When mobilizing forces for the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin placed a bet on local units from the poorer Russian regions, including ethnic republics, which yielded an unexpected outcome. Battalions based on the principle of territorial or ethnic appurtenance aren’t too keen on waging war on Moscow's behalf, and the tougher they have it on the battlefield, the stronger the antiwar sentiment, both among the soldiers and in their home regions. Considering the economic crisis brought about by the war, social tensions may become highly flammable – even more so because Russian regions no longer feel powerless, now that they have small armies of their own.
Russian-style national battalions
Ethnic antiwar movements
Signs of decay
Russian-style national battalions
The Russian state is recruiting volunteers to war in Ukraine through multiple channels in a concerted covert mobilization campaign. Russians (even prison inmates) are encouraged to join private military companies, various paramilitary units of the “DPR” and “LPR”, and finally, official national security forces, such as units and formations of the Armed Forces, the Russian Guard, and the Russian Combat-Ready Army Reserve (BARS) under the Ministry of Defense.
Another mechanism of recruiting military personnel is the creation of volunteer battalions named after historical figures in various Russian Federation constituents. Russian propaganda has established an inseparable link between the concept of a “national”, or “Nazi” battalion (also referred to as a “volunteer battalion”) and Ukrainian paramilitary units that emerged in the early stages of the war in Donbas in response to pro-Russian separatists’ aggression. Examples of such units are the Azov, the Donbas, the Aydar, the Dnipro battalions, and other territorial units that included ultra-right radicals and far-right football fans. They were referred to as “national battalions” due to the popularity of nationalistic, and in some cases, even neo-Nazi views among their personnel and commanders. Be it as it may, Ukraine has not had any national battalions for a while now. The ill-famed (in Russia) Azov Battalion and other volunteer formations have been either transformed into regular military units integrated into Ukraine's Armed Forces and National Guard or dissolved. By contrast, Russian regions are sprouting national battalions by the dozen.
However, a Russian national battalion has a different concept: it is a military unit formed within an autonomous territory and comprised of volunteers who share the same ethnicity or background. Volunteer battalions are also being formed in regions where ethnic Russians are the majority – such constituents are called an oblast (“region”) or a krai (“territory”). There, the underlying ideology centers on the sense of community and a common regional identity. Each of the 85 constituents is expected to produce such a battalion – or even several. By The Insider's estimates, at least 44 Russian regions, including 12 ethnic constituents, have created such units or announced the recruitment of volunteers. There is data on 73 local battalions, of which 23 are in ethnic constituents.
Russia’s regional battalions
Each regional battalion is named after a historical figure and features a distinct ethnic or community-based territorial identity.
For instance, the governor of Primorsky Territory Oleg Kozhemyaka describes the mission of the local Tigr Battalion as helping fellow residents of the region who are participating in the “special operation”. The battalion receives assistance from the officers of the 155th Separate Marine Brigade of the Guards stationed in Vladivostok.
Each regional battalion features a distinct ethnic or community-based territorial identity
The set of symbolic images and historical narratives employed in the creation of regional battalions is of particular curiosity. For one, the Yakut battalion is called Bootur after the mythical ancestor of all Yakuts. The Toyan Battalion in the Tomsk region was named after the prince of Eushta Tatars, who inhabited the banks of the River Tom in the 17th century.
A battalion in the Republic of Mordovia bears the name of the Mordovian folk hero Siyazhar. In the neighboring Mariy El, as many as three battalions commemorate local guardians of the land: Iden, Poltysh, and Akpatr. Poltysh, the only real historical figure, was a Mariy prince who defended his land from the Russian army of King Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.
The Republic of Bashkortostan picked a different approach, turning to the legacy of the Second World War and the Chechen War. One of the Bashkir battalions was named after General Minigali Shaymuratov, a newly-recognized WWII hero, and the other, after Alexander Dostavalov, a veteran of the Second Chechen War.
The names of battalions in Russian-majority regions have mostly been inspired by local toponyms and history. The Kirov Region used its own historical name, Vyatka, enhancing its Cyrillic spelling with a Latin “V” (the other symbol of the “special operation” along with the Z-sign). The Baron Korf Battalion in the Khabarovsk Territory is a reference to the first Viceroy of the Russian Far East, Baron Andrey Korf. The battalions in Saint Petersburg bear the names of Kronstadt (a port city and naval base), Neva (the city's waterway), and Pavlovsk (an imperial suburban residence).
