MAGILEVKA, RUSSIA—A trespasser appeared in Boris Matrinitski’s front yard one morning in early January: A middle-aged Chinese man, wearing an old uniform, trudging through the deep snow. The man wasn’t carrying any bags and didn’t seem dressed for the cold.
In another place, in another time, Mr. Matrinitski might have offered him shelter.
But this village of Magilevka is just a few kilometres north of the Ussuri River, which separates China from the vast wilderness of Russia’s Far East. Thousands of illegal migrants cross the river every year and the Russian government has become deeply concerned about defending its territory.
Mr. Matrinitski rushed outside and tackled the Chinese man. He restrained his captive and called the border guards, who took him away.
It’s not common for Russian villagers to physically throw themselves at people they suspect of being illegal immigrants. But Mr. Matrinitski is a Cossack, a descendant of the horsemen who defended Russia’s borders for centuries, and the Kremlin has recently taken steps to revive the Cossacks’ warrior spirit.
“Boris reacted honourably,” said Georgy Torhov, 67, commander of Mr. Matrinitski and hundreds of other Cossacks around this village. “This interloper was stopped within the first 24 hours. But we need to react even faster.”
Once a proud vanguard of the Russian empire, the Cossacks have dwindled in recent years into a glorified social club.
Their ancestors rode horses, mustered armies and defended the borderlands. Now, many Cossacks ride busses, work ordinary jobs and rarely dust off their ceremonial uniforms.
But motivated by gnawing fears about security along its sparsely populated border areas, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in December that aims to reinstate the old paramilitary society. After years of repression under the Soviet Union, the new law gives Cossacks broad powers—and funding—to patrol the borders, recruit soldiers, organize disaster-response units, assist the forestry service, maintain public order and fight terrorism.
Branches of the federal government already exist for all these functions, but the Cossacks are viewed as an extra layer of protection in a country that feels increasingly nervous about its security and territorial integrity.
Those may seem like unusual fears for Russia, which still has enough nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to theoretically kill everyone on the planet. But Russia’s conventional military has dwindled, along with its shrinking population.
Demographers predict that Russia will suffer a sharp decline in population over the next half-century, losing perhaps a third of its people, and the situation will be worst in the Far East. This region’s population has already dwindled by 18 per cent since the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, as the empire abruptly cut support for its farthest outposts.
Russia’s Far Eastern Military District has lost more than half its motorized divisions since the Soviet collapse, along with a third of its submarines and half its combat ships. One Far Eastern commander recently complained that so many of his planes and helicopters had fallen into disrepair that half of them couldn’t lift off the ground.
The looming demographic disaster could make this situation worse. A report by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations calculated that Russia drafts about one-third of the young men eligible for mandatory military service every year, or about 300,000 men. But the number of 18-year-olds in Russia will decline to 600,000 by 2015—meaning that the government may be forced to choose between two unpleasant options: Make tougher rules and draft a higher percentage of the population, or accept a smaller army.
“The demographic situation is becoming a true security threat,” said a draft national-security strategy leaked from Russia’s Foreign and Defence Policy Council this year.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, a newspaper loyal to the Kremlin, summarized the worry expressed in many parts of the Russian news media in a recent commentary: “China is in no hurry,” the newspaper wrote. “It is waiting for a situation where there will be no Russians left on Siberian soil and then, it will be able to lay claims to these territories against immigrants from Asia and the Caucasus.”
Even serious academics in Moscow are openly debating whether a Chinese incursion is possible.
“China will invade Siberia and the Russian Far East, and it will be a very disagreeable situation,” said Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Centre for Human Demography and Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Vladimir Portyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, was more sanguine. “The Chinese threat is exaggerated,” he said.
In the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, the Chinese consulate is accustomed to playing down such concerns.
“There is no reason to say such things,” said Fan Xianrong, China’s consul general, with a patient smile. “It would never be possible for Russia to lose its territory. Russia is a powerful state. It can defend itself and hold itself together.”
Across town, the Cossacks aren’t so easily placated. Vladimir Kroukov, owner of a metal works factory, has reinvented himself as chieftain of the Amur Host and estimates he commands 2,000 Cossacks in the Far Eastern region. That’s a small force compared with the armies that conquered Siberia in the 16th century for Ivan the Terrible, and pushed further into the Far East in the 19th century.
But Mr. Kroukov said the numbers will grow as the new authority and money from Moscow brings life to the old tradition. He’s eager to revive all aspects of Cossack life—the legendary bravery, horsemanship and military ceremony—but he’s emphatic about their most urgent mission.
“The Chinese are very carefully testing our border, every metre, to see how well it’s protected by the Russians,” Mr. Kroukov said. “They want to know our system, how strong it is.”
The old system in the czarist era involved giving Cossack farmers free consignments of land along Russia’s 4,300-kilometre border with China. In exchange for the land, the Cossacks kept watch. They lost this privilege after they backed the anti-Communist forces during Russia’s civil war, but leaders such as Mr. Kroukov are trying to reorganize the border villages.
One of the most successful border projects is Magilevka, about 70 kilometres south of Khabarovsk, which has about 300 Cossacks in the district. The local Cossack leader, Mr. Torhov, remembers the skills he learned as a dog handler for the federal border service. The new federal law will give him authority to patrol with Bam, his Siberian hunting dog.
“Now these dogs will get a workout again,” Mr. Torhov said.