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Russia’s Minorities Don’t Want to Be Putin’s Foot Soldiers

A hasty mobilization is sparking fear and resistance.

By , a British freelance writer on politics and culture in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
A billboard promoting army service is seen in Russia.
A billboard promoting army service is seen in Russia.
A food delivery courier cycles past a billboard promoting army service in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Oct. 5. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” to replenish the country’s faltering ranks in Ukraine. The order has brought the exploitation of Russia’s ethnic minorities into harrowing focus. Despite the lack of reliable statistical evidence, numerous reports on Twitter and Telegram from the country’s ethnic republics—so-called because they nominally represent Indigenous ethnic groups—such as Buryatia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Bashkortostan, paint a disturbing, if fragmented, picture of the impact the mobilization order has on Russia’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Putin’s regime can send Buryats, Chechens, and Dagestanis to die in Ukraine because of centuries of violent colonial expansion. The first official Russian incursion into Siberia occurred in 1581, but the subjugation of the immense eastern region took centuries of military occupation, economic exploitation, and settler colonialism beforehand to accomplish. No less violent was Russia’s invasion of the North Caucasus in 1817, which led to decades of bloody conflict and genocide against the Circassian people.

The modern Russian state’s blatant disregard for non-ethnic Russian lives is the logical continuation of the imperial ideology developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The most recent manifestations of Russian violence against the region are the First and Second Chechen Wars, in the 1990s and 2000s. “People remember what Russia did to Chechnya,” wrote Circassian-American Voice of America journalist Fatima Tlis over email. “It was a message to all other nationalities under Russian occupation.”

On Sept. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” to replenish the country’s faltering ranks in Ukraine. The order has brought the exploitation of Russia’s ethnic minorities into harrowing focus. Despite the lack of reliable statistical evidence, numerous reports on Twitter and Telegram from the country’s ethnic republics—so-called because they nominally represent Indigenous ethnic groups—such as Buryatia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Bashkortostan, paint a disturbing, if fragmented, picture of the impact the mobilization order has on Russia’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Putin’s regime can send Buryats, Chechens, and Dagestanis to die in Ukraine because of centuries of violent colonial expansion. The first official Russian incursion into Siberia occurred in 1581, but the subjugation of the immense eastern region took centuries of military occupation, economic exploitation, and settler colonialism beforehand to accomplish. No less violent was Russia’s invasion of the North Caucasus in 1817, which led to decades of bloody conflict and genocide against the Circassian people.

The modern Russian state’s blatant disregard for non-ethnic Russian lives is the logical continuation of the imperial ideology developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The most recent manifestations of Russian violence against the region are the First and Second Chechen Wars, in the 1990s and 2000s. “People remember what Russia did to Chechnya,” wrote Circassian-American Voice of America journalist Fatima Tlis over email. “It was a message to all other nationalities under Russian occupation.”

Experts do not know exactly how many men Russia has drafted in its “partial mobilization,” but evidence from local activists and social media suggests it is well above the 300,000 soldiers announced by Putin and that the hardest hit are not ethnic Russians—in whose defense the Kremlin claims to have launched its brutal invasion—but ethnic minorities. Even before Feb. 24, these community members, whom—due to structural and historical inequalities—are generally poorer and less connected than ethnic Russians, are more likely to be swept up in a conscription system than those with pull or money to do everything possible to avoid it.

Data collected by the independent Russian media outlet iStories shows that Buryats are among those most severely impacted by the mobilization order, stirring fear and desperation in the eastern Siberian republic. “Everyone is trying to leave but from today it is nearly impossible,” one ethnically Buryat woman outside of Russia told FP over Twitter, who asked not to be named for the safety of her family still in the country. “Men … are afraid to leave their villages; many have gone to the forests. There are rumors that [the authorities] will search the forests as well. There are also rumors that voenkomat [military enlistment office] staff are deleting the names of their relatives and adding those of random people.”

Despite Kremlin promises that the decree would only affect reservists with combat experience and that students would be exempt, the next day, reports emerged of students being pulled out of Buryat State University by Russia’s National Guard, of men in their 50s receiving draft notices, and of recruitment officers “combing through the villages” to draft any man they could find. These disturbing reports recall historical colonial trauma, wrote Alexandra Garmazhapova , founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, over Telegram. “Buryats have faced monstrous repression. … During the Stalinist repressions in 1937, all the top leaders of the Buryat [Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics] were shot or exiled to concentration camps. Thousands of people were arrested. There is not a single Buryat family that has not lost relatives because of these repressions.”

Dagestanis—whose mass anti-mobilization protests have made international headlines—are another ethnic minority bearing the brunt of the conscription drive. As of May, soldiers from Dagestan accounted for the largest number of confirmed fatalities on the Russian side. Images of Dagestanis, primarily women, bravely confronting police and recruitment officers have dented the traditional image of the republic as politically quiescent and pro-Putin.