The Atal Battalion in the Chuvash Republic (Atal translates as “the Volga”) only enlists volunteers who can speak Chuvash.
Tatarstan's units Alga (“forward” in Tatar) and Timer (“iron”) are traditionally referred to as national battalions in republican media.
Regions perceived as “ethnically Russian” also look to create ethnically homogeneous military units
Interestingly, regions perceived as “ethnically Russian” also look to create ethnically homogeneous military units. In the Perm Territory, for instance, where Parma and Molot battalions welcome all locals, a suggestion was made to create an Uzbek (!) battalion named Amir Timur. The initiative was put forward by the Central Asian Society of Perm Territory Uzbeks but has not gained traction yet. Moreover, the Uzbek government has warned all of its citizens who join the war in Ukraine about the criminal liability for mercenarism.
Individual regional battalions feature an initial specialization, unlike regular motorized troops. The Seym Battalion in the Kursk Region (named after a local river) presents itself as an auxiliary logistical support unit. The Perm Territory and the Nizhny Novgorod Region have produced armor battalions (Molot and the Kuzma Minin Battalion, respectively.) The Ulyanovsk Region is recruiting volunteers to the Sviyaga sapper battalion and the Simbirsk howitzer and artillery battalion.
Some regions prefer to stay away from volunteers. Thus, the Arkhangelsk Region announced its patronage over the existing motorized battalion of the 200th Separate Motorized Brigade within the 14th Army Corps of the Northern Fleet, comprised mostly of natives of the region. The battalion got the honorary title “Arkhangelsky”.
Some regions prefer to stay away from volunteers
At times, ethnically homogeneous companies and platoons emerge under the auspices of BARS units. For instance, this is the case with volunteers in the Republic of Tuva, where the head of the republic Vladislav Khovalyg is eloquent in sharing the unbelievable details of their courageous acts with the public. As he claims, almost all Tuvans have received state decorations, and in between missions, they keep up the spirits with traditional throat singing, reciting poetry, and playing the guitar or the button accordion.
Akhmat, a Chechen volunteer battalion, is a whole other story. Its commanders are recruiting everyone and their mother, including convicts, and sometimes forcibly enlist Chechens who have wronged the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. The combat value of this unit is questionable, unlike its servicemen’s incontestable skills in making videos for TikTok and torturing prisoners of war.
Notably, the Akhmat Battalion abides by the principle of ethnic segregation. Fighters of non-Chechen descent normally bear the brunt of the offensive, while ethnic Chechens follow in their step.
Ramzan Kadyrov has also set up four more national battalions consisting of Chechen security services officers instead of volunteers – a total of 1,800 troops. In all, as Kadyrov asserts, Chechnya has 9,000 fighters ready for deployment in Ukraine and another 10,000 troops in reserve.
On a national scale, however, it appears that Russian national battalions are struggling to attract volunteers. A battalion normally consists of 400 to 600 soldiers, but most regions initially set the bar lower, at 200-300 troops. Despite the enormous (by the standards of Russian regions) salaries of about ~$3,300 and lump-sum payments of $3,000-$5,000 from regional budgets, the only volunteers in the war zone are Cossacks, Tuvans, Ossetians, Chechens, and a handful of companies from elsewhere.
Russian national battalions are struggling to attract volunteers
There have been cases of ethnically homogeneous military units contributing to the dissolution of the state. Thus, after Austro-Hungary’s collapse in 1918, the Polish legions of the Imperial Army became the military core of independent Poland, which emerged on the ruins of the empire. After the February Revolution of 1917, Russia had a disastrous experience of “Ukrainizing” individual naval and army units.
Apparently, today’s national battalions, which are financed from local budgets, consist of volunteers from the same region, and use a special combination of symbols and values to emphasize their ethnic or territorial identity, are relatively easy to switch from participating in a war “for the Russian-Ukrainian unity” to challenging the unjust position of their ethnic groups or territories in the overly centralized Russian Federation. Considering the active development of local antiwar movements, there are prerequisites for that.
Ethnic antiwar movements
Vladimir Putin has two “hobby horses”: the Russian-Ukrainian unity and the unity of peoples within Russia. However, far from all representatives of ethnic Russian regions (or Russian-majority ones, for that matter) endorse the war he unleashed or want to partake in it.
