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Despite looming socio-economic collapse in the 1990s, Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast managed—with extensive federal support—to overcome these difficulties. The policies aimed at support and recovery had little to do with concerns about the wellbeing of the locals; rather, the authorities feared that leaving the situation unaddressed could result in brewing discontent and the growth of anti-governmental feelings. Russian policymakers and strategists imagined that such an unstable political situation could then be exploited by “external players” to destabilize the local environment. And following the series of “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space (2003–2005) and the Arab Spring (late 2010), which engulfed Russia’s wider neighborhood, the Kremlin arguably grew preoccupied with the potential of so-called “hybrid threats” targeting the Kaliningrad exclave.
In order to confront the “hybrid threats” allegedly endangering Kaliningrad, Russia has invested extensively in various (both paramilitary and non-military) irregular formations to defend its westernmost territory. The central role in many of these formations has been allocated to the Cossacks.
Available evidence strongly suggests that Russia may be willing to use its Kaliningrad-based irregulars as defensive (territorial defense units and militia formations), counter-attack and, if necessary, offensive forces.
Kaliningrad-based irregulars constitute a complex configuration, with ties extending to the local siloviki, Cossacks, local government and private military companies (PMC). This shows that local Cossack organizations should not only be viewed as a symptom of Russia’s turn toward socio-ideological conservatism. Rather, the state-backed Cossack groups have become a force capable of paramilitary operations.
Kaliningrad Oblast—Russia’s westernmost region, physically detached from the mainland—presents an important, yet frequently overlooked, case study of: a) the transformation of Russian military-political thought in the post-1991 period (with a special emphasis on the post-2011 interim), and b) the role that may be played by/allocated to irregular formations in a potential encounter between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Baltic Sea region. Though not typically associated with non-linear-type/paramilitary operations, Kaliningrad is important to examine for two main reasons. First, the oblast has become an instrument of informational-psychological confrontation, skillfully employed by the Russian side against neighboring NATO/European Union members. Second, beyond its conspicuous conventional military buildup, Russia’s Baltic exclave has featured some important transformations in the realm of non-linear (para)military strategy.
The following study aims to highlight three essential themes (and a number of related sub-topics):
Kaliningrad’s military-political transformation triggered by worsening political relations between Russia and the Western powers;
Irregular forces/formations (both militarized and non-military) located in Kaliningrad, their transformation and development, as well as the key functions performed by or ascribed to them;
A case study of Vladimir Loginov—a Kaliningrad Cossack with an extensive background of military service in the Russian Armed Forces—who had joined the notorious private military company (PMC) Wagner Group and was killed, in early 2018, near Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
Background: Kaliningrad, the ‘Time of Troubles 2.0’ and Beyond
Kaliningrad Oblast—the Soviet Union’s “war trophy,” seized from the Germans as a result of the East Prussian operation (January 13–April 25, 1945) and the lack of a clear post–World War II peace settlement—is Russia`s westernmost territory, situated on the southeastern Baltic Sea coast. Sandwiched between Poland (200-kilometer border length) and Lithuania (130-kilometer border), the exclave (15,125 square kilometers in total) has direct access to the Baltic. The oblast is a part of the Northwestern Federal District (since May 2000) and the Western Military District (since October 2010).
During the Soviet period (1945–1991), Kaliningrad became one of the most heavily militarized spots in the world. Importantly, from the outset, Moscow explicitly favored the heavy militarization of the oblast and its transformation into a secluded military bastion: local military units seized nearly total control over all key (both military and non-military) spheres of public life in Kaliningrad within the first several years after the war ended. Even as socio-economic recuperation and post-war reconstruction was largely neglected, the local authorities (with explicit and generous support from Moscow) heavily invested in the military buildup of the oblast. Combined, these policies led toward not just heavy militarization but also the near isolation of Kaliningrad from its geographic neighbors, irrespective of the fact that, at the time, both Poland and Lithuania were also firmly within the orbit of Soviet control.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kaliningrad showcased one of the worst examples of socio-economic degradation: in addition to a virtual collapse of the local economy (heavily subsidized by the center and nearly destroyed by the breakup of a planned economy), the oblast experienced skyrocketing criminality, plummeting living standards and a sharp increase in various social diseases (alcoholism, prostitution, organized crime, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis). Corruption and criminality permeated various layers of local society, including the top-level politicians and officials as well as the army and the siloviki (security services personnel). One event that shook the whole oblast and spread well beyond its borders occurred in the early 2000s, when two former members of Parus—a special unit subordinated to the Russian Ministry of Defense—were accused of organizing a paramilitary criminal gang and killing 12 members of the Baltic Sea Fleet, local militia and private security companies.