Russia’s forced mobilization of its ethnic minorities has also already impacted relations with its neighbors. As the former Soviet Union’s so-called successor state, Russia has enjoyed continued cultural and political dominance in the region. Citizens from its “near abroad” continue to speak its language and flock to its cities for work and education. The invasion of Ukraine, however, has caused many of these countries to reevaluate their ties with the former imperial metropole. The mobilization order has catalyzed this process.

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, has been distancing itself from Russia since Feb. 24. It was the first Collective Security Treaty Organization member state to rule out sending troops to join the “special operation” and, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reiterated in Putin’s presence that Kazakhstan would not recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states. According to political sociologist Diana Kudaibergen, “Tokayev was clear in his June speech in St. Petersburg that his country supports Ukrainian territorial integrity. … He’d face great backlash if he agreed to any involvement [in the war] from his own people.” Kazakhstan’s interior ministry reports that as many as 200,000 Russians have entered Kazakhstan since its mobilization announcement, some moving on to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Despite regularly experiencing racism and discrimination in Russia, Kazakhs themselves have shown remarkable compassion, with reports of free food and accommodations being offered to Russians fleeing the draft. Moscow can no longer count on the obedience of its former colony. “This support is given without an ethnic lens,” Kudaibergen told FP over Twitter. “Grassroots organizations in Kazakhstan are literally helping anyone from Russia, they don’t care about ethnicity.”

Mongolia—once a Soviet satellite state—has garnered widespread praise for its support of Russians fleeing the draft, particularly of Indigenous people from the Far East, with many private citizens self-organizing to provide food and shelter to those crossing the border. “We feel very akin to the Buryat people,” said Mongolian journalist Anand Tumurtogoo, highlighting the cultural similarities and cross-border family ties between Mongolia and the Siberian republic.

Sandwiched between two superpowers, the country has long sought to remain geopolitically neutral. “We have always wanted to say that we are the ‘Switzerland of Asia,’” Tumurtogoo said. “But when the war started, the intelligentsia and many people on social media demanded that the government to choose a side.” He added that, while Mongolian popular culture has traditionally portrayed them in a positive light, people are beginning to understand the negative stereotypes that ethnic Russians have of them. “I hope that this message comes across more,” he added. “Ethnic Russians don’t care about Mongolians—they see us as dirt.”

Telegram channels run by ethnic minority groups see the forced mobilization as deliberate imperial policy. On one channel, the Free Nations of Russia Forum—a platform calling for the decolonization of Russia—referred to the mobilization order as “part of the imperial policy of genocide that has been conducted against these [minority] peoples for centuries. Putin’s regime has declared war not only on Ukraine but on all peoples, regions, and citizens of the Russian Federation.” Similarly, Idel-Ural—a civic movement aiming for the independence of the peoples of the Volga region—posted: “The Nazi Empire decided to tell the whole world about its terrorist leanings. … Genocide of everyone and everything. This is the ‘Russian World.’”

The disproportionate mobilization of ethnic minorities is part of the same imperial ideology that dehumanizes and justifies the violence against Ukrainians. In Garmazhapova ’s words, “Putin is pursuing a consistent imperial policy. … [H]e wants to turn Ukraine into a colony of the Russian Empire, and the empire always throws national minorities into the meat grinder first.” The more widespread the belief among Russian ethnic minorities that they and Ukrainians are victims of Russian colonial violence, the more opportunities there will be for cross-border anti-colonial solidarity. Circassians outside of Russia, Tlis said, have already made the connection. “Circassians are especially enraged that Russia is forcing the descendants of the same people it drove to the verge of extinction to fight on its behalf in a genocidal war it has been waging to exterminate another innocent nation,” she wrote.

The forced mobilization of these communities is galvanizing anti-colonial sentiment and solidarity both within Russia and beyond its borders. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to this sentiment among Russia’s minorities, acknowledging in particular the protests in Dagestan. “Dagestanis do not have to die in Ukraine in a vile and disgraceful war of Russia—nor do Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Circassians, and any other peoples who came under the Russian flag.” Ukraine’s parliament is also spurring on this sentiment, just last week considering a draft law on the recognition of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria—a short-lived de facto state born of the First Chechen War—with parliamentarian Oleksiy Goncharenko calling for “the right to self-determination of people enslaved and colonized by this prison of peoples: the Russian Empire in the form of the Russian Federation.” As rumors about border closures and a national crackdown swirl, one thing is certain: The cruel, colonial logic underpinning Russian society is deadly both at home and abroad. Dismantling it will be the work of generations.

Emily Couch is a British freelance writer who has published on politics and culture in Eastern Europe and Eurasia for The Moscow Times, Index on Censorship, and the Kennan Institute.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

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