The Free Buryatia Foundation became Russia’s first ethnic antiwar initiative. The organization offers legal assistance to contract soldiers unwilling to go to war and denounces racism and xenophobia against Russia's ethnic minorities.
“Since 2015, we’ve had to live with the reputation of ‘Putin's combat Buryats’ which was cemented by the Kremlin, among others,” shares the head of the foundation Alexandra Garmazhapova. “We realized we had to speak out about our condemnation of the war. We made several antiwar videos, and each time, our group grew bigger and bigger. This was how the foundation emerged. We started getting letters from Buryat (and not only Buryat) contract soldiers and their relatives who wanted to terminate their contracts. It was back in March. We had to find lawyers as soon as possible. Obviously, it was irresponsible to turn our backs on them and say: ‘Guys, we just wanted to make one antiwar video. You’re on your own’.” At first, we had a handful of cases; then there were dozens. In all, we’ve received over 500 consultation requests. We have recently brought 150 contract soldiers who refused to wage war back to Buryatia.”
Soon after the hostilities began, Kalmykia got an antiwar movement, which also started with videos condemning the war. Their authors referred to the persecution of the Kalmyks in the USSR and the discrimination of ethnic minorities in today's Russia and called on fellow residents of the republic to refrain from taking up arms against Ukraine.
“The Kremlin using Russia’s ethnic minorities is a manipulation,” says Dordzhi Mandzhiev, deputy head of the Yabloko Party in the Republic of Kalmykia and the organizer of the Kalmyks Against War movement. “By now, at least 12 soldiers from Kalmykia have been killed in the war. For a republic with a population of 300,000 people, it is a lot. What did they die for? For the ambitions of the dictator and his regime? They aren't worth a single Russian national's life. We created our movement to drive change at least in our region, to prevent Kalmyks from joining this murderous, genocidal war, and to make them understand that the Kremlin has driven us to the point where people are willing to give up their lives and limbs for scant crumbs from the master’s table. With an average regional income of $200 a month, the military commissariat advertises military contracts with a $5,000 signing bonus. It is pure madness that people are desperate enough to risk their lives and abandon their families for this amount.”
Mandzhiev is confident that the antiwar movement is only the starting point of the upcoming struggle for federalization: “The war has given a boost to the people’s self-identification. That is, the Kremlin only uses us when it needs us. When there’s a war on, ‘we’re all brothers’. In times of peace, ‘you're gooks’ and ‘we only let apartments to Slavs’. To the Kremlin, we’re cannon fodder to be used on the front line. We used to call Ukrainians brothers too. However, you don’t treat a brother like that. I think we are about to see ethnic republics display more self-awareness and demand real federalization from the Kremlin, not just on paper. Unless this issue is resolved, the situation could spiral into a civil war.”
We will demand real federalization from the Kremlin, and failure to meet these demands could lead to a civil war
Tuva has sprouted an antiwar movement too. In addition to raising public awareness about the war, the activists are helping local soldiers to return home from Ukraine. In June, nine soldiers from a Tuvan brigade who had been dispatched to Kyrgyzstan and awaited their deployment to Ukraine managed to terminate their contracts early and return home thanks to movement activists.
“Many of us felt the need to find a community of like-minded spirits in Tuva who were also opposed to the war. However, the process of finding such people was far from trivial,” an activist of New Tuva shared with The Insider. “It all began with one of our future co-founders studying comments under antiwar posts by the Asians of Russia Instagram account. She looked for users who condemned the war, and if they were Tuvan, she sent them personal messages. This way, we put together a tiny group of people who cared and wanted to make a difference. There were more factors behind the creation of our organization: a co-founder learned of her nephew's death on the battlefield; statistics were released on the great numbers of Tuvans killed in action, and intercepted radio communications of Tuvan signalers made it clear that they were being used at the front because they spoke a language no one else understood. Tuvan deputy Eres Kara-Sal also greatly contributed to New Tuva's development. Thanks to his public antiwar stance, which he expressed in several interviews, we started getting more Tuvan followers. Primarily, we try to convince our fellow Tuvans to stop endorsing the war and offer assistance in the termination of their military contracts. We reach out to contract soldiers and their families. Finally, we raise awareness about the actual state of affairs at the war. The majority of our members are from Tuva, but we don't limit our assistance to Tuvan contract soldiers. We are open to all requests. Sometimes, when Tuvan soldiers requested our help in the termination of their contracts and returning home, a few of their Russian comrades decided to follow suit. We don't leave anyone behind.”