As local micro- and macro-economic indicators continued to stagnate, Kaliningrad underwent an extensive de-militarization. This trend, however, was not the result of a conscious policy choice to change the Baltic exclave’s economic model and/or a genuine desire by the authorities to transform the oblast into a “bridge” between the European Union and Russia. Rather, it primarily resulted from the government’s insufficient economic means to keep the local military force structures funded. That said, after Poland and Lithuania joined NATO (1999 and 2004 respectively) and the EU (both in 2004), Russia again began paying greater attention to Kaliningrad (by then nicknamed the “double periphery”). European enlargement processes in the Baltic region were seen in Russia not as the free choice of Warsaw, Vilnius and other neighboring capitals, but rather as something imposed by the West in order to keep a resurgent Russia at bay.
Following Russia’s recovery from the politically turbulent 1990s and the financial collapse of 1998, between 1999 and 2005 (secured by the growing prices of hydrocarbons and raw materials), Kaliningrad not only made its first concrete steps toward re-militarization but also managed (with the federal center’s explicit assistance) to deal with its mounting socio-economic issues in a relatively effective (though only in the short term, and clearly unsustainable) manner. By the end of 2018, the local population swelled in number, approaching the 1,000,000mark, which signified the oblast’s attractiveness to migrants from other parts of Russia and the former Soviet area (primarily Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan).
Between Zapad-99 and Zapad 2017: The ‘Amber Pistol’ or the Prime Target?
The evolution and transformation of post–Cold War Kaliningrad back into Russia’s most heavily militarized western outpost were driven by a series of profound international military/geopolitical transformations—many of them seemingly quite distant from the Baltic region—starting at the turn of the 21st century. These important pivots include:
The Kosovo War (1998/1999);
NATO enlargement (1999–2004);
The Iraq War (started in 2003);
The Russo-Georgian War (2008);
The Arab Spring (started in late 2010)
The annexation of Crimea (February/March 2014) and ensuing hostilities in southeastern Ukraine (starting in April 2014).
In effect, this transformation highlighted three crucial elements. First, Kaliningrad ceased to be seen by Russian military strategists as a potential tool for massive offensive operations—that is, as a springboard for an offensive thrust against NATO (as was the case in the 1960s–1980s), when the region was the most militarized spot in Europe, with a massive concentration of troops. Today, the oblast is (generally) seen as a tool of defense—as an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble—that is to withstand the initial attack, and then, if required, could be used as an auxiliary force for a large counter-attack.
Second, there is ever greater emphasis on the principle of asymmetricity and the role of informational-psychological operations in warfare. This notion was famously underscored in ideas ascribed to the chief of the Russian General Staff (since 2012), Army General Valery Gerasimov, in a series of publications that appeared between 2013 and 2016. In his reflections—based on the experience of Eurasian “color revolutions” and, notably, the Arab Spring and ensuing military conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (primarily, Libya and Syria)—Gerasimov argued that the principle of “asymmetricity” had acquired an essential role. As the Russian general posited, the realities of modern warfare meant a loosening of the concept of the “frontline” as well as changing operational principles. But notably (following the teachings of Sun Tsu and Alexander Suvorov), a critical new role was taken up by the informational-phycological element: namely, the ability to demoralize the adversary and break its willingness to resist.
Third is the concept of “control of territory” (kontrol territorii). In other words, the ability of the state to keep under its effective control critical infrastructure, potentially rebellious regions/provinces, and the rear parts of the country. Russia’s concern over the concept, initially built on the examples of Iraq (2003), Libya and Syria (both 2011), received new impetus after 2014. In broader terms, the issue of “control of territory” could be linked with what Moscow viewed as “hybrid threats,” to which, Russian military analysts asserted, Kaliningrad is particularly susceptible. These ideas (the vulnerability of this exposed oblast to covert operations from the West aiming to destabilize it internally and to discredit the levels of trust/respect of the locals toward Russia) were actively developed, with the state’s clear support, by a number of locally based information platforms/media outlets. In this regard, an important role was allocated to the Russian Orthodox Church as well.
