Moscow has been extremely chary about reporting combat losses in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, electing instead to make the heads of the federal subjects responsible for doing so at the local level—lest it become immediately obvious to all Russians just how large these cumulative losses have become. But that decision, like the decision to make the federal subject heads responsible for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, may backfire on the central government. Not only is this forced delegation of responsibility likely to infuriate those governors, who will have to face public anger, but it may also highlight the extent to which “Russian” combat losses are concentrated in non-Russian areas and among rural Russians. Indeed, there is already growing evidence that non-Russian troops are dying in disproportionate numbers in Ukraine. So while most republic leaders have lined up behind Putin’s war, many in the national movements are now talking about pursuing secession from the Russian Federation.
Moscow has not publicly announced that it is requiring the heads of Russia’s federal subjects to announce deaths, but most observers say that this policy is clearly already in place. The Club of the Regions portal has documented such gubernatorial actions in 13 regions so far, divided almost equally between non-Russian republics and predominantly rural Russian oblasts and krais (Club-rf.ru, March 1). And close observers say this would not be happening without the approval and, even more importantly, the direct order of the Kremlin (Club-rf.ru, March 3). According to most of these analysts, Moscow undoubtedly took this step because it is well aware how sensitive many Russians are to such losses and also because the center knows that no one expects the governors to have information about nationwide casualty totals. The regional heads know only about losses in their own areas and cannot say more than that. That may help Moscow conceal the true overall numbers of Russian troops killed in action; but it also is likely to lead to competing casualty tabulations, further undermining public trust in the center. The same issues came up after the governors were given primary responsibility for combatting the coronavirus pandemic (see EDM, April 2, 2020).
But this approach is having yet another potentially explosive effect: non-Russian troops and soldiers from distant rural regions of the Russian Federation are dying in Ukraine in numbers higher than their share in the population suggests they should be. That is likely the result of the higher share they form among those in uniform rather than a concerted effort to use them instead of Russians from urban areas as cannon fodder (see EDM, March 1, 2022) ). Still, many in predominantly ethnic-Russian rural regions and in non-Russian republics are certain to believe otherwise, concluding that once again Moscow is treating them as second-class citizens. This anger can easily spark new mass protests.
Commenting on an analysis of those numbers, Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter, said that he personally finds it difficult to imagine officers would single out such troops to take the greatest losses. But he conceded that if a decision to do that were made, it would be “completely workable.” The reason for that is that levels of trust in Moscow among people in many regions and republics is “minimal” given all the policies the central government has adopted against them in the recent past (Idelreal.org, March 2).
In some non-Russian republics in the North Caucasus, the number and prominence of protesters are sufficiently high that Moscow is beginning a crackdown against them, quite possibly following the center’s usual tactic of trying out repressive measures outside the capital and only then applying them in the metropolises. One sign of this, Aleksandra Larintseva of Kommersant reports, is the appearance of “lists of enemies of the people” on social media, directed at the North Caucasus. There, they are put up anonymously. But she asserts that the Kremlin is undoubtedly behind this initiative and speculates that the practice may spread, leading to popular reprisals against those opposed to the war. Also possible are more serious moves against them, such as loss of position or even the imposition of criminal penalties. Given what the status of “enemies of the people” meant in Stalinist times, many in the Russian Federation are alarmed by these developments (Kavkazr.com, March 4).
While the Kremlin can still count on its appointees in these republics to support the war in Ukraine at least in public, there is no question that the conflict has exacerbated tensions between Moscow and the non-Russians. Many of the latter see Putin’s increasingly aggressive imperialism abroad as a sign that his imperialism at home, already at a level not seen since Soviet times, may be about to worsen. That sentiment is especially true in the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus, but it is found elsewhere as well (Idelreal.org, February 24; Kavkazr.com, February 28; 7×7-journal.ru, February 28).
Perhaps the most unexpected indication of non-Russian opposition to the war came when Karine Khabirova, the wife of the head of Bashkortostan, recently posted on social networks her opposition to the war. Her husband, Radiy Khabirov, has not spoken out, but it seems likely he agrees with her at least privately. Although he may have welcomed the fact that his wife’s post was quickly taken down (Mkset.ru, February 25). More dramatic but perhaps not yet as important have been calls by Middle Volga and Chechen opposition figures based abroad for their co-nationals to oppose the war by seeking either a new federal treaty that would block Moscow from pursuing wars or, if that proves impossible, even seeking full independence from Russia (Kavkazr.com, Idelreal.org, March 4).
How much support such appeals from abroad have within the republics inside the current borders of the Russian Federation remains unclear. But as Putin’s war in Ukraine continues, it is entirely possible that ever more non-Russians will reach similar conclusions. This is likely sparking worries in the Kremlin, encouraging new efforts to repress such people. At some point, however, crackdowns may prove as counterproductive as throwing water on a grease fire.