The War in Ukraine Is Decimating Russia’s Asian Minorities

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The War in Ukraine Is Decimating Russia’s Asian Minorities

Putin’s “partial mobilization” is continuing a brutal legacy of colonization – as well as resistance – among the country’s minority groups.

The War in Ukraine Is Decimating Russia’s Asian Minorities

Russians, mostly men, lineup to get a Kazakh registration after crossing the border into Kazakhstan from the Mariinsky border crossing, about 400 kilometers south of Chelyabinsk, in Russia, to Kazakhstan’s town Uralsk, 1400 kilometers east of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, September 28, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo

On September 21, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia to revitalize the battered Russian army fighting in Ukraine.

While the Kremlin promised to mobilize only able-bodied reservists with military experience, it already looks like a total mobilization in many places. Dr. Samuel Ramani, an Oxford-based researcher and author of several books on Russia, believes that the mobilization might even “constitute ethnic cleansing.”

The ethnic cleansing concern is rooted in the fact that the draft appears to be uniquely merciless in the impoverished communities of Russian Asians and other ethnic minorities.

The Diplomat spoke to Aldar Erendjenov, a representative of the Free Kalmykia foundation – an activist group aiding the Kalmyks fleeing Russia. Kalmykia is Europe’s only majority-Buddhist region, located in southwest Russia. Erendjenov told us that “we see the disproportionality with a naked eye… from our [ethnic minority] regions we had three, four times more men taken [than from Slavic regions].” Erendjenov noted that some villages in Kalmykia had been depopulated by roughly 20 percent since the beginning of the mobilization.

Russian Asians are tremendously diverse; they include Turkic Tuvans, Tungusic Evenks, Mongolic Kalmyks, and many others. They are also spread geographically, from the Kalmyks near the north Caucasus to the Aleuts split by the Russian border with Alaska. But one of the key things that unite Russian Asians is that the expanding Russian state colonized them at one point in their history.

The Russian metropole has long been plundering the vast resources of subjugated Asians. In peace, there was increased taxation; in war, they were called up to serve the empire that colonized them.

The Diplomat spoke to the Sakha Pacifist Association, a group attempting to fight mobilization in the Sakha Republic – a Russian region roughly the size of India situated in the taiga of northeast Siberia. They told us that “the mobilization… reflects the long-term colonial policy of the Russian state and is aimed at reducing the population of indigenous peoples. We believe the purpose is to further exploit our lands’ natural resources, in particular, oil and gas.”

The war drastically impacted Russian Asians even before the mobilization. As Ramani pointed out, “it is easier to recruit soldiers in the poorest regions, and many of those happen to be ethnic minority regions.” Indeed, the Republic of Buryatia, one of the poorest regions in Russia, has reliably supplied contract fighters to the frontlines in Ukraine and a steady flow of coffins back to Russia. “With the disproportionate targeting of minorities and resettlement of Ukrainians into Russia,” Ramani said, “one could argue that one of the Kremlin’s goals is to make Russia whiter.”

Russian Asians also have a long history of resisting colonial plunder. In fact, one of the longest-running anti-colonial movements in the Russian Empire and the USSR was the Basmachi. This Central Asian national liberation movement sprung up as a response to forced conscription during World War I. The country-wide anti-colonial resistance by ethnic minority activists never entirely stopped. Still, the Kremlin was effective in suppressing it.

“It is crazy how many activists are jailed,” said Leyla Latypova, a Bashkorkostani journalist and scholar. “The field is cleared to the point that there are very few free activists within Russia who can talk about decolonization.”

But now, Russian Asians once again find themselves the target of а forced draft – to fight a war in Europe, thousands of miles away from their homeland. This has already spurred dissent and prompted organizations, from spontaneous protests in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, to Asian organizations we spoke to that are organizing transit of Russian Asians out of the country.

The Diplomat spoke to Tuvan activist Vasily Matenov, a representative of the activist group Asians of Russia. Tuva is a region on Russia’s southwestern border with China. Matenov said that “since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there has been a lot of resistance among the Asian peoples of Russia. People created anti-war movements, spoke at rallies, and spoke out against the war. It feels like the mobilization is Putin’s revenge on our peoples through ethnic cleansing.”

The fear of death, malnutrition, and injury drove many Russians into dissent, across the border, into hiding, or all of the above. Russian Asians are no exception. Evidence has already emerged that the Russian army often can’t house, feed and supply their newly mobilized soldiers. This, not to mention the staggering casualty numbers on the front, would make even die-hard Putin supporters think twice about enlisting.

Since the beginning of the draft, roughly 700,000 have left Russia – against the 300 000 scheduled to be mobilized. The refugees don’t have many escape routes. After the mobilization was announced, several EU politicians were quick to emphasize that their countries would not shelter draft dodgers.

On the contrary, Central Asian states – especially Kazakhstan and Mongolia – welcomed the refugees. Dr. Diana Kudaibergenova, a Kazakhstani sociologist based in Cambridge, told The Diplomat that while the situation is quickly developing and more data is needed, “The reception of the migrants has been diverse but mostly welcoming so far.”

Asian Russians are especially welcomed. Erendjenov, the Free Kalmykia representative, said that in Mongolia, “even on [the] state level, Asian minorities are invited in and welcomed. It warms my heart that our problems are noticed there.”

Latypova noted that the mobilization might reignite the “pan-Turkic sentiment that is experiencing a kind of a revival because of similar languages and shared values.”

It is possible that the push for mobilization could even reignite an anti-colonial discourse within Russia, threatening the very basis of the Russian state. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, the idea of decolonizing Russia has been picking up steam in the West and among exiled activists. Latypova pointed out that “the Ukrainian community pushed the narrative at the beginning of the war; they helped uplift the anti-colonial voices within and outside Russia.”

Russian activists often lament the lack of political education in Russia, especially among the poorer population which is the main target of the Kremlin’s narrative. Adlia (name changed), an exiled Sakha activist and photographer whose entire friendship group of more than 20 people has now left Russia, sighed in exasperation: “It might be rude to say this, but a lot of Russian Asians love Putin. Many of them watch only state TV, especially in the impoverished villages.”

But this might change, as Latypova argued. “When people see half of a village being mobilized, then the ideas are backed up by facts on the ground, this gives a lot of credibility to the decolonization rhetoric.” Indeed, even the recently apolitical communities in Russia are getting directly hit by mobilization and are not too happy.

In any case, the change might come too late for many of Russia’s Asian minorities. As Adlia said, “Take Evenk and Chukchi languages and cultures. They’re already dying. And if a whole generation of their boys dies, the peoples will die even faster.”