While comparisons of the Russo-Georgian War to imperial Russian endeavors of old are a dime-a-dozen, few have pointed out one important respect in which today's conflict does represent a rebirth of the old-school empire: In invading South Ossetia and Georgia, Russia has called-up scores of Cossack military volunteers, drawn from the same population that once produced the legendary horseback warriors responsible for defending imperial Russia's southern borders and infamous for raiding Jewish shtetls.
The Cossacks, a Russian subpopulation group originally composed of runaway serfs, have inhabited Russia's southern regions in largely autonomous, self-governing communities since the 14th century. Co-opted into the Russian empire in the 18th century, the Cossacks made their name in Russia's many imperial wars (including those of the 20th century) as fierce and disciplined warriors--as Pushkin said of them, the Cossacks were "always on horseback, always ready to fight, always on the alert." After a period of brutal suppression under Soviet rule, the Cossacks have seen somewhat of a renaissance under Putin, called-up to form anti-terrorism defense units and to secure Russia's restive southern provinces from Islamist and separatist violence. Returned to their traditional role as Russia's warrior vanguard, the Cossacks have been highly supportive of Putin and of his calls for the reemergence of Russian "greatness." Accordingly, they are now on the front-lines of the push into South Ossetia, fighting--so they claim--to defend their "Ossetian brothers" from the "Georgian fascist attack." What does this all mean for Russia's regional ambitions and neo-imperialist posturing? Well, as Napoleon himself once said, "Give me 20,000 Cossacks and I will conquer the whole of Europe, and even the whole world."