‘Danger to the regime?’ Russia faces ethnic minority anti-mobilization protests
A billboard promoting contract army service with an image of a serviceman and a slogan that reads "Serving Russia is a real job" is seen in St Petersburg on September 20, 2022. © Olga Maltseva, AFP

Russia is seeing a wave of demonstrations in areas with high ethnic minority populations against President Vladimir Putin’s call for “partial mobilization”. Analysts say this approach is undermining the Kremlin’s legitimacy among these groups and is likely to give Russia poorly motivated soldiers for its war against Ukraine.

In Russia’s Caucasian Dagestan region near the Georgian border, protesters managed to block traffic on September 25. More than 7,000 kilometers away, in the Buryatia region just north of the Mongolian border, a group called the Free Buryatia Foundation has been set up to help reservists avoid the “partial mobilization” Putin announced after Ukraine’s lightning gains in the east.

The far-flung Arctic region of Yakutia in northeastern Siberia also saw fierce resistance to Putin’s plans to send 300,000 extra troops to Ukraine. Protesters gathered in the regional capital Yakutsk to perform traditional dances – while shouting “no to war!” and “no to genocide!”

Minorities paying ‘disproportionate price’

The latter rallying cry reflects a growing concern that Moscow is disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities and people from Russia’s poorest regions to send more troops to Ukraine.

“There’s nothing partial about the mobilization in Buryatia,” Alexandra Garmzhapova, president of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told Reuters. Buryatia is one of the most impoverished regions in Russia.

In Crimea – a Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 – Moscow has pressed members of the Tatar minority into the army first. “80 percent of summonses for mobilization in Crimea were issued to Crimean Tatars,” Russian journalist and activist Osman Pashaev pointed out via Facebook.

“It’s clear that ethnic minorities in the poorest regions are paying a disproportionate price – not only in the mobilization effort, but in the war in Ukraine in general,” said Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military issues and consultant at the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre.

Moscow does not publish complete data on its losses at the front. However, “even with the incomplete official information, you can see that regions with large ethnic minorities – such as Buryatia or the [nearby] Tuva region – have lost a lot more men relative to their total population than Russia’s core regions,” added Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at Bath University.

Socioeconomic factors partly account for this disparity. “In those regions, the relatively attractive pay the Russian military offers is often the only way out of poverty,” noted Caress Schenk, a political scientist at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. This factor means the populations of these peripheral regions were over-represented in the Russian army “even before the war in Ukraine”, Hall noted.

Putin’s “partial mobilization” has only amplified this phenomenon. “Seeing as they tend to be poor, these minorities often cannot pay the bribes necessary to avoid conscription,” Schenk said.

“In large urban centers like Moscow and St Petersburg, conscripts can bribe recruiting officers, claiming they are students [a group exempt from mobilisation], or can use their connections to leave the country,” Hawn said. In Buryatia, by contrast, it seems the best chance for men of military age to avoid conscription comes from going and hiding in the woods.

Nevertheless, in addition to these factors, there is also a political motivation for targeting ethnic minorities. “In Putin’s eyes, it’s all about ensuring his regime survives,” said Adrian Florea, a senior lecturer in Central and Eastern European Studies at Glasgow University. “The Kremlin is banking on the idea that minorities are much less likely to organize large-scale demonstrations than people in major urban centers.”

Putin is also leaning on the local governors of these regions – politicians appointed by him, who owe their careers to him – to apply the mobilization order and snuff out any protest movements that emerge.

And there is another factor: “Politicians in Moscow don’t care a great deal about the fates of these ethnic minorities thousands of miles away,” Hall put it. So by exerting pressure on the country’s outlying regions, Moscow is demonstrating a certain form of “Russian imperialism, which is not without an aspect of racism towards these groups”, Hall continued.

A dangerous game for Putin?

This two-speed “partial mobilization” – with outlying regions bearing the brunt – is one of the reasons why “there are more and more people who say the country will never be like it was before the invasion of Ukraine”, Schenk said.

From an economic point of view, “a significant part of the working-age population will be out of action indefinitely as they fight, and that will cause further economic damage to regions that are already Russia’s poorest”, Florea said.

By pursuing this strategy, “the Kremlin is undermining its own legitimacy among groups who perceive they are being treated unfairly”, Florea added.

This could prove a dangerous game for Putin. In Dagestan, for example, “you’ve got 30 or so different ethnic minorities who agree on pretty much nothing, but they’ve found a common enemy to protest against”, Hall observed.

However, “while there are certainly people in Russia who would like to see these anti-mobilization protest groups develop into a bigger, more general protest movement against Putin’s rule, it’s too early to say whether this can happen”, Schenk said.

“It depends on how long the war goes on,” Hall said. “If it’s over quickly, everything will be fine for Putin. But if it drags on and the protests spread to less poor regions, with larger, more influential minorities, like Tatarstan, it could be a bigger danger to the regime.”

With regard to the situation on the battlefield, prioritizing reservists from ethnic minorities will have a “negative effect on Russia’s prospects against Ukraine”, Hawn said – arguing that Putin is repeating the same mistake Russia made a century ago, when the army relied heavily on regiments composed entirely of ethnic minorities. As soon as the White Russians started losing in the 1917-22 Russian Civil War, these regiments were among the first to turn against their tsarist former masters. “That’s why the Soviets were always careful to mix ethnic backgrounds in their battalions,” Hawn said.

Thus, the reservists Russia is sending to the front are not only poorly trained and equipped – they also are relatively unmotivated to die for the Russian motherland.

This article was adapted from the original in French.