In analyzing potential means to strengthen Russian defenses and confront “hybrid threats,” Russian writers (coming from both military and civilian circles) collectively arrived at the conclusion that the Russian Armed Forces are de facto ill-prepared for a non-linear confrontation. But this situation could apparently be overcome by “returning to the roots of Russian military history and traditions,” emphasizing the “irregular” formations and missions of the Russian military.
A particularly important piece—which places Gerasimov`s ideas into a more specific context—came, in December 2018, from Captain 1st rank (ret.) and Doctor of Military Science Konstantin Sivkov, one of the key commentators at the Military-Industrial Courier (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier) newspaper and a Correspondent Member at the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences. In his analysis, which should be viewed with particular attention in light of the transformations shaping Kaliningrad (to be explained in detail below), Sivkov identifies five key points, summarized with the following takeaways:
First, according to the doctor of military science, the Russian Armed Forces should be developed with an emphasis on its historical strengths, including the skillful use of irregular and paramilitary formations, which demonstrated their effectiveness in various historical epochs and against different adversaries.
Second, hybrid warfare is a new threat facing Russia; but its Armed Forces (still primarily concerned with waging classic wars) are ill prepared to meet this kind of challenge. Consequently, Sivkov suggests, Russia’s military-political leadership needs to consider the (re)inclusion of irregular formations, which are particularly useful at the operational-tactical level (operativno-takticheskoye zveno).
Third, despite Russia introducing strategic-level Special Operations Forces in 2013, formations of this type cannot fully stand in for true guerrilla/partisan formations. Namely, when it comes to terms of subversive and subversive-reconnaissance operations, the SOF formations “are irreplaceable”; but other tasks, such as the protection of supply lines and critical infrastructure, could be assigned to formations of a different type—irregular forces (the core of which could be made up of Cossacks) and private military companies (PMC)—which could be integrated (at a strategic level) into the Armed Forces. However, as Sivkov pointedly argues, to be effective, such structures must appear to be separate from the regular structures of the Russian Armed Forces. In effect, this idea was largely reflected in how Moscow approached its involvement in the Syrian civil war, where Russian PMCs and SOF units acted together with the conventional Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS).
Fourth, Sivkov lays out the division of “responsibilities” among Russian irregular formations. He argues for the creation of what he calls Irregular Special Forces (Irregulyarnyye Sily—IS), which should (upon their inauguration) be subdivided onto Irregular Defense Forces (Irregulyarnyye Sily Oborony—ISO) and Active Irregular Forces (Aktivnyye Irregulyarnyye Sily—AIS). ISOs would be concerned with internal missions, including maintaining stability on Russian territory as well as defending against so-called “hybrid threats.” The latter set of task may consist of carrying out the “neutralization of massive popular upheavals, operations against bandit groups and even terrorist formations, the securing of special legal regimes, including a state of emergency on the territory of the whole country or its parts, the protection of essential objects, critical infrastructure as well as civil and military objects… or dealing with an enemy’s subversive and reconnaissance forces.” In turn, AISs would perform missions outside Russia, including establishing (and maintaining) rapid control over objects/infrastructure beyond Russian borders. In his reflections, Sivkov notes that the backbone of the ISOs could be formed from a broad variety of corporate as well as non-commercial forces—primarily, military-patriotic clubs like the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy (Dobrovolnoye Obshchestvo Sodeystviya Armii, Aviatsii i Flotu—DOSAAF), various Cossacks organizations, as well as “military settlers.” As such, the AISs would operate as de facto special operations forces, capable of inter alia “creating irregular formations of their own… and organizing mass popular discontent and protest movements abroad.” Sivkov also contends that both AISs and ISOs need to be created because of Russia`s limited economic resources and on account of the variety of “hybrid challenges” the country ostensibly faces.
His fifth main point concerns the Cossacks—which he considers the backbone of Russian irregular formations. As Sivkov argues, “the number of tasks performed by ISOs in a single military district could demand 250,000–300,000 men… the whole system of territorial defense [a.k.a. the “control of territory” concept put forward by Gerasimov] will become their main responsibility.” This, Sivkov asserts, will require the creation of a special “territorial-militia [territorialno-militsionnyii]… demanding the permanent deployment of [ISO] personnel in their local area of residence […] and equipping them with various types of weaponry, arms and munition as well as special military equipment.” In other words, the emergence of these types of irregular formations would result in the re-creation of a “genuine Cossack movement […], which is to become a steady and trustworthy element that the government can rely on under the most critical circumstances… [T]his will enable our Armed Forces to successfully carry out defensive as well as offensive missions in both classical and hybrid conflicts.”