Like their Kalmykian peers, the Tuvan activists perceive their antiwar effort as part of a larger movement in favor of federalization: “We will continue our activities until the war ends. However, we hope that our movement has a bigger future afterward. We hope to play a role in steering Tuva toward democracy and creating the conditions for Russia's true federalization.”
In Yakutia, those opposed to the war have formed a society called Sakha vs. War. One of its organizers describes the association as follows:
“The participants of our movement are strongly opposed to all cases of the Kremlin's military aggression, both against sovereign states (Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine) and in Russian regions, such as the Chechen Wars for the independence of Ichkeria. Since the first days of the war in Ukraine, back in 2014, our activists were vocal in denouncing the annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, since the law on ‘discrediting of the Armed Forces’ came into effect, we’ve had to keep a low profile, so we set up an Instagram account and use it to communicate our stance. Our republic has many talented and creative individuals, who contributed to the active development of local tourism, the IT industry, filmmaking, arts, science, and sports before the war. We are an ambitious and vibrant people. The war shuts the door on our future and crosses it out with a blood-red cross.
The war has lanced many abscesses on the Russian state's body: racism, the hegemony of Moscow’s imperialistic values, the lack of self-identification opportunities for Russia’s ethnic minorities, and the overly centralized governance, which allows Moscow to appropriate all the riches of the regions. Our objective is to send a wake-up call to the Yakutian media space, bringing these and other long-overdue issues and challenges into the spotlight. We want to send ripples across the swamp of fear and silence that has been stagnant for years. Our community has attracted the attention of many more antiwar movements, consolidating all antiwar activists from Yakutia and beyond.”
Signs of decay
The economic crisis triggered by the war has spurred separatist sentiments in Russia as its regions struggle to understand why they should have to take the fall for Moscow’s suicidal policy. They have already faced a recess in manufacturing industries, unemployment growth, and budget revenue cuts. Detailed data is available on unemployment – the most “flammable” indicator: regions with major industrial clusters and export-oriented enterprises will suffer the most, including the Kurgan, Kaluga, and Samara regions and the republics of Komi and Tatarstan. Meanwhile, regions with a weak, non-diversified economy and a prominent public sector, such as North Caucasian republics and Tuva, will barely feel the downturn in the labor market.
At the end of the day, none of Russia’s regions have so far displayed a combination of all three risk factors of separatism: local volunteer battalions, a powerful antiwar movement with an ethnic or territorial identity, and serious challenges to social and economic stability.
Russian regions that have antiwar movements (pink) and have suffered damage from international sanctions (green)
However, two of the factors converge in at least ten regions. The Insider spoke to Nikolai Petrov, a regional science expert, on the possible implications of the war and the crisis for Russia's regions and territorial integrity.
Nikolai Petrov, a Russian expert in political science and political geography
Russia’s ethnic republics of Tuva, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia belong to the so-called “Fourth Russia”, under the classification proposed by Natalia Zubarevich, an expert in social and economic regional development. As ethnic republics, they display trends that do not match the general patterns characteristic of most other Russian regions. Ruled by ethnic elites for years, they are now going through a period of change: for one, Moscow is trying to replace Dagestan’s local indigenous elite with its appointees, but to little avail. However, being heavily subsidized, these republics may feel a weaker short-term impact of the sanctions than many other regions with superior economic development, such as the capital and major industrial hubs. Their economy relies largely on the public sector. Naturally, the sanctions will eventually put a dent in the financial and economic support received by these regions from the federal budget.
In the short term, heavily subsidized regions will fare better than industrial hubs
My colleagues and I continuously monitored the social-economic and political well-being of Russia’s regions for many years, from 2015 to 2020, ranking them by multiple indicators, including economic statistics, political dynamics, and protests. From the social and economic perspective, we assessed two categories of risks: the short-term risks associated with the fluctuations of the per capita income, regional budget revenue, and industrial output dynamics and the mid-term risks that have to do with business volume, budget arrears, and investment dynamics. In other words, we considered factors that could drive up tensions in the short and the mid-term. Importantly, we assessed the social and economic situation on the level of both households (income and business volume) and regions (regional budgets).
