the FSB conjectured. One Donbas volunteer who helped disperse the “He’s No Tsar to Us” protest in May 2018 was a good deal more certain: “It’s going to happen, 100 percent,” he said. “We’re fucking tired of these protests.”
Andrei Kolesnikov, who chairs the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he couldn’t rule out the possibility that Russia’s presidential administration might recruit Cossacks or Donbas veterans to their cause in Moscow. “They definitely try to combine various methods. The whole story where they called the Duma deputies back from vacation to establish a commission on foreign interference in Russian domestic politics […] — that’s the humanitarian side of their approach to these problems. But there’s also a repressive side, and it could be that they’re seriously considering something like that.”
Union of Donbas Volunteers representative Maria Koleda responded to Meduza’s questions about the organization’s possible role in protest policing by pointing to a detailed interview with Alexander Borodai himself. The 13-minute video was posted on the SDD’s website on August 10, the day of the largest protest to take place in Moscow since the 2011-2012 opposition wave. In the interview, Borodai indicated that Donbas veterans may well take part in “domestic political processes”: He explained that if protesters “move outside the bounds of the law,” then, “of course, we will have the right to get into the game. […] And then all our dear little boys in pink and blue pants who go to protests nowadays will have to understand one very simple thing: They’ll have to watch out very carefully for their safety.”
“Borodai’s interview got a green light from Staraya Square,” a police veteran familiar with the situation told Meduza. “My impression of Borodai is that he never speaks without permission,” Meduza’s source near the FSB confirmed. In the August 10 video, Borodai said that “Naturally, nobody from the government has come to me as the head of the Union of Donbas Volunteers with that kind of proposal [to suppress opposition protests].”
Meduza’s source within the SDD said that despite strong interest from members, he doubts the organizations will play a major role in dispersing protests in the immediate future: “There are a few commanders in the SDD who could bring at least some guys out into the streets, but Mr. Borodai hasn’t consulted with any of them yet. He could just tell me, ‘Here’s our budget, and here’s how many people we need.’ Even that would have me doing a little dance,” the Donbas fighter said.
“Who’s going to give you [money] if you don’t even know when the protest is going to be, you ask? The salaries come through right before the operation itself: When protesters go out into the streets, that’s when our people get paid,” a source who has organized suppression operations at opposition protests in the past told Meduza. “Otherwise,” he explained, “they’d take the money, drink it away, and then say ‘Look, those sluts didn’t go out today, and that’s your fault. Give us more.”
The police veteran close to the Russian government’s negotiations with the SDD and Cossack groups indicated that neither organization would be involved in dispersing Moscow’s August 31 protest: “They’ll come out after the eighth [election day]. Upstairs, they’re waiting for City Hall’s spin doctors to piss away the streets to the opposition.” Meduza’s source close to the FSB agreed: “It’s all being put off until after the elections for when the opposition starts protesting because they didn’t win.” He added, “They’re naïve people, of course.”
Two sources told Meduza that if Cossacks and Donbas veterans do start appearing at opposition protests, they’ll only target demonstrations that have not received a permit. It also appears that the backbone of any such dispersion team would not be made up of registered Cossacks or active members of the SDD but rather of non-members recruited specially for that purpose. “They’ll just put some guys from the Moscow suburbs in a Cossack uniform or a gorka, which is a lot cheaper,” the FSB-adjacent source said. “They usually set aside 45,000 rubles ($674) per operative, but only about 5,000 ($75) maximum actually makes it into their pockets,” explained the source who has organized such operations himself. A source close to Moscow’s Cossack community added, “For money, they get local laborers or alcoholics, though the alcoholics might have died out by now. In any case, it’s suburban Moscow ‘leather’: In the 1990s, everybody in the suburbs used to wear those black Chinese-made leather jackets that are exactly like the ones they use for uniforms.”
According to Meduza’s FSB source, Moscow suburbanites in Cossack uniforms have worked opposition protests in the past: “For example, they went out and waved nagaika whips at people last May.” May 5, 2018, was the date of the “He’s No Tsar to Us” anti-Putin protest organized by opposition leader Alexey Navalny. According to the human rights organization OVD-Info, demonstrators who attended that protest reported widespread police aggression and said law enforcement officials beat protesters using rubber batons. The protest also marked the first time Cossacks went head-to-head with Navalny supporters in the streets. Local activists from the SDD were spotted in central Moscow that day as well.
Several of Meduza’s sources referenced that same 2018 demonstration when they described current plans to bring Donbas volunteers and Cossack troops back into the fight against opposition activists. “They probably called Ataman Shustrov last week out of habit: One of his Cossacks was really going wild with his nagaika on May 5  even though nobody asked for that kind of idiocy from his boys,” the source close to Moscow’s Cossacks said. Shustrov reportedly does not approve of violent tactics and prefers a political approach to oppositionists: “He’s more of a military officer than anything else,” the source said. On a literal level, that description is accurate: Shustrov’s military experience includes fighting in the Soviet-Afghan war and in Russia’s Vympel (Pennant) special ops division.
The same source claimed that “if the Cossacks do go out, it would be for grants, not money.” He explained, “They’re making money for government-supported programs — the Cossack patrols, for example. It’s basically ‘we give you a protest, you give us grants.’” From 2016 to 2018, the Central Cossack Troops received three contracts worth a total of 15.9 million rubles ($238,103) to run programs that trained members to “defend the public order.” One ataman told Meduza, “We’re willing to disperse [protests], but nobody’s reached out to me yet. Before, they would always reach out — they’d tell us they needed people to help the police.”
The only extragovernmental group that has engaged physically with Moscow’s current protests so far has been the radical nationalist movement SERB, which journalists have tied to the Russian government’s Anti-Extremism Center. SERB leader Igor Beketov has openly posted about the group’s involvement on the social media site VKontakte: “On Saturday, August 10, SERB worked to disperse the Maidaners […] and even destroyed three inflammatory posters insulting Russia’s law enforcement agencies!” A week later, Beketov wrote that SERB had prevented “provocations in central Moscow” (“SERB stopped them! And the libtard pedophiles went into hysterics!”). In a video attached to that post, a SERB activist threatens to beat up a man standing alone and holding up a sign.
“SERB does try to rampage [the protests], but there are too few of them,” said Meduza’s source in the FSB’s circles. “Though they were recently given three reinforcements from the suburbs.” Igor Beketov confirmed to Meduza that three more people had recently joined his group and said the new recruits had helped SERB break into the human rights center “Vintazh Po-Russki” on August 21. “We interrupted a training session for the protests, a rehearsal for clashes with riot police,” Beketov wrote on VKontakte.
Andrei Kolesnikov, the Carnegie Moscow expert, said bringing Donbas veterans and Cossacks into the streets would only escalate the standoff between protesters and the Moscow government. “The government is becoming radicalized, but the opposition is also going to be very uncompromising. The [protesters] who are essentially already professional revolutionaries, the ones who have already spent a bunch of time in jail for administrative violations, nobody’s going to be able to force them off that path. And people have stopped being afraid even though it can be scary just to walk around on Saturdays this summer. There are varying degrees of hotheadedness out there. If they ultimately decide to deploy this tool, that means the hotter heads will have prevailed.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen
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