The ideas put forward by Sivkov in late 2018 are important to keep in mind because they largely predict the aforementioned changes that have been taking place in Kaliningrad for the last several years. And indeed, the ongoing development of irregular formations in Russia’s westernmost oblast have even to some extent gone beyond the notions outlined by Sivkov.
Irregular Formations in Kaliningrad
Beginnings of the Local Movement
Historically, Kaliningrad Oblast (nor its historical predecessor, German East Prussia, for obvious reasons) never had a tradition of a local Cossack movement. However, toward the late 1980s, “the problem of defense” of the region “became apparent” to the local conservative members of the military and the nascent Cossack groups, whose emergence was quite unexpected. This motivated a number of “Cossack-officers and officer-patriots” to embark on creating the first Cossack organizations in Kaliningrad. The decision was explained by the following: “the necessity to defend Russia’s national interests in the Baltic Region [Pribaltika].” Curiously—as occurred in Crimea, Transnistria, the Balkans and various peripheries of the Russian core (Chechnya, Dagestan, etc.)—the infiltration of Cossacks to the territory of Kaliningrad Oblast was disguised as the development of cultural initiatives. For instance, the Cossack musical ensemble “Stanica” (created in 1990, and assembled of Cossack-officers, apparently coming from the Soviet Armed Forces) started to hold numerous concerts across Kaliningrad.
The first attempt to create a “single Cossack organization” in Kaliningrad was made in 1990, with the establishment of an (informal) krug (“circle”—a time when all Cossacks gather to discuss and settle various issues of concern to the community) of Baltic Cossacks. However, due to various internal frictions—in many ways exacerbated by the lack of unity and coordination from the federal center—the process of unification was arrested until 1994. That year, during an assembly meeting of all local Cossack leaders together with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), a decision was made to set aside conflicting goals and advance toward creating a single organization. Yet, it took until 1997 for the Baltic Cossack Union (BCU) of Kaliningrad Oblast to be created, at last resulting in the emergence of a single Cossack organization on the territory of the Russian exclave.
The krug in 1997 resulted in two important decisions. First, the then-governor of Kaliningrad, Leonid Gorbenko (a rebellious and highly controversial figure, who regularly nearly openly defied Boris Yetlsin) was elected “honorary ataman [head]” of the BCU, thus clearly underscoring the growing ties between the local political leadership and the nascent Cossack movement. Second, its participants proclaimed “all Cossacks units and organizations, save for the newly created [BCU], to be void”—a solid step toward unification and centralization of the movement in Kaliningrad.
The year 1999 turned out to be pivotal: at a krug on September 19, the BCU was transformed into the Baltic Separate Cossack “District”–Baltic Cossack Union of Kaliningrad Oblast (BOKO), which was registered under the Cossack Unions of the Russian Federation public roster (gosudarstvennyii reestr). Incidentally, this key Cossack assembly was attended by the then–Orthodox metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Kirill (currently, the ROC patriarch). At the same time, the formation of the BOKO was facilitated with the “help of the Terek Cossack Army, the governments of Smolensk and Leningrad oblasts, as well as the Union of Russian Cossacks.”
By 2009, the number of Cossacks registered in Kaliningrad exceeded 2,000 men. Their responsibilities included the “active participation in restoring public order […], actions against poachers, [and] preparation of the local youth for military service.” On February 8, 2010—amidst public protests in Kaliningrad that came to be known as the “Tangerine Spring”—the local Cossack community (supported by the local government and Moscow, via Kremlin envoy Mikhail Motsak) decided to subordinate the BOKO to a reformatted Northwestern Cossack Army (based in St. Petersburg); while the BOKO was allocated approximately 20 million rubles (at that time, approximately $667,000). Those government subsidies were later cut down dramatically; but starting from 2019, state financing for the oblast’s Cossacks started to increase again.
