The Cossacks are back, once again coming to prominence in Russia's military affairs. The Cossack people are ethnic Russians with a distinct language and culture (not Russian) and strong ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, numbering around 7 million people in Russia, Ukraine, and other portions of the former Soviet Union. Their involvement in Russian wars goes back centuries. During Tsarist times, Cossacks formed special cavalry units in the Imperial Russian Army, as well as instruments of state repression. The Russian Empire had a special arrangement with the Cossacks whereby, in exchange for frontier land, greater political autonomy, and special social status, Cossacks contributed military forces to the Tsar, providing their own horses, weapons, and equipment. Unique, exclusively Cossack military formations have been a staple of Russian history in one way or another for many, many centuries.
Opinions on the actual military value of Cossack units is widely divided, as are opinions of the Cossacks themselves. At many points in Russian military history, the Cossacks have proven themselves to be determined and fierce, sometimes to the point of recklessness, warriors, and there are examples of entire Cossack units fighting to the death against impossible odds. During the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russia, Cossack units, mostly light cavalry, operated extremely effectively as scouts and raiders, harassing the retreating French army mercilessly. Their performance against regular troops in open battle was less than great, but then that wasn't their role anyway.
On the other hand, Cossack units, from the days of Peter the Great until modern time, have a well-deserved reputation for brutality, anti-Semitism, and looting. They have always been notoriously difficult to control, with Russian officers in past wars becoming frustrated and enraged with drunken, mutinous Cossack soldiers. During the Russian Civil War, Cossacks fought for both sides, especially the anti-Communist White forces, but they were often divisive, unreliable, and preoccupied with looting and burning. Also, many Russians regard them as potential rebels, given their unruly history, large numbers, and independent-minded spirit, and those familiar with history know that for a two century period, every major rebellion against the Russian Empire was led by Cossack troops. During the Soviet period, Cossacks were among the many ill-treated minorities, having their distinct culture and language suppressed by the Communist authorities.
Cossacks are once again involved in Russian conflicts during the last decade. In an effort to bolster national pride and recover some of the distinct Russian heritage that was suppressed during 70 years of Soviet rule, Russia has officially brought back the formation of exclusively Cossack military units, and in a big way. This has accompanied a general explosion of Cossack culture in recent years. Cossack military schools have been established in the country, where student ages 10 to 17 attend classes in army fatigues and learn military tactics alongside regular academic subjects. The Russian Minister for Cossack Affairs, Gen. Gennady Troshev, is a Cossack himself and has been instrumental in the remilitarization of the Cossack society. An entire Kuban Cossack Army, headquartered in Krasnodar, has been established and is incorporated as a unique, but fully integrated, part of the Russian Army.
More recently, irregular Cossack paramilitaries, said by some reports to have numbered in the thousands, fought on the Russian/separatist side in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which saw South Ossetia taken from Georgia and made a de facto part of Russia. Cossack volunteers by the hundreds mobilized during the Georgian attack of South Ossetia and crossed the border to engage Georgian forces. Cossacks in nearby North Ossetia apparently organized a relatively efficient and rapid system for clothing, equipping and transporting their paramilitaries into the breakaway province to feed them into combat. Cossack fighters entered South Ossetia by bus, having been issued combat uniforms and gear on the way to the border, and were issued small arms and light weapons once they arrived in theatre. Cossack volunteers formed the second major paramilitary force in the war, the first being the South Ossetian militias. According to reports, the Cossack forces fought with dogged determination.
Paramilitary forces and semi-standing armies of "volunteers", of various ethnic and political lines, are a major part of armed conflict in Russia and the former Soviet Union, particularly among Slavic ethnicities. Such forces exist in disputed territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where a majority of ethnic Armenians live in the unrecognized Republic of Nogorno-Karabakh. The Nogorno-Karabakh Defense Army is the formal defense force of the Nogorno-Karabakh Republic. Similar forces exist in both breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Azkaban.
The Georgian government, and the Azeri government for that matter, would like to be able to dismiss these militias and irregular forces that dot the Caucasus region as "bandits" or "illegal armed formations" (the Russian military frequently used these terms to refer to Chechen guerrillas during both of the Chechen Wars.) Unfortunately, that is not necessarily accurate. For one thing, most of these paramilitaries are well-organized, well-equipped (often with state support), and often highly motivated by their separatist political ideologies. Georgian forces found that, although tiny in number, South Ossetian and Cossack paramilitaries fought bravely and with a high degree of spirit during the 2008 war. Some of these irregular forces even include aircraft and armored vehicles in their inventory.
Also, the paramilitaries, surprisingly, have the laws and customs of war on their side to back them up to a certain extent. While their enemies may wish to characterize these forces as criminal elements, the Laws of Land Warfare, in fact, consider paramilitary forces to be legitimate combatants in armed conflict. Chapter 3, Section 1, Article 61 of the Laws of Land Warfare state that legitimate combatants entitled to rights and status as EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War) include "Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied". According to international law, the requirements for being categorized as a lawful combatant incorporate four key criteria: 1) being commanded by a person responsible for subordinates (a chain of command and structure), 2) having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance (in other words, making some kind of attempt at having uniforms, rank badges, and insignia. Basically this part requires that "volunteer forces" make an attempt to wear something that obviously identifies them as a military formation.), 3) open carrying of arms (self-explanatory), and 4), conducting operations according to the laws and customs of warfare (in other words, paramilitaries aren't allowed to do things that are illegal for standing, regular armed forces, like giving orders that "no quarter be given" (a "take no prisoners order").
This last part is where is gets tricky. During the conflict in 2008, the Cossack and South Ossetian forces definitely met the first three criteria: they wore uniforms, were well-organized, and openly carried weapons. However, historically paramilitary forces have a poor reputation for adhering to the laws and customs of war and usually have a well-deserved reputation (especially in the former Soviet Union) for committing violations of international law to a significant degree.
Both Cossack and Ossetian forces violated the laws governing conduct of armed conflict, which makes determining their exact status difficult. But as it stands, for better or for worse, the Cossacks are making a comeback, proud, armed, and thirsting for a fight.