Ethnically Non-Russian Formations in Russia’s War on Ukraine: The Volga Region

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 54


Executive Summary:

  • Moscow looks to the Volga region—an ethnically non-Russian region and one of the poorest in Russia—for “volunteers” to fight in the war against Ukraine.
  •  Many of these “volunteer” battalions have experienced heavy losses along the frontlines, which the Russian government attempts to cover up and deny.
  • The disproportionate use of ethnically non-Russian in “human wave” assaults have stirred tensions in the region that could boil over if the Kremlin continues to press the regions for more manpower.

In its war against Ukraine, Moscow has identified finding additional “voluntary” manpower as a preconditions for avoiding mobilization and enflaming public discontent. In addition to various private military companies and other irregular formations, many Russian regions have started forming so-called “voluntary” battalions, with almost 40 now in operation. (, August 18, 2022; see EDM, April 4). These formations often consist of “volunteers” who are lured by financial incentives for themselves and their families, as many come from the poorest regions of Russia. Socioeconomic status and ethnic identity seem to drive the recruitment of these  “volunteers.” In the Volga region, so-called “name battalions” (imennyje bataliony) have been formed in the Mari El Republic, Tatarstan, and Chuvashia (, August 18, 2022). Moscow’s disproportionate reliance on ethnically non-Russian people from the poorest regions reflects growing desperation in trying to replace heavy losses in Ukraine. It has also created the potential for regional violence should these “volunteers” continue to be thrown into the proverbial “meat grinder.”

Mari El is one of the smallest (geographically and in terms of population) and poorest Russian regions (, July 8, 2019;, accessed April 2). The republic has formed four “volunteer” battalions since the summer of 2022, all of which bear the names of protagonists from local epics—“Iden,” “Poltysh,” and “Akpatr” (, July 29, 2022). Analysis of open-source information provides the following details about these “volunteer” battalions:

  • Recruitment Regulations: Local officials have taken a relaxed approach to fulfilling two main qualifications: prior military service experience and meeting physical requirements. According to Russian investigative journalists, these requirements may have been negated, likely in pursuit of more recruits (, August 10, 2022).
  • Sociological Identity of Recruits: The widespread poverty in Mari El has pushed most “volunteers” to join these battalions based on economic incentives. Analysis of images in local sources show that the typical “volunteer” is a middle-aged man with heavy drinking habits, and many “volunteers” belong to local ethnic minorities (, accessed April 2). These characteristics mimic those of “volunteers” in other battalions and the Russian military’s approach in preying on poor and disenfranchised citizens to fight in Ukraine (see EDM, October 23, 31, November 8, 2023, January 29, April 4).
  • Rate of Participation and Casualties: By August 2022, more than 430 residents of Mari El were estimated to be part of “volunteer” battalions that had since departed to the frontlines. At the time, at least 58 members had been confirmed dead (, August 18, 2022). Since then, no additional information about casualties has emerged. This reflects Moscow’s attempts to cover up the true number of casualties to prevent the Russian population from realizing the true cost of the war (see EDM, October 19, 2023).

In Tatarstan, the republic has assembled, trained, and equipped two battalions, “Alga” (“Forward”) and “Timer” (“Iron”). Local officials have actively relied on two main instruments to attract recruits: a series of massive media campaigns and generous financial incentives (, September 19, 2022). Specifically, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov has increased the one-time payment for recruits by 100,000 rubles (around $1,000) to 360,000 rubles ($3,900). He also floated giving “preferential mortgages” to improve recruits’ housing conditions (, August 16, 2022).

Despite these incentives, the Tatar battalions were in dire straits last year. In February 2023, the Alga battalion was reportedly decimated near Vuhledar (, February 14, 2023). Later, some members of the battalion were reportedly on trial in Russia for “desertion” (Article 388 of Russia’s Penal Code). In an interview, an undisclosed member of the battalion lamented that they were given poor military equipment in Ukraine and were used as “cannon fodder” during operational activities (see EDM, April 20, May 3, 2022;, March 21, 2023).  

The Chuvash Republic has formed one battalion, “Atal” (“Volga”), which specializes in communication-related tasks (, August 10, 2022). Initially, the battalion was meant to consist of some 300 recruits. Based on available information, however, no more than a hundred men were assembled. This may have been related to the republic’s poor economic conditions, as this battalion was offered one of the lowest one-time payments in Russia and payments were often delayed (, August 1, 2022;, August 18, 2022).

The fate of the Atal battalion has also been quite tragic. On November 1, 2023, Russian media began reporting on the massive losses suffered by the battalion in the Zaporizhzhia direction. A representative of Atal rushed to dismiss the news as fake, claiming that “everyone is safe and sound” (, November 4, 2023). Yet, a couple of days later, images started to circulate from local cemeteries depicting funerals of military men reportedly killed in Ukraine (, November 10, 2023). According to Russian investigative journalists, no less than 265 residents of Chuvashia were confirmed to have been killed in Ukraine by late 2023 (see EDM, October 19, 2023;, November 1, 2023).

Russian federal and local authorities have come up with generous incentives to attract more recruits to these battalions and avoid mass mobilization. These packages often include direct payments for participation in the war and various social measures, such as stipends for children of “volunteers” and priority-access to free education (, August 24, 2022). The battalions from the Volga region, however, have suffered disproportionately heavy losses—with the actual numbers likely to be much higher than reported (see EDM, January 23, February 8, 27, April 4;, accessed April 2). The growing economic hardships and ethnic strife in some of Russia’s regions means the continued participation of local fighters in the war against Ukraine could exacerbate tensions. Undoubtedly, the next round of mobilization would almost certainly trigger a new wave of anti-Moscow sentiments in the Volga region and elsewhere.