Mobilized, Forgotten, Ignored: Russia’s Control Mechanisms of its Minority Populations Amid the Russo-Ukrainian War

A still image from an April 2023 Russian military ad portrays Russian soldiers with the words translating to, “You are a man. Be him.” Image Source: Russian Ministry of Defense.

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The recruitment ad for the Russian military, released in the spring of 2023, hammered home the sentiment that signing up for service was not only patriotic but manly. Considering the issues affecting Russia’s military recruitment and conscription efforts as its casualty count in Ukraine increases, the ad fails to demonstrate another key reality in Russian society today: most of the men fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine are not Slavic, as portrayed in much of Russia’s recruitment media, but rather from its minority populations. According to a 2010 census, Russia is home to over 193 ethnic groups, and host to a broad variety of religious beliefs, cultures, and languages. Centuries of tight control have seen indigenous and ethnic populations stringently controlled, reflecting a deep-rooted fear in the Kremlin of ethnic uprisings that would uproot Russia’s security ecosystem and threaten Putin’s rule over the country. With the onset of the Russo-Ukrainian War in February 2022, this control has been no more visible than on the battlefield, where casualty rates disproportionately affect Russia’s minority populations. Though there are some exceptions, notably in Chechnya, the Kremlin’s military and security policies work towards the same goal of broadly appeasing politically valuable Slavic populations at the expense of its many ethnic and racial groups.

According to Russia’s Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat), Buryatia and Dagestan are the Russian federal subjects with the lowest GDP per capita. An ongoing open-source project between Mediazona and BBC’s Russian service has corroborated at least 33,904 Russian casualties as of October 6th, 2023, with some of the highest death counts per region coming from Buryat, Kuban, and Dagestan. Ethnic Buryats, for example, similarly suffered among the highest number of losses during fighting in the Donbas in 2014. Decades of persecution have resulted in these groups having little to no political power and lacking any autonomy. Poor economic prospects, living conditions, and high levels of corruption within the government mean that a career in Russia’s military, bolstered by higher wages, is one of the few “escape routes” for men living in regions like Buryatia and Dagestan. As such, Russia is disproportionality mobilizing minority soldiers, who are killed in the trenches of the Donbas, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine at far higher rates than Slavic soldiers. Notably, many of these deaths occur in Russian infantry units, placed on the front lines with a higher risk of death. “This social-economic stratification has a long-term tradition in the Russian armed forces because young men from the cities with relatively good education serve in other military branches… but the infantry consists of badly-educated soldiers from poor families and regions.” Further, Alexandra Garmayapova, president of the Free Buryatia Foundation, has blamed the region’s widespread “lack of opportunity at home” on this mass conscription of the region’s population.

As a result, this has led to misleading accusations of involvement in Russian war crimes. Media reports investigating the March 2022 massacres in Bucha indicated that the Buryat-based 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade was based in the town at the time of the atrocities: “The Buryats are [ethnically] Mongolian, and since Russian and Ukrainian school books detail how the 13th-century Mongol hordes ransacked Moscow and Kyiv, they make easy scapegoats; so much so, that ‘Buryat’ is now a shorthand for all Asian-looking soldiers.” Reports have similarly emerged of racism within Russia’s forces, with “Russian army officers bullying Buryat, Kalmyk and Tuvan soldiers,” and infighting between Chechen and Buryat forces resulting in a gun battle in Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory. All these stories, isolated and unrelated as they may seem, are part of a broader strategy by Russia to play these groups against one another. Putin thrives on fomenting a security environment of both mutual benefit for its elite and deeply rooted mistrust and animosity between peers. If populations with a history of revolution and uprisings are too occupied with infighting or jockeying for positions in Putin’s court, this significantly reduces the likelihood of a challenge to the president’s power. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chechnya.

Unlike other regions across Russia, Chechnya has been largely preserved from disproportionate mobilization and combat use in Ukraine. In the early weeks of the fighting, Chechen forces were deployed outside the suburbs of Kyiv, where they sustained heavy casualties in Hostomel and failed to send squads to infiltrate the city with the goal of assassinating Volodymyr Zelensky. After that, they saw sustained action in the Siege of Mariupol in April, which saw them sustain high casualties. Since then, reports of substantial Chechen involvement on the front lines have diminished drastically, and its population has largely been spared of mobilization and conscription efforts. This is largely due to Putin’s need to maintain the region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, in a politically advantageous role. The same applies to Kadyrov: “He receives an abundance of funds from the federal budget, … he wields a private, extremely loyal army, and he has the authority to persecute the Chechen opposition to his rule as he sees fit.” Chechnya was the site of two brutal wars in the 1990s, which saw Russia put the region under its direct control in early 2000, under the leadership of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad. Kadyrov today is one of the prime examples of a member of Russia’s elite who profits off Putin’s mutually beneficial style of rule and needs the government to remain stable just as much as the government needs Chechnya to remain stable. The primary way in which the Kremlin seeks to achieve this is to let Kadyrov operate with quasi-autonomy in Chechnya; mobilizing Chechens to fight and die in Ukraine at the rates seen in Buryat or Kuban would likely become far more of a political quagmire than Putin would want. Thus, beyond a few battalions still deployed well behind the front lines in Ukraine, Putin lets Chechnya be – for now.

For the moment, Russia’s disproportionate deployment and mobilization of its minority populations to carry out the war in Ukraine has not met significant resistance. Some sporadic protests in local town centers or videos of aggrieved family members have accomplished nothing, and there is no indication this policy will change. For Russia’s Ministry of Defense to begin large-scale mobilization of its Slavic populations, particularly in population centers like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, would mean that the state of the conflict would be in truly dire circumstances. To do so would be a significantly unpopular decision, more so than the initial round of mobilization in 2022. It would threaten a longstanding yet fragile system that encourages high-level political corruption at the expense of those whom the Kremlin views as unimportant or even disposable. Though Putin’s power may seem absolute and unchallenged, the unprecedented number of casualties and lives forever changed in Russia’s ethnic populations may become a larger problem for his rule than he may realize.

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