The Kremlin’s decision to stop drafting young non-Russian men from the republics of the North Caucasus threatens Moscow’s control both of that region and of the Russian Federation as a whole (see EDM June 27; RIA Novosti, June 25). This move simultaneously highlights and exacerbates the demographic situation of the current ethnic Russian majority and the costly consequences of the imperial nature of Vladimir Putin’s approach to governance. As a result, this latest action, which has so far has attracted relatively little attention in the West, may prove as fateful as were Nicholas II’s decision to end the draft exemption for Central Asians in 1916 or Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s imposition of an ethnic Russian in place of an ethnic Kazakh in Kazakhstan in December 1986.
This possibility – that radical change may come from what at first glance appears to be a relatively small step – becomes clearer if one considers the wider impact of this decision: first in the North Caucasus itself, then in the other republics and regions of the Russian Federation, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, among ethnic Russians and the leaders of predominantly ethnic Russian opposition groups in Moscow.
In the North Caucasus, this decision will not win Moscow more friends. The elimination of the draft there may prevent the radicalization of North Caucasians in the Russian military through dedovshchina (systemic hazing of junior recruits by senior ones). But much more significantly, this step will also highlight the anti-Caucasus attitudes of the Moscow elite and the imperial nature of the Russian state and its force structures. And what may prove most important of all, it will convince many in the republics of the North Caucasus that Moscow is now on the defensive and will make even more concessions if nationalists, both in the local republic governments and in the mountains, continue to resist.
Among non-Russians elsewhere in the Russian Federation, Moscow’s latest decision sends exactly the opposite message the center clearly hopes. Non-Russians in other republics are certain to ask why their sons should be drafted when their coequals from the North Caucasus are not. And such questioning will only intensify if, as seems likely, the ethnic fault line of dedovshchina clashes in the military changes. Up to now, those intra-service clashes have often been between ethnic Russians and non-Russians from the North Caucasus. In the future and in the absence of the latter groups, such violence is likely to involve ethnic Russians fighting with other non-Russians. This will be increasingly likely because the, all too public, use of ethnicity as the basis of the draft will encourage ethnic Russians in the force structures to assume that it is their right to be predominant. Both factors will re-ignite nationalist groups in many places.
But the greatest and most explosive impact of this decision about the draft in the North Caucasus is certain to be on the Russian Federation’s ethnic Russian majority. The relative share of ethnic Russians in the population has been falling – and far more than the falsified censuses of 2002 and 2010 show. Therefore, for at least three years now, Moscow has been drafting a greater share of young men in predominantly ethnic Russian regions than in largely non-Russian regions in order to keep the percentage of ethnic Russians in the force structures higher. By eliminating the draft in the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus, Moscow will have even more difficulty meeting draft quotas than it has in the past and will have to draft far more heavily in predominantly ethnic Russian regions than it has in the past.
Just how much more heavily, of course, remains uncertain given the lack of reliable census data. But because predominantly Russian regions will have to make up an estimated 20,000 draftees from the North Caucasus (see EDM July 6), the increase in draft quotas there next year is likely to approach 20 percent. Ever more Russians are going to object to paying this all too human “tax,” especially if non-Russians of the North Caucasus do not have to. Furthermore, Moscow is already sending far more per capita aid to buy the loyalty of that restive region than it is providing to other hard-pressed ethnic Russian regions. Such attitudes have informed the slogans of the political opposition to the Putin regime. And this decision to drop the draft for non-Russian North Caucasians will fuel the energy and urgency of suggestions that Russia would be better off if it let the North Caucasus go (see EDM January 23).
Given all this, one might expect Putin to reverse course and to restore the draft in the North Caucasus sometime soon. But there are three reasons why that reasonable step is unlikely. First, any re-imposition of the draft there in the future could lead to explosion in the North Caucasus. Second, ethnic conflicts in the military would intensify, military efficiency decline, and the Russian generals would be furious with Putin. And third, all of Putin’s past history suggests he would view such as reversal as a manifestation of weakness. Consequently, the Russian President is likely to redouble his bets, continuing his authoritarian agenda and promoting a statist Russian nationalism. But instead of solving the problems that Moscow now faces, such an approach will ultimately propel the Putin regime into a spiral from which it is as unlikely as its Tsarist and Soviet predecessors to escape unscathed.