In recent years, Kaliningrad’s Cossacks have been actively engaged in various high-profile security tasks, including local preparations for the 2018 Soccer World Cup. Speaking in February 2018 about all the tasks and responsibilities vested on the Cossacks by the authorities, BOKO Ataman Maksim Buga evasively stated, “I cannot tell you more than the governor said in his interview. It is clear though that our functions will not be reduced to the protection of forests; we will be performing many functions.”
The Situation of Cossacks in Kaliningrad Post-Crimea
The ongoing conflict between Moscow and the West over Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine has had a dramatic impact on the development of locally deployed Cossack formations in Kaliningrad. Today, the oblast’s Cossacks can be subdivided into three main elements, which differ not only in terms of their relative size but also particular influence and level of development:
When examining the non-military aspects of the Cossack phenomenon inside Kaliningrad Oblast, two important aspects should be kept in mind: the geographic location of Kaliningrad (between Poland and Lithuania) and its role within the information-phycological/cyber component of Russian military-strategic thinking. This latter aspect was outlined in Russia’s 2016 Doctrine of Information Security, which, among other essential initiatives, implied the creation of a broad system of information and cyber security control. One of the elements of this has been the so-called “cyber squads” (kiber druzhiny)—formations tasked with searching for “adverse” and/or “illegal” information found on domestic Internet sites.
The phenomenon itself, however, is by no means new: starting from 2011, the League of Internet Safety (an entity financially supported by Konstantin Malofeev) had already been acting in this capacity, although the first decree on governmental cooperation with cyber squads was officially signed only in May 22, 2017, by the governor of Belgorod Oblast.
The formation of local “Cossack cyber squads” in Kaliningrad was launched after 2014. The cadre for these squads are assembled from local graduate students (Cossack) majoring in information technology as well as volunteers with commensurate experience and knowledge, primarily coming from the Kaliningrad-based branch of the K.G. Razumovsky Moscow State University of Technologies and Management (MGUTU—the First Cossack University). Importantly, as stated by Marina Tikhonova, the deputy director of the Kaliningrad-branch of the MGUTU, a first Cossack cyber squad will be created in Kaliningrad, specifically tasked with securing the Runet (the Russian segment of Internet) from dangerous content. Although further details were not presented, this development clearly points to a growing consolidation of the state’s control over the information/cyber domain in Kaliningrad. Importantly, such “Cossacks cyber squads” could be used not only for internal purposes (the censorship of media content) but for external use as well, including cyberattacks against Kaliningrad`s neighbors and/or spreading fake news/disinformation abroad.
The activities of Cossack paramilitary groups have become especially conspicuous since 2014, fueled by growing apprehension among the Russian ruling elite about the prospect of “hybrid threats” to the country. In 2015, Cossacks from the BOKO, financed by the governor’s office (this was ascertained by local reporters), violently attacked participants of the Kafka-Orwell intellectual forum, construed by local conservatives as an “anti-Russian event.”
Moreover, Kaliningrad Cossacks have, in following years, been actively involved in patrolling the border area of Baltiysk seaport (located on the shore of the Strait of Baltiysk, separating the Vistula Lagoon from Gdańsk Bay) jointly with locally deployed border troops. In effect, in 2016 (data has not been updated since then), 24 Cossack squads were engaged in border control and related operations on the territory of the oblast. And from late 2018 onward, Cossack patrols appeared on the streets of Yantarny, a town located some 40 kilometers from Kaliningrad city. Interestingly, according to local city manager Aleksey Zalivatskii, this measure was motivated by “the lack of police forces… Cossacks are volunteering and helping us to keep order.” In many ways, the described functions are commensurate with the types of non-military tasks that the above-mentioned military expert Konstantin Sivkov argues should be vested on the Cossacks as a means to protect Russian society from “hybrid threats.”
The first (para)military training of Kaliningrad Cossacks effectively took place on March 27, 2009. Officially presented as “planned shooting practice,” the drills were carried out near the Polish border and, in effect, simulated a limited-scale paramilitary operation (jointly held with locally stationed units of the Russian border troops). The maneuvers brought together “Cossacks performing broader control missions as well as young Cossacks.”
