Restive Caucasus Sees Signs of Discontent with Putin’s War

But with power increasingly centralized in the Kremlin, don’t look for Moscow’s empire to fracture anytime soon.

By , a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Honor guards carry the coffin of Rustam Zarifulin, a Kyrgyz soldier who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine, in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, on March 27.
Honor guards carry the coffin of Rustam Zarifulin, a Kyrgyz soldier who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine, in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, on March 27.
Honor guards carry the coffin of Rustam Zarifulin, a Kyrgyz soldier who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine, in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, on March 27. Photo by VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, Alan Gagloev was inaugurated as president of South Ossetia, a Russian puppet state on Georgian territory recognized by no one but Russia and four other countries. One of his first orders of business is expected to be canceling a planned referendum on unification with Russia that his predecessor had announced earlier this month. Considering that South Ossetia—just 50,000 residents buttressed by thousands of Russian soldiers—only exists at the behest of the Kremlin, the sudden about-face is surprising, to say the least. Together with similar signs of discontent from other regions at the fringes of Moscow’s empire, it suggests that even its most loyal subjects are getting restive.

The first sign of tensions between South Ossetians and the Kremlin came in March, when some 300 South Ossetian soldiers who had been deployed to fight for Russia in Ukraine mutinied, abandoned the invasion, and returned home to South Ossetia. Adding to that shock was the subsequent release by Mediazona of what appeared to be a recorded conversation between some of the returning soldiers and Gagloev’s predecessor as president, Anatoly Bibilov. The soldiers criticized the Russian military leadership and questioned why they had been sent to fight for Russia in Ukraine. The soldiers’ mutiny and opposition to the war set the stage for Bibilov to lose the region’s May 8 election to Gagloev. Before leaving office, however, Bibilov announced that a referendum on unification with Russia would be held on July 17. Gagloev, while he supports unification like every other Kremlin-approved South Ossetian leader, has said the referendum could not proceed without Moscow issuing an invitation for unification first. Following Gagloev’s inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson said there were no plans for such an invitation.

The war isn’t only rippling through South Ossetia. Elsewhere in the traditionally restive Caucasus, signs of discontent with Putin’s war have emerged as well. For now, however, the Kremlin and its local proxies are still in firm control. Nowhere does the level of discontent yet risk a rupture with Moscow.

On Tuesday, Alan Gagloev was inaugurated as president of South Ossetia, a Russian puppet state on Georgian territory recognized by no one but Russia and four other countries. One of his first orders of business is expected to be canceling a planned referendum on unification with Russia that his predecessor had announced earlier this month. Considering that South Ossetia—just 50,000 residents buttressed by thousands of Russian soldiers—only exists at the behest of the Kremlin, the sudden about-face is surprising, to say the least. Together with similar signs of discontent from other regions at the fringes of Moscow’s empire, it suggests that even its most loyal subjects are getting restive.

The first sign of tensions between South Ossetians and the Kremlin came in March, when some 300 South Ossetian soldiers who had been deployed to fight for Russia in Ukraine mutinied, abandoned the invasion, and returned home to South Ossetia. Adding to that shock was the subsequent release by Mediazona of what appeared to be a recorded conversation between some of the returning soldiers and Gagloev’s predecessor as president, Anatoly Bibilov. The soldiers criticized the Russian military leadership and questioned why they had been sent to fight for Russia in Ukraine. The soldiers’ mutiny and opposition to the war set the stage for Bibilov to lose the region’s May 8 election to Gagloev. Before leaving office, however, Bibilov announced that a referendum on unification with Russia would be held on July 17. Gagloev, while he supports unification like every other Kremlin-approved South Ossetian leader, has said the referendum could not proceed without Moscow issuing an invitation for unification first. Following Gagloev’s inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson said there were no plans for such an invitation.

The war isn’t only rippling through South Ossetia. Elsewhere in the traditionally restive Caucasus, signs of discontent with Putin’s war have emerged as well. For now, however, the Kremlin and its local proxies are still in firm control. Nowhere does the level of discontent yet risk a rupture with Moscow.

