Potential Wildcard in Ukrainian Conflict: Russian Army Not Ethnically Homogeneous

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 27

Russian soldiers not of Russian ethnicity

Except for occasional references to Chechen fighters whom Ramzan Kadyrov sent to fight in Ukraine with disastrous results, most reporting on Vladimir Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine has referred to the Russian Armed Forces as if they were purely Russian. In fact, it is the military of the Russian Federation; and like that multi-ethnic country, the “Russian” military contains large numbers of non-Russians at all levels. Indeed, for historical and contemporary reasons, non-Russians almost certainly form a larger share of the Russian Armed Forces than they do in the population of the country at large. Just how large a share is a matter of debate because the issue of the ethnic composition of the Russian military has long been one of the most sensitive issues for Moscow and, thus, highly classified.

The share of non-Russians among draftees and contract soldiers in the Russian military has risen over the last several decades as the share of the prime draft-age cohort has shifted against the ethnic Russians (see EDM, February 10, 17, 2022) and even more because many non-Russians, especially in the North Caucasus, are far more eager to serve than are ethnic Russians, who have better life chances. On the one hand, poverty and unemployment in their regions are far higher than elsewhere; and on the other hand, many North Caucasians need to have served in uniform in order to have “the military ticket” that will allow them to work for the police in their republics, often the best job they can aspire to at present (see EDM, November 28, 2012). And because sergeants come from the pool of draftees and contract soldiers, the share of non-Russians in this key part of the military is larger still.

The officer corps of the Russian military also contains a disproportionate number of non-Russians for both socio-cultural and historical reasons. Just as the southern states in the United States have historically provided a disproportionate number of senior officers in the US Armed Forces, so too people from Ukraine (both ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living there) have provided a disproportionate share of the officers of the Soviet military and, to some extent, the Russian military, to this day. In Soviet times, this origin was concealed by a policy that allowed officers of Ukrainian nationality to change their identification to Russian once they reached field grade levels. That hid the Ukrainian origin of much of the Soviet Union’s most senior commanders.

Ethnic conflicts among draftees have long been a regular feature of Russian army life (see EDM, December 13, 2010), leading Moscow to restrict the intake of draftees from non-Russian regions in various periods (see EDM, November 28, 2012). However, demographic change ultimately compelled it to change course and even to consider forming non-Russian units, like the Chechen ones, so as to keep the non-Russians and ethnic Russians in uniform apart (APN, February 19, 2014; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 22, 2011; Novaya Gazeta, October 21, 2016; see EDM, October 12, 2016 and May 3, 2018). Such fights have an impact on unit cohesion, but they need not necessarily (at least by themselves) represent a serious command-and-control or security problem for Moscow.

Nonetheless, Russian military analyst Vladimir Belousov raised precisely this possibility in a new blog post (Facebook.com/TerraNipponica, accessed February 28), reported on by Newizv.ru, before it was taken down (Newizv.ru, February 28). He noted that in the current war in Ukraine, Russian troops are being resisted by Ukrainian citizens, “almost 20 percent of whom are ethnic Russians,” while calling attention to the fact that, today, “the Russian army consists not of ethnic Russians but of citizens of Russia.” And what may surprise many, according to statistics from 2017, “a majority of the officer corps of Russia” and even more of its sergeants are “ethnic Ukrainians.”

He argued that the official data he has examined shows that five years ago, 53 percent of the officers in the Russian Army were ethnic Ukrainians; 19 percent were other non-Russians; and only 28 percent were ethnic Russians. Among sergeants, this ethnic disproportion is even greater: 64 percent are members of Caucasus nationalities; 17 percent are other non-Russians; and only 19 percent are ethnic Russians. If one takes into account the number of officers and sergeants who come from mixed-nationality families, the non-Russian components in these two groups is larger still. Belousov stated that the share of Ukrainians in these two groups has likely declined slightly over the last few years, but the general pattern still holds, he contended.

On his Facebook page, Belousov reportedly stressed that these divisions do not necessarily suggest a looming collapse of the Russian Armed Forces. Overwhelmingly, its officers and sergeants are loyal and obedient, at least under normal circumstances. But such divides can be critical at times of crisis, such as may emerge after facing a string of significant defeats. This is a factor Moscow must worry about now, during the fighting in Ukraine—but so must Kyiv, Belousov wrote, because of the share of ethnic Russians in its own military force. Yet Kyiv’s problem is likely smaller because the percentages of such people is smaller as well, the analyst concluded.

Meanwhile, Moscow is contending with another, apparently compounding, problem as its casualties in Ukraine mount. The Russian authorities have been extremely chary in releasing numbers concerning combat losses, clearly hopeful that the additional deaths will be overlooked and obscured by the massive increase in funerals inside the Russian Federation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (Kommersant, Finanz.ru, February 21). But now, there are reports in the West and in Russia that the Russian command is cremating Russian soldiers who have died in combat, rather than returning their bodies to their relatives for honor and burial. Though, a limited number may come back posthumously to be celebrated as heroes (The Telegraph, February 23; Region.expert, February 27).

Honoring those who gave the last full measure is as important for Russians as it is for all other nations. Not honoring them—and many Russian families may not have much confidence that a box of ashes they are being given is, in fact, really the remains of their son, father or husband—is highly offensive. In most cases of losses in Ukraine, Moscow seems to be following its practice from 2014 of not even telling relatives and friends where and how these fallen soldiers lost their lives (Shlosberg.ru, October 28, 2014). That, too, could prove more divisive in Russian society than even the ethnic divides within its military.