Notably, the Orthodox Church became a chief proponent of the Cossacks assuming a greater role in the military protection of the oblast. Namely, Russian Patriarch Kirill claimed that “[I]n today’s Russia, Cossacks remain the true power, which helps state power structures to confront terrorism, drug trafficking and other social malaises,” adding, “they [Cossacks] are […] Orthodox knights.” As confirmed by BOKO Ataman Maksim Buga in 2017, “A Cossack is primarily a warrior; thus, we give special emphasis to military preparation. We also pay crucial attention to the task of nurturing the younger generation, who will replace us later.” At this juncture, it should be stated that (para)military preparation/training is specifically concerned with certain militarized locations situated on the territory of the oblast—so-called Coassack khutors—all in all, numbering 23 as of December 2019.
Based on available data, it is possible to ascertain the following activities regularly performed by Cossacks under the umbrella of the established khutor-based framework:
Military-patriotic exercises: These are primarily concerned with training local Cossack youth. The specific purpose of these exercises is to convey knowledge pertaining to reconnaissance tasks and to simulate tactical, non-linear paramilitary operations. One such event took place on September 29, 2019, under the code name “In the Enemy’s Rear”; it was jointly organized by the BOKO and local Kaliningrad government, and its participants were notably drilled in the above-discussed tasks. Exercises of this type (carried out once every 1–3 months or weekly, depending on their scale) are an integral part of the activities carried out by various khutors in Kaliningrad.
Marksmanship training: This is also carried out on a regular basis. Of the numerous reported-on events of this type, one specific development, which occurred on October 6, 2019, requires some elaboration. On this date, the BOKO atamans held joint shooting exercises with members of the so-called Union of the Polish First Army. The latter group is notably linked to such controversial Polish organizations as the Slavic Union (Braterstwo Słowian) and the Movement for the Sovereignty of the Polish People (Ruch Suwerenności Narodu Polskiego) and is known for its active pro-Russian (as well as anti-NATO and anti-Ukrainian) views and promotion of ideas of the Russian World in Poland. Moreover, despite the fact that the majority of khutors are regularly used for shooting practice, the Khutor Pregolskii (organized in 2015) has served in this capacity on more frequent occasions. Moreover, based on some evidence, khutors are engaged in active cooperation with state-sponsored military-patriotic organizations, including the DOSAAF. Namely, in 2016, in the city of Chernyakhovsk (on the basis of the local DOSAAF branch), paramilitary exercises carried out by the Cossacks were not merely confined to shooting practice and reconnaissance but also involved employment of armored personnel carriers. Based on available data, such paramilitary exercises focus, in particular, on simulating operations carried out by small/tactical, highly maneuverable groups acting as partisan formations.
The above-mentioned activities (mainly operational/auxiliary developments) occurred against the background of key (and in many respects, far-reaching) strategic-level developments, including the formation of Russian “territorial defense units.” Specifically, on November 25, 2017, the Kaliningrad authorities declared the formation of the “first territorial defense unit” (demonstrated during a military parade in the city of Baltiysk), notably on the basis of the BOKO. Interestingly, during the strategic military exercise Zapad 2017 (September 14–20), partly held on the territory of the oblast, another territorial defense unit, consisting of the Don Army Cossacks, trained in Kaliningrad (near the city of Sovietsk, close to the Lithuanian border). However, neither Russian nor foreign sources have provided any specific commentary on the nature of these exercises, nor their objectives.
Kaliningrad Cossacks’ Role in Russian Special Operations Abroad
Despite the ostensibly benign (defensive) nature of their activities in the oblast, a closer look at the growth of the Cossack movement in Kaliningrad unravels some troubling details hidden under the guise of “patriotic training” and “Cossack traditions.” First of all, as is clear from media reports, Kaliningrad Cossacks took an active part in the preparation and subsequent annexation of Crimea (March 2014), as an auxiliary force tasked with establishing (and preserving) control over critically important infrastructure located on the territory of the peninsula. These activities specifically allowed Russian forces to paralyze the activities of locally stationed Ukrainian military units as well as to rapidly establish/secure control over key objects or facilities.
It is also known (see next section: The Case of Vladimir Loginov) that later, part of these same Cossack forces was actively engaged in hostilities in southeastern Ukraine; and having demonstrated sufficient skills and qualification, their members eventually took part in the Syrian civil war in the rank-and-file of the notorious Wagner Group PMC. According to BOKO Ataman Maksim Buga, approximately 80 Cossacks from Kaliningrad have fought in Syria. It is, therefore, worthwhile to look closely at the case of local Cossack Vladimir Loginov, who joined Wagner and was killed near Deir ez-Zor, Syria, in February 2018, as a result of a US-led air strike.