On the other side of the Caucasus, in Russia proper, lies North Ossetia-Alania, whose residents share a common culture and language with their brethren to the south. There, too, the war has shaken politics. In April, a former North Ossetian fighter for Russia’s puppet republics in eastern Ukraine was charged under a new law against “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” introduced to quash protests and statements against the Ukraine war. North Ossetian activists condemned the charges as politically motivated. More discontent followed over the May 11 charging of another North Ossetian—a survivor of the 2004 Beslan terrorist attack that killed over 300 people—with inciting hatred when he called for Lenin Street in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, to be renamed after a native Ossetian. The Mothers of Beslan, an activist group representing the victims of the attack, condemned the charges.

Putin’s so-far unsuccessful war could be the spark that will set off centrifugal tendencies on Russia’s periphery once again.

The Kremlin nonetheless remains wary of nationalism in the Caucasus, an ethnically diverse region conquered and subjugated by Russia in the 19th century, the scene of horrific deportations and mass killings by its Russian and Soviet overlords, and occasionally restive to this day. Moscow barred marches that had been set to mark the May 21 anniversary of the Imperial Russian army’s genocide of the Circassians, an ethnic group mainly spread across three northwest Caucasus republics—Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia. Hundreds of people gathered in various locations nonetheless, and police arrests were reported. Yet these are unlikely to spark a wider movement, even as reports of genocidal Russian violence against Ukrainians in the ongoing war have Circassian diaspora activists drawing parallels to their own people’s history.

The war has also been felt in Ingushetia, another ostensibly autonomous ethnic republic lying between North Ossetia and Chechnya. The nephew of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the region’s former leader, was reportedly killed in combat in Ukraine last week. Yevkurov and Ingush elders attended his funeral shortly thereafter. The lack of any hint of unrest stands in marked contrast to 2018, when significant local protests broke out when the Kremlin redrew Ingushetia’s boundary in favor of neighboring Chechnya.

In Chechnya, all resistance has long been crushed by two brutal wars and the iron rule of the region’s Putin loyalist strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. His fighters—who are loyal directly to him, not to any Russian commander—have been fighting for Russia in Ukraine. Chechens are also fighting on the Ukrainian side, but they are drawn almost entirely from the Chechen diaspora and do not have a significant power base in the region itself.

In fact, non-Russian minorities from the Caucasus and other fringes of Putin’s empire are overrepresented among Russian forces fighting in Ukraine—and among those killed in Putin’s war for the cause of ethnic Slavic unity. According to public obituaries and social media posts compiled by Mediazona, Dagestan has by far the highest number of total war dead of all of Russia’s administrative regions. Relative to the population, North Ossetia-Alania has almost 400 times the number of war dead compared to Moscow. Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria are vastly overrepresented among Russia’s war deaths as well.

This has invited some comparisons to the early stages of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where soldiers from non-Russian areas were overrepresented in the invasion force. The Soviet army later redeployed troops from the Soviet Central Asian republics away from front-line positions, fearing they were too soft on Afghan civilians.

Some observers even contend that the war in Ukraine—which has seen very little opposition in the Russian heartland—will lead to national awakenings in Russia’s peripheral regions akin to what followed the Soviet war in Afghanistan. That war’s reverberations began with small anti-war demonstrations in Tajikistan in 1982, three years after the invasion. Discontent with the war would also help fuel major unrest in Kazakhstan in 1986, the largest expression of local nationalism in Soviet Central Asia in decades. The chain of events unleashed by the Soviet Union’s unpopular war fostered the first stirrings of an independence movement in Central Asia.

Putin’s centralization of all power in Russia will not be rapidly undone. If the Kremlin’s brutal suppression of the Chechen insurgency failed to spark serious anti-Moscow sentiment elsewhere in Russia, it seems unlikely that the war in Ukraine will do so. What’s more, Putin’s control over Russia’s constituent republics has only grown in recent years. Don’t count on Russia to inevitably fracture and its remaining colonial-era conquests in the Caucasus, Siberia, and elsewhere to break free. Still, events in South Ossetia and elsewhere serve as a reminder that Putin’s so-far unsuccessful war may yet be the spark that will set off centrifugal tendencies on Russia’s periphery once again.

Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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