Putin’s armed NGOs in Europe

We drew attention to the European branch of Cossack organizations after a recent Reuters article about participants in pro-Putin rallies in Germany, which included Cossacks who guarded one of these events in Cologne.

As it turned out, there are more than enough similar centers of fake cultural propaganda in Europe. In addition to Germany, Cossack organizations operate with varying degrees of intensity in at least France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Poland.

At the same time, for the most part, these European Cossacks receive state support from Russia. Russian embassies, along with representatives of military attaches, and heads of Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Centers for Science and Culture, known as “Russian Houses”) meet with them, provide premises, and organize joint events.

In addition to guarding embassy events (for example, during elections) or pro-Russian rallies, rallies and traditional “immortal regiments,” Cossacks also participate in the installation of various monuments to tsars and Russian ambassadors from the empire and look after Russian white immigrant cemeteries.

They are also invited to cooperate with churches. The Cossacks organize numerous “days of Cossack culture,” “Cossack balls,” “bivaks” (a cross between a picnic, a meeting of elders, and fun games with sabers and halberds), and patriotic education classes.

In addition, they also exchange funny orders and certificates of their own creation, visit each other, meet online at conferences about the “inadmissibility of rewriting history,” and regularly commemorate various mythical Cossack heroes from European wars of the last three centuries.

The local authorities are quite loyal to the robed freaks, whose fun events add unexpected flavor to quiet European towns and a few new strange tourists from Russia or locals of Russian origin.

Mayors are happy to be photographed with so-called Cossacks (as they are often legitimized by embassy representatives). And some European officials even become honorary members of these communities. For example, the website of the Czech-Slovak Union still lists former Senator Zdeněk Škromach as an honorary member (at the time of his inclusion in the list, he was a current senator of the Czech parliament).

However, as the example of the pro-Putin rallies in the midst of the war against Ukraine shows, the risks and threats from sleeper agents, which are de facto Cossack organizations, are obviously underestimated. The case described by Reuters is most likely a puncture by the Cossacks.

Czech Ataman Michael Dziuba speaks to students of a gymnasium in Jindrichov Hradec, 2018

Of all the websites and social networks of European Cossack associations, only the Association of Cossacks of Romania openly supports the war in Ukraine on its Facebook page. They have even changed their avatar to the logo of the Don detachment. In other cases, hints of “opposition to the Nazis in Ukraine” may occasionally appear only in personal accounts of pseudo cossacks.

Head of the Spanish Cossacks Alexander Vasilenko

The head of the Spanish Cossacks, Alexander Vasylenko, has been living in Spain for at least the last 10-15 years. It is likely that he either started his luxury real estate business with Ukrainians or bought it from Ukrainians. The website of Happy Home Inversiones, S. L. is located in the Ukrainian domain zone .UA, it has a Ukrainian version, and the Ukrainian contact numbers of the company are preserved in the Internet archive.

His daughter is an equestrian, he loves golf, wine and black caviar, travels a lot in Europe with his family, and sometimes takes pictures with girls in kokoshniks. Alexander also attends specialized conferences of luxury realtors and gives presentations on doing business in Spain. According to the Spanish register, he is also involved in a fish shop and restaurant in Marbella.

Vasilenko’s deputies and assistants in the Union of Cossacks of Spain are also interesting. The first deputy ataman is Dmitry Andrienko, a military historian from Moscow, founder of the Museum of Military History, and author of a book on the art of the Third Reich. The secretary of the Union is Alexey Kuleshov, a tax consultant from Marbella and head of an electro-fitness studio. Among the ataman’s advisors are Artur Tsapenko, an assistant to former State Duma deputy Zhirinovsky, and two Russian entrepreneurs, Yevgeny Beloventsev and Evgeniy Shishkov. If Vasilenko and Kuleshov at least live in Spain, it is unclear what the other characters have to do with it.

Vasilenko’s story is typical of many European Cossacks. When some Russians came here 20-30 years ago, or perhaps they were Spaniards, Germans, or French not in the first generation, they suddenly realized they were descendants of the Don Cossacks, and felt an “irresistible connection with their historical homeland.”

Or they simply decided to catch the wave of patriotic hype that the Kremlin generously fuels with money around the world through its network of organizations for cooperation with compatriots. And so, having already established ties in local communities, they began to gradually build new social structures that should become one of many “centers of attraction” for Russians abroad.