Ethnically Non-Russian Formations in Russia’s War on Ukraine: North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 66

(Source: Official Website of the Head of the Republic of Dagestan)

Executive Summary:

  • To avoid mass mobilization, Moscow has called on Russian regions to start forming “volunteer battalions” to assist and even act in place of the regular armed forces.
  • Battalions have formed in the North Caucasus, a region that suffered disproportionately high losses at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, which led to protests and the spread of anti-Moscow rhetoric in 2022.
  • Using residents of the North Caucasus as cannon fodder in Ukraine, Moscow demonstrates little respect for the ethnically non-Russian regions and their peoples.

Russia’s war against Ukraine failed to deliver a swift and easy victory. Instead, Russia ceded large portions of the temporarily occupied territories after the first months of the conflict, and significant military losses followed. To avoid mass mobilization, Moscow has called on Russian regions to start forming “volunteer battalions” to assist with and even act in place of the regular armed forces (see EDM, April 4, 9, 16). Using volunteer battalions is a highly controversial measure that might cause young, Russian, skilled workers to leave the country or use creative tactics to evade mobilization. If the large city centers, home to many Russian elites who enjoy much higher living standards, become subject to mobilization, this could cause frustration and anti-Kremlin sentiments to spread within the ethnically non-Russian regions.

Volunteer battalions have been assembled in two of Russia’s North Caucasian republics—Dagestan and North Ossetia. The battalions project an image of strength and patriotism. Still, it is unclear how much local support there is for the war in Ukraine, as these republics are among the regions that have suffered the greatest number of casualties. Dagestani soldiers suffered disproportionately high losses in the early stages of the war. According to independent investigative platforms, by early May 2022, at least 130 Dagestanis were confirmed killed in Ukraine—making Dagestan the Russian region with the highest casualty rate at that time (, May 1, 2022). The effects of mounting military losses worsened under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a “partial mobilization” in 2022, which set off massive protests in Dagestan accompanied by anti-Kremlin rhetoric and violence (, September 25, 2022; see EDM, September 29, 2022). As a result, Dagestani officials could not compel their citizens to join the formal Russian military and thus created volunteer battalions.

Following the 2022 protests, Dagestan disappeared from major mobilization headlines for almost a year. In late September 2023, however, Sergey Melikov, head of Dagestan, announced the creation of the volunteer battalion “Caspi.” The statement revealed multiple inconsistencies in how officials have tried to portray the battalion versus how it seems to operate. For example, the announcement of the battalion’s formation was not backed by any federal authority, lacking emblems from the Ministry of Defense and Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard) (, September 28, 2023). According to official reports, the battalion was formed in 45 days. In total, 230 men assembled from various parts of Dagestan were promised a one-time payment of 125,000 rubles (about $1,300) for signing up as volunteers (, February 8, 13). Officials have stated that the average age of battalion members is between 40 and 50 years old, but photos of the battalion suggest that the average age is much higher. Officials have also claimed that approximately 20 percent of the volunteers have gained paramilitary experience during the so-called “special military operation” (, October 27, 2023).

The number of recruits (several hundred men) and the quality of those recruited implies that the local Dagestani population has very little enthusiasm for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and their role as “cannon fodder.” As of early April, at least 806 Dagestani men were confirmed killed in Ukraine (Kavkaz Uzel, April 6). Additionally Dagestanis with family members who have been killed or injured in Ukraine have had numerous complications receiving promised compensation from Moscow (Kavkaz Uzel, October 9, 2023).

In September 2022, the Republic of North Ossetia announced the formation of a volunteer battalion (, September 19, 2022). Since then, the republic has formed two battalions. The first is known as “Storm-Osetia” and was reportedly active in the Zaporizhzhia region, primarily engaging in defensive operations. The battalion’s commander, Igor Tsgoev, claims he served in a private military company—most likely the Wagner Group—and participated in “armed conflicts in Africa.” He also hinted that the battalion comprises North and South Ossetians, saying “they are the same and cannot be divided.” This means that Russian volunteer battalions from the North Caucasus are closely collaborating with Russian “gray zones” in the South Caucasus and attracting fighters from these areas as well. Among the group’s competitive advantages, Tsgoev mentioned “high discipline … ethnic homogeneity … and intolerance to alcohol,” which makes the attitude of the battalion and its members “more professional” (, December 17, 2022).

Tsgoev has also alluded to drone warfare being one of the battalion’s strengths. A recent article claimed that the battalion formed and operated its own “laboratory” specializing in assembling drones. The article stated that this battalion is considered “elite” among Russia’s volunteer forces, and joining it is a serious ordeal. As a reward, battalion members can rotate monthly, which allows troops more time to recuperate from the battlefield (, April 20, 2023). This could encourage citizens to volunteer, though there is no evidence that this incentive has had this effect.

The other volunteer battalion from North Ossetia, “Alania,” is less well known. It was reported, however, that during the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive, members of the battalion were deployed in the Zaporizhzhia region (Orikhiv) and were involved in defensive operations with the 58th Combined Arms Army (, June 12, 2023). During the summer, North Ossetian battalions signed contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, making them directly subordinate to the ministry (, June 15, 2023). Notably, according to Sergey Menyaylo, the Kremlin-appointed head of North Ossetia, the republic is not planning to form any new or additional volunteer battalions because “there is no need.” He also stated that the battalions mentioned above differ in composition, functions performed in Ukraine, and access to higher-level leadership and more sophisticated equipment (TASS, March 9, 2023). While no other details were provided, this could mean that there is some internal structure and division within these battalions, allowing for their employment in various operational tasks on the battlefield.

The North Caucasus has paid a dear price for the Kremlin’s murderous adventure in Ukraine. As of early April, in addition to heavy Dagestani losses, at least 269 North Ossetians, 135 Kabardino-Balkarians, and 53 Ingush were confirmed to have been killed in Ukraine (Kavkaz Uzel, April 2, 3, 7). Russia’s North Caucasian and southern regions have officially lost at least 3,650 men, though the actual numbers are likely much higher (Kavkaz Uzel, March 29). By sending residents of the North Caucasus—mainly men from poverty-plagued regions—to death, Moscow demonstrates how little respect it has for the ethnically non-Russian regions and their peoples.