Cos­sacks in Ukraine fight gov’t — and other rebels


The young Cos­sack fighter gripped his au­to­matic ri­fle as he swore he would de­fend the town of Perevalsk in war-torn east Ukraine that he and his com­rades now con­trol.

“We’re ex­pect­ing an attack. We’re pre­pared, no one can en­ter the town,” the man in his twen­ties said, a tra­di­tional Cos­sack fur hat on his head.

The front­line sep­a­rat­ing th­ese pro-Rus­sian rebel fighters from Ukrainian army troops in this trou­bled re­gion lies only 30 kilo­me­ters (20 miles) away.

But the en­emy the Cos­sacks fear most is the en­emy within — the sep­a­ratist lead­ers of the self-de­clared Lu­gansk Peo­ple’s Repub­lic ( LNR) who they refuse to obey.

“We’re un­der the or­ders of our Rus­sian broth­ers of the Great Army of the Don Cos­sacks. We don’t rec­og­nize the author­ity of the LNR,” said the sol­dier.

In this small town some 30 kilo­me­ters of the sep­a­ratist bas­tion of Lu­gansk, a hand­ful of well- armed and some­what nervy Cos­sacks man a road­block adorned with their blue, yel­low and red flag in­scribed with the words “For faith, the

Don and the Fa­ther­land.”

No Idle Threat

Elite horse­men in the Tsarist army in the old days, fron­tier Cos­sack com­mu­ni­ties were set up over the cen­turies across the for­mer Rus­sian em­pire, with the Don Cos­sacks pri­mar­ily claim­ing lands stretch­ing from south­west Rus­sia to Ukraine’s eastern Don­bass re­gion.

Now they claim to be de­fend­ing the in­ter­ests of Rus­sia abroad while fight­ing for their fierce brand of re­ac­tionary na­tion­al­ism.

Igor Plot­nit­sky, head of the Lu­gansk rebels bat­tling the Kiev gov­ern­ment, set an April 4 dead­line for the Cos­sacks to ei­ther join the LNR’s mil­i­tary wing, hand over their weapons — or be outlawed.

The dead­line was no idle threat. Faced by bla­tant Cos­sack dis­obe­di­ence, the Lu­gansk rebels have hit back hard against the mili­ti­a­men in re­cent weeks.

On March 30, Cos­sacks were at­tacked and dis­armed in the neigh­bor­ing town of Petro­vsk in an op­er­a­tion in which sev­eral peo­ple died. A month ear­lier a lead­ing lo­cal Cos­sack Ata­man, or leader, was ar­rested nearby in a deadly raid.

In Jan­uary the Cos­sack mayor of Per­vo­maisk, Yevgeny Ischenko, was shot dead by un­known gun- man while a lo­cal war­lord al­lied to an­other group of Cos­sacks, Alexander Bed­nov, known by his nick­name “Bat­man,” died along with six body­guards when his ar­mored car was hit by an anti-tank mis­sile in an am­bush.

“LNR spe­cial ser­vices liq­ui­dated the head of a crim­i­nal group,” the Lu­gansk au­thor­i­ties said at the time.

AFP re­porters noted that some 20 kilo­me­ters north of Perevalsk, the town of Stakhanov, which is un­der Cos­sack con­trol, is on a state of alert with for­eign­ers un­able to en­ter or leave with­out a pass and a mil­i­tary es­cort, an ap­par­ently unique se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in the area.

‘We want more free­dom’

The deputy mayor of the town — that now houses some 70,000 peo­ple — does not hide the fact that re­la­tions with the Lu­gansk rebels are tense.

“Plot­nit­sky said that there is no ques­tion of au­ton­o­mous Cos­sack ter­ri­to­ries,” Vasily Kise­lyov, 39, told AFP.

“He wants a strong cen­tral power. That is what we are op­posed to. We want more free­dom.”

Sit­ting in his of­fice un­der the por­trait of a lo­cal Cos­sack leader, Kise­lyov called for Plot­nit­sky to be ditched af­ter ac­cus­ing him and his cronies of pil­fer­ing aid de­liv­er­ies com­ing from Rus­sia and si­phon­ing off coal sup­plies.

“We didn’t get rid of the Ukrainian oli­garchs just to re­place them with a new bunch,” he said.

More than just the al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion — ac­cu­sa­tions that the Lu­gansk rebels fling right back at them — the Cos­sacks lam­baste the sep­a­ratist lead­ers for sign­ing a Rus­sian- backed cease-fire deal with the Ukraine gov­ern­ment that they say they do not rec­og­nize.

The prob­lem of the rene­gade Cos­sacks is a ma­jor headache for the rebel chiefs in the Lu­gansk re­gion — the smaller of two sep­a­ratist en­claves — and shows the splin­tered loy­al­ties of some of the rebel groups in the east.

Now as the fight­ing has died down along the front­line with Ukrainian forces since the Fe­bru­ary truce deal, the in­sur­gent lead­er­ship has had more op­por­tu­nity to re­fo­cus its at­ten­tion on bring­ing the un­ruly Cos­sacks into line.

But that does not seem to be wor­ry­ing the Cos­sack deputy mayor, as he sits un­der an icon of the Vir­gin Mary and Stalin.

“That was a wise man,” he said of the Soviet tyrant. “Maybe even if he was some­times a bit too tough.”

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