Russia’s 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine has damaged not only bilateral relations between the two majority–Eastern Slavic neighbors but also—perhaps inadvertently—destabilized ties, links, goodwill, and mutual trust between the Russian periphery and the center, on the one hand, and between certain ethnic groups within the Russian Federation, on the other.
Witness the recent conflict between Buryats and Chechens in the invading force. At the end of April, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) released a statement about a gun battle between Russian troops from the Siberian republic of Buryatia and Chechen fighters loyal to Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Upwards of 100 soldiers were reportedly drawn into the exchange of fire in the village of Kyselivka, in occupied Kherson Oblast. “The causes of the inter-ethnic conflict are the reluctance of the Buryats to go on the offensive and the ‘inequality’ of their circumstances compared to those of the Chechens,” the GUR statement read. The latter never fight on the front line, always remaining in the rear as “barrier squads,” the spy agency said. “Their [Chechen fighters’] task is to force the occupier’s units to press forward. That is, to open fire on those who are attempting to retreat” (Gur.gov.ua, April 29; see EDM, April 26). Although the GUR report is sparse on details, the Buryats appear to resent the Chechen troops appropriating most of the loot they had plundered from Ukrainian homes. Little wonder the Siberian service members rebelled against Kadyrov’s forces; but there is arguably more to the story than meets the eye.
A couple of decades earlier, those same people or their relatives could have been fighting on opposing sides of another war, 1,000 kilometers to the southeast, in Chechnya. Buryatia still takes pride in the fact that since 1994, over 3,500 of its citizens “have taken part in armed conflicts in the North Caucasus. Eighty-six died, and a further 108 were wounded, while two are missing in action” (Tvatv.ru, December 13, 2019). Although Buryats were numerically far outnumbered by ethnic-Russian soldiers, they stood out by virtue of their physical appearance. Many Chechens still remember them riding on top of armored personnel carriers and manning checkpoints. The former commander of the Buryat special task police squad, Vyacheslav Markhayev, who served six tours in Chechnya, even built an elaborate mythology around his time there, which he then parlayed into a successful political career (Sibinfo.su, October 10, 2015; Kprf.ru, accessed May 25, 2022). For Buryat army and police personnel, the Chechen wars may have served as a source of income or a ladder for advancement; but for most Chechens, it was a bitter fight for survival. That entangled web of memories, associations and wartime experiences may have contributed to the outbreak of violence in the Ukrainian village.
Buryats were a fixture, too, in the Donbas war that began in 2014. The 5th Tank Brigade and the 37th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, headquartered in the Far East republic, were instrumental, for instance, in forcing the outgunned and outmaneuvered Ukrainian government troops to retreat from the strategic railroad juncture of Debaltseve (see EDM, February 19, 2015; Novaya Gazeta, March 4, 2015; Atlanticcouncil.org, October 15, 2015). Also near Debaltseve, Isa Munaev, the respected commander of the Chechen volunteer force fighting alongside the Ukrainians, was killed while on a reconnaissance mission (see EDM, February 6, 2015).
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the 37th brigade is also taking part in the current campaign. Like the aforementioned unit at Kyselivka, it became embroiled in a mutiny, but this time against its own leadership. According to a Ukrainian journalist, one of the brigade’s soldiers, angry over the casualties suffered during the fighting in early March near Kyiv, ran over its commander, Colonel Yuri Medvedev, with a tank (Facebook/RomanTsymbaliuk, March 23). Chechen National Guard (Rosgvardia) troops had to rescue Medvedev from his subordinates, evacuating him to a hospital in Belarus (EADdaily, March 11). The colonel’s fate remains unknown.
The Buryats are by no means the only non-Slavic ethnic minority in the Russian military that is reporting a high number of deaths. Available data suggests that two North Caucasus republics—North Ossetia and Dagestan—have suffered a comparable number of fatalities (Mediazona, April 26; Istories, May 20). In fact, Dagestan, a republic of 3.1 million people, accounts for most of the reported deaths among the constituent territories of Russia. In per capita terms, however, it ranks behind the absolute leaders, Buryatia and North Ossetia.
This is in stark contrast to predominantly Russian-populated Moscow, St. Petersburg and Moscow Oblast. Only three residents of Moscow (the sixth-largest city in the world that accounts for at least 6.6 percent of Russia’s population) are known to have been killed in action to date.
The commonly repeated argument is that “Total unemployment, meager salaries, and the debt burden of the population mean that practically the only choices that a young man [in Russia] faces in search of a way out of the economic impasse is illegal migration or military service under contract” (Sibir Realii, May 12). But that is, arguably, a simplistic and disingenuous take on the reality that unambiguously paints Russian—in this case, Buryat—contract soldiers as victims of circumstances, denying them any agency and absolving them of responsibility. The truth of the matter is, there are many other Russian republics with lower average incomes (RIA Novosti, December 2, 2019; Riarating, June 6, 2021) and higher unemployment rates (RIA Novosti, November 1, 2021), where opposition to the Russian leadership’s aggressive pursuits is sharper. Good examples include the southern republics of Karachay-Cherkessia and Kalmykia, which have reported six deaths each. Kalmykia is a particularly telling case because it is ethnically and religiously close to Buryatia. The most obvious difference, however, is that the Kalmyks, like the Karachays, suffered massive Stalinist reprisals, which must have left scars on their psyche and shaped their attitudes toward Moscow.
To sustain its campaign in Ukraine, the Kremlin needs to constantly recruit new troops. So far, its efforts have been concentrated mainly in the North Caucasus, the Far East and Siberia. As locals have displayed little zeal for Moscow’s war in Ukraine, the Chechen leadership has been increasingly recruiting non-Chechens to train and dispatch to the conflict zone (Grozny-inform.ru, March 31; RBC, May 14). By contrast, enthusiasm for the war among Buryats, Dagestanis and Ossetians still appears substantial despite the loss of many young lives (RFE/RL, May 10; Meduza, April 10; Region15.ru, March 2).
Those three republics, which have traditionally identified more closely with Russia, are likely to continue to supply draftees for Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. But as more of those draftees return home in body bags, questions will proliferate about how to end a war that has brought so much misery and isolated Russia abroad.