The Case of Vladimir Loginov
Vladimir Loginov (1966–2018) had accumulated vast experience of both military and paramilitary service (having started his career in the early 1990s) in the Russian Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry Troops. Specifically, he participated in both Russo-Chechen conflicts on at least three occasions (1996–1997; 2000–2001; 2003–2006), for which he was decorated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the government of Kaliningrad Oblast. After his final tour, he was employed with the interior ministry, before (from 2010 on) finding work with various Kaliningrad-based private security companies.
In 2014, Loginov joined the local Cossack khutor “Pregolskii” and was rapidly promoted to the position of press secretary of the BOKO. In 2019, the ataman of the Pregolskii khutor, Valery Zhirkov, stated, “Loginov was a top-notch expert in various military-related tasks.” With the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, Loginov headed off to fight in Donbas (it is unknown whether he took part in the annexation of Crimea). Subsequently, as a member of the Wagner Group, he moved to Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to his friends, Loginov “always was and remained a Soviet person […] he always remained nostalgic of Soviet times”; his main motivation for becoming a “volunteer” was pursuit of “social justice.” However, taking into account the socio-economic challenges faced by Loginov’s family and Wagner’s generous compensation packages, his story, in many ways, differs little from the average Wagner militant: the above-mentioned ideological drivers were unlikely to have been the only factors that motivated Loginov.
Some additional interesting insights can be deduced from an interview given in February 2018 by Loginov’s wife, Oksana Girchute. She stated that in both Donbas and Syria, Loginov was working as a sapper, his main specialization. Girchute implicitly confirmed that the Wagner Group used the Donbas conflict as both a “testing ground” and a “selection pool” for its core fighters. Though she did not specify what Loginov’s salary totaled while he served in Syria (where the salary was relatively high), Girchute, stated that “in Ukraine he received kopeyki [very insignificant money]… he was not even compensated for the whole campaign.” Another Wagner member, who fought in Syria alongside Logonov stated (anonymously) that for the Syrian campaign Russian mercenaries were officially recruited as “geologists for works on oil derricks”; this was the main way for the militants to find their ways to Syria.
The story of Vladimir Loginov is a telling one, demonstrating a number of important elements, ranging from recruitment patterns to the real purpose behind the growth of the Cossack movement in Kaliningrad. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, this example vividly demonstrates an existing nexus between four players:
Governmental structures (mainly, the Russian defense and interior ministries),
Private security companies, and
Private military companies.
Starting from the mid-2000s, Moscow has moved a long way toward restoring the military potential (seemingly lost during the tumultuous 1990s) of its westernmost region—Kaliningrad Oblast. Upon the outbreak of the Arab Spring (and civil wars in Libya and Syria) as well as developments in Ukraine, Russia increased its efforts in developing asymmetric warfare capabilities in both paramilitary and military areas; and this regard, Kaliningrad presents an interesting and clearly understudied case. The forfeiture of much of Kaliningrad’s conventional military potential in the 1990s and early 2000s appears to have been only temporary. At the same time, that temporary loss of former military might on the oblast may, arguably, have been an advantage, encouraging Russia to act asymmetrically in the Baltic Sea region by relying more strongly on the informational-psychological element.
One way or another, Russia’s growing visible reliance on irregular formations (a trend that crystalized particularly following the outbreak of hostilities in southeastern Ukraine) could suggests that this experience may have an outsized influence on Kaliningrad. The oblast—deemed by Russian experts and analysts to be both most susceptible to “hybrid threats” and potentially be the initial target of NATO’s limited “anti-Russian aggression”—has been effectively implementing specific anti-hybrid measures originally elaborated by Russia’s leading military thinkers. Notably, this is reflected in the growing importance of the local Cossack movement, which is rapidly transforming into a militarized (and ultra-conservative) force. And crucially, available data suggests that there is a steady link between PMCs (such as the Wagner Group), Cossacks and local governmental institutions. It is, thus, worth keeping in mind that, based on the historical experience of conflicts in the post-Soviet area and the Balkans, Cossacks could be employed as a paramilitary force capable of both offensive and defensive operations. This fact is particularly important given Kaliningrad’s geographic location, wedged between two NATO/EU allies.