“I used to believe that the war in Chechnya was fought against terrorists.” Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, sentences like that have flooded my inbox and social media feeds. Ranging from acquaintances to close friends, the authors admit that, until February 2022, they either accepted the official version or didn’t give much thought to the truth about Russia’s wars against Chechnya, my home republic.
Now, they are comparing the actions of Russian troops in Ukrainian towns and villages with those in Chechen settlements. They are digging through the archive and rewatching interviews with Dzhokhar Dudaev (president of the Chechen Republic from 1991 to 1996) in which he predicted events in Crimea and the war with Ukraine.
Chechnya is not the only region of Russia that has seen itself reflected in Russia’s latest war. People from other regions, which consider themselves slighted by Moscow on ethnic, territorial, or economic grounds, are now also airing their grievances. The feeling isn’t new – a decade ago the Russian journalist Olesya Gerasimenko wrote a series of reports on regional separatism, which were later published under the title “Not a United Russia“. What’s changed since the outbreak of war in Ukraine is that groups advocating secession or autonomous status are flourishing.
Two months after Russia’s invasion, Alexandra Garmazhapova, a journalist from the Republic of Buryatia, in eastern Siberia, published a post on her Instagram linking Ukraine to minorities in the Russian Federation.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin), you sent Russian soldiers to Ukraine to protect the local population from the Nazis. Who will protect the poor Russian regions from you?” she asked. By claiming its goal was to “denazify” Ukraine, the Kremlin had provoked a discussion about the rights of minorities in Russia, she said. “You wanted to discuss the infringement of the Russian language in Ukraine? Okay, let’s discuss the situation of the Udmurt language in Russia,” she wrote.
The post gathered more than 28,000 likes and over 2,000 comments, demonstrating to Garmazhapova that many people in Russian society share her views. “The talk of decolonization is overdue, and the Kremlin broke the story with its own hands,” she said in an interview. “They wanted to take Kyiv in three days and create another colony of the Russian Empire, but the effect was the opposite. The question now is whether the empire itself will survive.”
The discussion about the infringement of national minority rights has gained momentum and, in the year since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, several dozen regional organizations and movements have emerged to advocate for re-federalization, decolonization, or outright secession.
Telegram channels with names including “Kostroma Republic”, “Siberian Liberation Movement” and “Ingria Will Be Free” have sprung up to highlight the problems of the regions and their future, either as part of Russia or outside. While the popularity of such channels ranges from a couple of dozen to several thousand subscribers, what they have in common is almost total opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Most of the leaders of these movements and organizations do not live in Russia. Some left before the war began, while others fled persecution because of their anti-war stance. Some have activists in Russia who communicate with people anonymously, monitor public opinion, and help collect statistical data.
This rise of national and regional movements was enabled in part because the West, for the first time, listened to the claims of Russia’s ethnic minorities. At the end of January 2023, a Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum was held in the European Parliament, with speakers including representatives and supporters of Ingermanlandia, Ingushetia, the Urals Republic, and three dozen other regions and ethnicities. The declared purpose of the forum was “changing the administrative and territorial structure of post-Putin Russia”. Holding a forum with such an agenda in a European Parliament building two years ago is hard to imagine.
It also helped that Ukrainians began to talk about their attitude to ethnic minorities in Russia, specifically that Kyiv had officially recognized Chechnya as an occupied territory. Ukraine’s attention was an important factor in bringing the problems of Russia’s ethnic minorities to an international audience, Garmazhapova said.
“When they saw how Russia was chasing its ethnic minorities to fight against them, they began to analyze and ask why these particular people?” she said. “Why are there almost no people from Moscow and St. Petersburg among Russian contract servicemen? They began to unravel the tangle.”
The Ukrainian media provided a platform for her at the beginning of the war, and it was the Ukrainian audience that watched and distributed her speeches about ethnic minorities. To understand what was going on inside Russian society, Ukrainians turned to oppressed groups and gave them an international platform.
The prospects for Russia’s anti-colonial movements, and the extent of their support among minority groups themselves, are not yet clear, but one thing is evident: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given Russia’s ethnic minorities an audience for their grievances for the first time since the early days of the post-Soviet era.
Milana Mazaeva is an in-residence fellow with the Democracy Fellowship program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Milana is a Chechen journalist from Russia, born and raised in Grozny. Milana has a bachelor’s degree in German language teaching and a master’s degree in Journalism.
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.