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

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 58

(Source: Rossiya-24)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia is struggling to attract more volunteers to fight in Ukraine, and Moscow has increasingly turned to the outer regions for recruitment.
  • Such an approach has raised ethnic tensions in some regions where the volunteers are largely non-ethnic Russians, while other regions have become the darlings of Russian propagandists.
  • Growing combat losses and Moscow’s neglect of non-ethnic Russians are creating the foundation for greater anti-Kremlin sentiments in Siberia.

Prompted by mounting military losses in Ukraine and a need to attract more volunteers to avoid mobilization, Moscow has increased its reliance on so-called “volunteer” battalions assembled from the outer regions of Russia. Moscow walks a political tightrope by depending on Siberian battalions, which are largely composed of ethnically non-Russian peoples. Utilizing fighters from far-flung regions has enabled Moscow to put some distance between Russia’s major cities and the war. Given the level of contempt for national minorities, mobilizing ethnically non-Russian peoples allows Moscow to avoid riling up discontent among ethnic Russians. Employing Siberian fighters, however, sets a dangerous precedent and poses the risk of inflaming animosity between Russia’s regions and its federal center.

Some Siberian battalions have already suffered heavy losses in the war, which could fuel existing political anger if more men are deployed. One such group is the Buryatia-based “Baikal” (reference to Lake Baikal) battalion, which was formed in August 2022 (Regnum.ru, August 19, 2022). By August 2022, local sources claimed that the battalion had suffered significant losses and that “there are no more volunteers to join the formation … and act as cannon fodder for Putin” (Twitter.com/vits2014,  August 19, 2022). Later, officials revealed that the battalion was decimated near the village of Petropavlivka in Kharkiv Oblast, leading to the reported death of between 180 and 200 fighters (Sibreal.org, October 26, 2022; Newtimes.ru, October 27, 2022).

The news led local political elites to criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (Mod). Bilikto Dugarov, a member of the Public Chamber of the Republic of Buryatia, stated that the MoD had sent the battalion into a situation for which it was not trained. Dugarov posited, “What is that? The stupidity and sloppiness of the military command, or is this deliberate sabotage? …  Both parts of the battalion were in the most difficult combat conditions and suffered significant losses of 200 and 300 men. Now there are problems with the battalion headquarters, the fighters’ documents, and the uniforms.” (Sibreal.org; Tayga.info, October 26, 2022). In addition to heavy losses, residents also complained about the lack of military compensation for the disabilities or deaths of their loved ones fighting in Ukraine (see EDM, February 8, 27).

Buryatia is one of Russia’s poorest regions, and Buryat soldiers are offered one of the lowest one-time payments of 100,000 rubles (about $1,000) from Moscow for enlisting (Novayagazeta.eu, October 12, 2022). Buryatia’s confirmed number of military losses is 1,301 lives, but the actual number is likely much higher given Russia’s readiness to sacrifice ethnic Buryats in Ukraine going back to at least 2014 (Zona.media, accessed April 15). By some estimates, Buryatia is the region that has suffered the fourth-most losses during the war (Novayagazeta.eu, March 5, 2023).

Other battalions have seen little local retaliation. “Yugra,” a battalion from Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug–Yugra, was headed by Dmitry Aksenov, an active member of the local parliament. Aksenov is also a special services veteran who gained extensive military experience during the Second Chechen War (Sibreal.org, October 21, 2022). Following the end of his active military service, he headed the local paramilitary organization the “Spetsnaz Brotherhood of Yugra.” The organization has coordinated various paramilitary exercises and is closely involved in promoting “military-patriotic” education for local youth (Kogvesti.ru, September 15, 2023). According to open sources, the battalion was primarily used in the Battle of Avdiivka, where the group performed reconnaissance, subversive operations, and engaged in direct fighting against Ukrainian forces (Tvzvezda.ru, May 22, 2023; Ruskline.ru, October 28, 2023; Kurer-sreda.ru, November 11, 2023).

In late 2023, “Yugra” became a key actor in Russia’s war propaganda machine. In December, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT, announced the creation of a new documentary about the battalion, its day-to-day routine, and the missions it performed during the war (Muksun.fm, December 1, 2023). Later, “Rybar,” a pro-Kremlin military Telegram that primarily covers the war, released a comic series with an installation named “Once Upon a Time in Avdiivka” praising the battalion and its war contributions (Ura.news, December 16, 2023). No overt signs of discontent are discernible among the local community regarding the region’s participation in the war. This may be explained by a relatively low level of confirmed military losses—457 men (Zona.media, accessed April 2).

Russian propagandists have also utilized the “Bootur” battalion from the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). “Bootur” (which means “heroic warrior” in Sakha) has 117 fighters who have received various state orders and medals (Ulus.media, November 30). In an interview about the battalion, Sahmin Afanasiev, one of the formation’s leaders, claimed that the battalion consists of battle-hardened warriors with extensive military expertise gained in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria. The training employed by “Bootur” resembles Spetsnaz methods. Only the most talented are recruited, “and many are unable to join the formation due to very high requirements” (Ulus.media, June 19, 2023). In April 2023, the “Russia-24” propagandist channel aired a video about the battalion’s defensive missions in the Zaporizhzhia direction (near Enerhodar). The video presented a romanticized portrayal of the day-to-day life of the battalion and brotherhood reigning among its members who abandoned their traditional occupation to “join the war against the common enemy” (Ulus.media, April 4, 2023). In early 2024, RT presented the documentary “Yakutia BARS’s” (Yakutsikiye BARSy) about the daily routine of the Sakha volunteers on the frontline (Sakhaday.ru, February 17). The extent to which this information has been fabricated, however, is unclear. Analysis of images from open sources reveals that the average battalion member tends to be older—well over age 55—and in questionable physical shape (Vozrastrazuma.ru, accessed April 4).

Growing evidence points to the fact that the Siberian and ethnically non-Russian peoples are not as aligned with the Kremlin’s agenda as the government likes to project. In addition to Dugarov’s critique of the MoD, one should not forget about the pro-Ukrainian Sibir battalion and its leader Vladislav Ammosov, an ethnic Yakut who worked in Russia’s military intelligence agency for 15 years before defecting to fight for Ukraine (24tv.ua, April 9, 2023). Mounting losses of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and Moscow’s neglect of non-ethnic Russians are creating the foundation for greater anti-Kremlin sentiments in Russia’s outer regions. 


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