In the North Caucasus, economic risks for households have traditionally been great, and Dagestan ranked high in terms of increased risks throughout the study because political risks in the republic have always coexisted with an active protest movement.
In terms of personal income levels – for the last year, for instance – we can see Kalmykia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia at the bottom of the list. Kalmykia is the poorest region when it comes to the level of compensation. Twenty percent of its residents earn less than $250 a month. Dagestan ranks somewhat higher, but only marginally so. Ingushetia is on approximately the same level. In North Ossetia, the situation is slightly better; in Tuva and Buryatia, better still. But the indicators should be interpreted with caution: when it comes to the average net pay, Tuva and Buryatia outperform North Caucasian republics. However, the two Siberian regions have higher prices, so the market basket is more expensive too. If we compare the ratio of personal income to the cost of the market basket and consider the share of the population beyond the poverty line, Tuva is the absolute champion, with Kalmykia and Ingushetia as close runners-up. Moreover, Tuva is the only region where this ratio is lower than one; that is, even the average income does not cover the minimal amount of goods and services. One-third of its population lives beyond the poverty line. In North Ossetia and Dagestan, the indicators are marginally better but still below the national average.
In Tuva, even the average income does not cover the minimal amount of goods and services
It should be taken into account, however, that the accuracy of Russian economic statistics is traditionally low – and even more so in the ethnic republics, especially in the North Caucasus. The class divide is striking, and the quality of life is generally low, but we should always take Rosstat’s numbers with a pinch of salt. Admittedly, the situation in all of these regions is lamentable, but they had never thrived before the sanctions either. The blow delivered to their economies by the crisis is less pronounced than in Tatarstan, for instance, which ranked among the leaders and is incurring heavy losses due to the sanctions and their consequences.
All of the mentioned regions receive subsidies from the federal capital. In this respect, little has changed between today and yesterday or the day before. Their losses will result from the deteriorating social and economic situation in all of Russia and the cuts of regional subsidies or assistance to regional budgets – although the North Caucasus remains one of the Kremlin's top domestic priorities.
We are speaking about small regions with predominantly rural population, which implies a certain level of stability stemming from the fact that people are much less dependent on industrial enterprises and workers’ wages and rely more on their independent agricultural efforts. Although these ethnic constituents belong to the “Fourth Russia”, they are conceptually adjacent to the “Third”: rural provinces relying on social benefits and pensions. The indexation of pensions will continue, while the income of industrial enterprises, their efficiency, or even their presence will have no bearing on the well-being of the local population.
The force that could trigger conflicts with the potential to break up the country is Moscow
Each of these republics, even the tiny Ingushetia, has a medley of clans whose interests are in equilibrium, one way or another. In Dagestan, for instance, the representatives of major ethnic groups control the main spheres of the economy, and once the balance starts to shift, it will immediately affect the interests of these clans and their respective ethnic groups. Considering that ethnic groups in Dagestan have their historical concentration areas, this impact obtains a territorial dimension and could effectuate a social explosion like the one the republic experienced earlier. Maintaining the balance will be tricky, and any frictions or changes, any shifts in the interests of different ethnic clans will in any case play a destabilizing role.
As for the hypothetical disintegration of the Russian Federation, it is not a one-off event but a sequence of actions and their results. I do not believe we should treat the perceived desire of individual ethnic clans to separate from Russia as the main problem. Rather, in an overly centralized environment, the force that could trigger conflicts with the potential to break up the country is Moscow. It is not that someone is willing and able to seek separation from Russia; it’s that the Kremlin itself will destabilize the country by trying to control the ever-changing situation in a centralized fashion, distributing money and maintaining the balance of ethnic groups’ interests or ignoring said balance. From then on, it's a chain reaction: the interests of ethnic clans are infringed upon; this may lead to major protests over multiple causes; if the response is not adequate or consistent, it may fuel the conflict instead of mitigating it. Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s capacity to react swiftly and accurately is compromised because Moscow has only a limited understanding of the situation in regions.
You may find the full text of Nikolai Petrov’s take on the impact of the war and sanctions on the prospects of Russia’s disintegration here.
The article was co-authored with Sofia Presnyakova with input from Boris Sokolov.