A week after the start of the partial Russian mobilization to strengthen the front in Ukraine, demonstrations are increasing in the poorest Russian regions and where ethnic minorities live. They denounce a Russian “imperialist” approach to the war effort, of which the ethnic minorities of the vast federation would be the first victims.
In Dagestan, a Russian republic near the border with Georgia, protesters blocked traffic on a highway on Sunday, September 25. More than 7,000 km away, in the Buryatia region of northern Mongolia, a group called the Free Buryatia Foundation has formed to help reservists escape recruiting officers who have come to enforce the partial mobilization decree.
This movement of resistance to Vladimir Putin’s decision to send 300,000 additional soldiers to the Ukrainian front has not spared the Arctic region of Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia either. Demonstrators gathered in the regional capital, Yakutsk, to perform traditional dances there, proclaiming “no to war” and … “no to genocide”, says the daily The Moscow Times, blocked in Russia since April.
Ethnic minorities on the front line
These slogans reflect the growing concern of part of the country, which believes that the government is targeting in priority and disproportionately the ethnic minorities and the populations of the poorest regions.
“In Buryatia, there is no question of ‘partial’ mobilization. It is a total mobilization that we are witnessing”, affirmed Alexandra Garmazhapova, president of the Free Buryatia Foundation, in an interview granted to the agency of Reuters press. Located in the far east of Russia, Buryatia is one of the poorest regions.
In Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, the first to be ordered to join the army are part of the minority of the Tatars. “Today, 80% of the mobilization orders distributed in Crimea are addressed to Tatars [qui ne représentent pourtant que 20 % de la population régionale]“, stresses on Facebook Osman Pashaev, a Russian journalist and activist.
“It is clear that ethnic minorities in the poorest regions are paying a disproportionate price not only for the mobilization effort, but for the war in Ukraine in general,” said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian military issues and an outside consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center.
Moscow does not publish precise data on its losses at the front, but “even with incomplete official information, it is known that the regions where ethnic minorities are significant, such as Buryatia or the Tuva region [aussi au nord de la Mongolie, NDLR]have lost far more men, relative to their total population, than the central regions of Russia,” adds Stephen Hall, Russia specialist at the University of Bath (south-west England).
How to escape conscription?
A situation that can be explained, first of all, structurally. “In these regions, the attractive salary of a soldier may be the only way out of poverty,” notes Caress Schenk, political scientist at Nazarbayev University in Astana (Kazakhstan). Hence an overrepresentation of these populations from peripheral regions in the ranks of the army “even before the start of the war in Ukraine”, recalls Stephen Hall.
The “partial” mobilization order only accentuated this tendency. Indeed, “these minorities, often poor, do not have the means to pay bribes to avoid conscription”, notes Caress Schenk.
“In St. Petersburg, Moscow or other large urban centers, conscripts can bribe recruiting officers, claim that they are studying [les étudiants sont exemptés de mobilisation, NDLR]or use their network to leave the country”, enumerates Jeff Hawn. In the region of Buryatia, the best chance for men of fighting age to escape the army remains to hide in the woods, underlines the American magazine Foreign Policy.
Alongside these factors, there is also a political will to target ethnic minorities as a priority. “For Vladimir Putin, it is quite simply a question of ensuring the survival of the regime”, underlines Adrian Florea, specialist in the post-Soviet space at the University of Glasgow. “The Kremlin is banking on the fact that minorities are much less likely to organize large-scale protests than residents of large urban centers,” he adds.
For this expert, the Russian president also expects from the local governors of these regions, whom he has appointed and who owe him everything, extra zeal to apply the mobilization order and to effectively contain any beginning of protest.
And then “Moscow politicians do not have much to do with the fate of these ethnic minorities who are thousands of kilometers away”, assures Stephen Hall. This pressure exerted by the central power on the regions on the outskirts of the country “is an illustration of Russian imperialism which is not free from a background of racism with regard to these populations”, adds this specialist.
A danger for Vladimir Putin?
This “partial” mobilization at two speeds is one of the reasons why “there are more and more people in Russia who say that the country will never be like before the war”, says Caress Schenk. From an economic point of view, first of all, “a large part of the local population of working age will find themselves displaced for an indefinite period, which will further penalize regions that are already among the poorest”, estimates Adrian Florea.
By pursuing this strategy, the “Kremlin is undermining its own legitimacy with populations who believe they are being treated unfairly”, continues the specialist from the University of Glasgow. A game that can be dangerous for Vladimir Putin. In Dagestan, for example, “there are about thirty different ethnic minorities who agree on almost nothing, but have found a common enemy against whom to protest”, underlines Stephen Hall.
For now, the threat to power is very relative. “There are certainly people in Russia who would like these protest groups against the mobilization order to grow into a more general movement challenging the power of Vladimir Putin. But it’s too early to say if that can happen.” , believes Caress Schenk.
“It will all depend on how long the war lasts. If it ends quickly, I think everything will be back to normal. If it lasts, and the protests spread to wealthier regions with more influential minorities, like Tatarstan [entre Moscou et le Kazakhstan]the danger would become greater for the regime,” said Stephen Hall.
In the meantime, this priority use of reservists from ethnic minorities “will also have a negative effect for Moscow in its war against Ukraine”, assures Jeff Hawn. For him, Vladimir Putin repeats the error of the end of the tsarist era, when the counter-revolutionary army relied heavily on regiments made up solely of ethnic minorities. As soon as the civil war (1917-1922) turned to the disadvantage of the tsarist camp, these regiments were among the first to no longer want to fight for a cause in which they did not believe. “This is why the Soviets have always been careful to mix ethnic origins within their battalions”, notes Jeff Hawn.
The reservists that Russia sends to the front are therefore not only badly trained and badly equipped, but because of this policy of mobilization faithful to the old imperialist traditions of Moscow, they risk having a very relative motivation to die for the Russian motherland. .