It may seem baffling to Westerners that Russians still accept conscription, mobilization, or register to serve in the military, especially given the horrific battlefield casualties since Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

While it’s impossible to know how many citizens of the Russian Federation have died in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the numbers are vast. US analysts estimated the total was around 300,000 in August, with at least 120,000 dead.

Some of these have been convicts in the Wagner mercenary group or the Russian army’s Storm-Z, funneled through the military meat grinder. Some were the higher-quality personnel killed and wounded in Russia’s early assaults following the 2022 all-out invasion.

But those do not fully explain the steep numbers. The greatest burden of Russia’s imperial war of expansion has overwhelmingly fallen on the captive peoples of the Russian Federation.

Ethnic minorities have borne the brunt of the country’s mobilization drive this past year, with wealthier Russians from western urban centers such as Moscow being less heavily impacted than individuals e.g. from Russia’s Far Eastern regions.

More than 160 different ethnic groups reside inside Russia’s borders. Of the 31,665 named individuals who died in the war from February to September 2022, according to figures collated by Mediazona and BBC Russian, by far the highest proportion came from places like eastern Siberia’s Buryatia, Bashkortostan — just north of the Kazakh border — and Kuban, in the North Caucasus.

During that period, just over 300 dead were registered from Moscow (population 13 million), almost 1,000 were recorded in predominantly Muslim Bashkortostan (population 4 million), and more than 900 from Buryatia (population less than 1 million.)

“For such Asian ethnicities as Buryats, Tuvans, and Kazakhs, the risk of dying in this war is several times greater than for ethnic Russians,” noted a paper entitled Russia’s Ethnic Minority Casualties of the 2022 Invasion of Ukraine, published in May.

Mariya Vyushkova, co-founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, and one of the authors of the paper, has mapped mortality statistics from Russia’s farther-flung regions.

“The most overrepresented groups are Tuvans, Buryats, and Kazakhs; and also the so-called Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East (Evenks, Nanai, Chukchi, Nenets, Shors, etc.),” Vyushkova told this author. “Recently, the geography of the casualties has shifted from the Far East and Siberia westward (towards the Urals and Volga region), and Bashkirs also became overrepresented. Chechens are also overrepresented.”

She has also previously noted that Buryats living in the region beyond Baikal have at times accounted for up to 25 percent of deaths from the region, despite the fact they only constitute around 6 percent of the population.  

While the Russian authorities have certainly used intensive coercion to find recruits (for example, men in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine, many of whom have simply been taken from the streets without any form of official process) it is also using financial and other incentives to target Russian ethnic minority citizens, naturalized Russian citizens (and potential citizens).

In poorer regions where bases are located (such as Buryatia and Tuva, for instance), military service is considered an attractive economic opportunity due to deep-rooted poverty and unemployment. “Systemic discrimination of the Indigenous people, such as Buryats and Tuvans, in Russia also affects their economic mobility,” Vyushkova said.

Other methods include approaching Central Asian migrants specifically to fight in Ukraine with the promise of fast-track Russian citizenship, according to a recent UK Ministry of Defence briefing published on September 3, along with recent reports of Central Asian migrants being targeted for military registration during raids.

Meanwhile, “Uzbek migrant builders in [the Russia-occupied Ukrainian port city] Mariupol have reportedly had their passports confiscated upon arrival and been coerced to join the Russian military,” reported the UK MoD.  

Russia’s methods can swell into new problems. In October, two soldiers opened fire on other recruits at a Russian military base in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, with one of the perpetrators — a 24-year-old Tajik — having worked in a Moscow restaurant when the previous month’s military mobilization order whisked him away to war.

“[There are instances] where [migrants] are detained on the street by the police or the national guard, beaten, [given] electric shocks to their genitals, and told to sign up for the army. Of course, they sign up,” Valentina Chupik, the director of human rights organization Tong Jahoni, said at the time of the shooting.

Modern Russia has a dark history of abuse against its indigenous people and ethnic minorities, with many suffering the effects of severe poverty, man-made environmental degradation, and in the northern reaches of Siberia, global warming too.

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It approach to such issues can be partly understood through the appointment of ex-FSB spy Igor Barinov as head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs (FADN.) An ardent advocate of internet censorship, his approach to ethnic affairs lays greater emphasis on counter-terrorism than protecting indigenous rights. Under his leadership, FADN has created a register of representatives of indigenous peoples that is a sinister echo of China’s Uyghur registry.

Meanwhile, at the end of August, Russian legislator Mikhail Matveyev introduced a draft bill that could strip naturalized Russian citizens of their passports should they evade military service – while Russian laws already stipulate that as of April, acquired citizenship can be rescinded in the event of an individual “discrediting the Russian military”.

More broadly, Russia’s minorities are still subjected to racism and discrimination in the form of criticism for using their native tongues. Across the 20th century, Soviet enforcement of Russian literacy rendered local languages almost extinct – a practice also imposed on Kazakhs and Ukrainians while under Soviet occupation.

“Russian is such a colonial language,” Cambridge sociologist Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergen has noted on Twitter. “Our stories, of Tatars, of Sakha, of Kazakhs and everyone who like me, doesn’t identify with ethnicity, one place or one culture, are incredibly the same.” Non-Russian languages and cultures are seen as “less important in the colonial taxonomy,” she said.

Vyushkova explained that the Kremlin aimed to keep a lid on possible anti-war feelings by recruiting from more remote areas. “The goal is to avoid political risks associated with the urban centers, with a traditionally more politically active population and higher protest activity, being affected by the war,” said Vyushkova.

This dark history also partly explains why exploring the “language issue” in Ukraine is less important than some might think (many older people who use Russian in Ukraine were also essentially bullied out of using their native Ukrainian during the Soviet era.)

“There is a lot in common between how Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture and language are devalued and erased by the Russian propaganda, and how the identities and cultures of Russia’s indigenous people were devalued and erased after they had been conquered,” said Vyuskova.

“Ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine is the result of an imperial mindset where the Russian empire has the total moral right to subdue a rebellious province (and Ukraine is considered to be one) by force.”

Russia continues to draw manpower directly from former Soviet republics too, with the promises of comparatively high pay. “Online adverts have been observed in Armenia and Kazakhstan offering 495,000 rubles ($5,140) in initial payments and salaries from 190,000 rubles ($1,973),” the UK MoD briefing noted.

It takes a certain level of cynicism in the 21st century to force colonized people and their ancestors to expend their lives in pursuit of Russia’s imperial goals. But given Russia’s history, it’s not surprising.  

Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East’ (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and is now based between London and the Baltic states, working as a journalist, editor, and translator.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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