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Putin's Other Genocides
June 12, 2023
Putin commits genocide against Ukrainians, but he stages others against ethnic minorities across Russia who have been disproportionately recruited as his cannon fodder. Moscow’s soldiers in Ukraine are mostly Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, who live in the Caucasus region (between the Black and Caspian Seas) as well as Mongols, a Central Asian ethnic group, who live in East Asia or North Asia (Siberia). Many were press-ganged into joining then thrown into battle without training or proper equipment. Russia’s 2021 census claims that 91 per cent of its 143.4 million people are Russian, but that’s misleading. The designation “Russian” on census forms is based on what language is spoken, not ethnicity. The reality is that there are tens of millions of members of minorities who live in poverty, are treated as second-class citizens, and now serve and die in large numbers in this war. Journalist and activist Radjana Dugar-Deponte estimated recently that “the probability of Buryatis [Mongols in East Asia] dying in the Ukraine war is 275 times’ higher than for residents of Moscow.” This is not a national war effort. This is ethnic cleansing.
The fact is that the Russian Federation is neither completely Russian, nor is it a federation. It is the remnants of an imperial empire built through conquest by Czars, then perpetuated for generations by communist dictatorships. The country is riddled with bias and exploitation by a Moscow-St. Petersburg elite which sucks dry the wealth derived from resources and labor in its vast hinterland where an estimated 190 ethnic minorities live, including 800,000 who admitted they were Ukrainian in the last census. Each of Russia’s dozens of regions has a form of localized self-government, but the boundaries are designed to bifurcate nationalities so that they do not represent a majority of residents. These entities are run by Moscow-appointed administrators, and the purse strings and policies are controlled by the Kremlin.
The discriminatory nature of Putin’s conscription in this war has been documented and is activating separatist movements across the Russian Federation that will come back to haunt Moscow after its war in Ukraine is lost. These minorities regard Ukrainians as another “colonized” minority within Russia that’s been trying for decades to liberate itself. Some have decided to take action to help Kyiv such as Vladyslav Ammosov, a Yakut from Siberia, who left Russian intelligence after 15 years as an officer. He now heads a group of commandos from other ethnic minorities who are pro-Ukraine and plan to attack Russia from within. “I was an imperialist who fell for propaganda,” he said in an April interview, and then added a warning that while serving in Chechnya “I was taught to destroy entire countries.”
Russia has kept its minorities poor and powerless. But this terrible war with its stark injustices is a potential nation-buster. Not only are the minorities bearing the brunt, but Moscow appears to have targeted for conscription those regions with large proportions of ethnic majorities as well as burgeoning secessionist movements. Clearly the strategy is to punish or weaken ethnic aspirations wherever they have surfaced. Worst hit has been Buryatia, a mountainous republic in eastern Siberia on the border of Mongolia with 975,200 people. But its people are starting to fight back through their Free Buryatia Foundation. “We have been disproportionately hit hard and know that statistically Dagestan, Tuva Republic and Buryat Republic, where minorities live, have the highest death toll in this war,” its Vice President Victoria Maladaeva told Al Jazeera.
“We are the first ethnic anti-war organization in Russia. We also helped establish anti-war organizations in other regions like Tuva, Kalmykia, Udmurtia, Sakha [Siberian and Central Asian] and share information on social media about which countries Russians can travel to visa-free. We are assisting fighting-age men to flee the country as well as gather data on conscription.”
In Siberia’s Buryatia, men have been dragged from their homes at night and forced to join, she said. They were given two weeks’ training, and told to buy their own helmets and sleeping bags and warm clothing. In Dagestan, in the Caucasus, where there are small, endangered ethnic groups, the Russians harvested men for the war. “We see this as an ethnic genocide,” said Maladaeva. “In Sakha Republic (in the northwestern Arctic), small communities cannot get medical help unless they pay for a helicopter, but during the [military] mobilization the government flew helicopters in to get their men.”
Casualties are “frightening” but hidden, say activists, and the carnage and caskets bringing home loved ones has made it clear to tens of millions of Russian residents from ethnic groups that Ukraine’s war is about Moscow trying to destroy another Russian targeted “colony” or “ethnic group” like theirs. The number of deaths has led to the creation of new civil society organizations in East Asian regions such as Yakutia, Buryatia, and Kalmykia as well as in the Muslim Central Asian regions. These groups organize war protests and educate soldiers about their legal rights. The groups are “an absolutely new phenomenon,” commented an activist. Some have volunteered to help Ukraine in uniform.
Besides Chechnya, others from Central Asian regions such as Dagestan, Volgograd, North Ossetia, Krasnodar, Bashkortostan, to name a few, have begun to organize and volunteer. Mistreated by Moscow for generations, these areas have been restive for some time. For instance, two bloody independence uprisings in Chechnya were brutally quashed by Moscow in recent years, and hundreds of thousands of Central Asian men dodged the draft after the February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine and fled to Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Baltics, and other former Soviet Republics.
Thousands of Chechens are involved in this war against Russia. “They came to fight Russia, and to avenge the deaths of their loved ones and friends killed in Chechnya. Not wanting to sit in the trenches, they've found work in intelligence and sabotage. At least five Chechen units are fighting for Ukraine, with more than 1,000 troops in each unit — and their number is growing,” wrote Worldcrunch, an independent blog by investigative journalists who cover many world events. (There are also 12,000 Chechens paid to fight against Ukraine in this war who are members of a paramilitary organization run by the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov.)
Ukraine has courted and supports minorities who share its cause. For instance, Ukraine’s parliament declared support this year for an independent Chechnya. Ukraine’s Minister of Defense recently appealed to Bashkirs and others from the Southern Ural Mountains to “take your people [soldiers] away from Ukraine, the Kremlin has lost”. And on May 19, President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Arab leaders in Jeddah and described Moscow’s mistreatment toward Muslim Tatars in Crimea and millions more Muslims who live in Russia, then asked for their support against Moscow. He said Muslims, like Ukrainians, deserve to be free from Russia’s imperialism.
Another nation-state, Mongolia, a former Russian vassal state that’s now independent, democratic, and capitalist, has also waded into Russia’s genocidal treatment of millions of Mongol minorities in neighboring Siberia. In a televised address a few months ago, former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj called on Putin to stop the war. “I know since the start of this bloody war, ethnic minorities who live in Russia suffered the most,” he said. “The Buryat Mongols, Tuva Mongols, and Kalmyk Mongols have suffered a lot. They have been used as nothing more than cannon fodder.”
His statement echoed Zelensky’s in Jeddah: “Most of those who suffer repression in occupied Crimea are Muslims,” he said, then spoke about Russian oppression against Muslims in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, parts of Africa and, by inference, inside Russia. “I greet everyone who agrees to join us in the path to justice. The time of empires has stopped. The struggle will never end and Ukraine proves it.”