The Russian full-scale re-invasion against Ukraine, launched in February 2022, was initially explained as the desire for “denazification” of Kyiv. This meant a struggle against the national self-determination of Ukraine, which entered into an insurmountable conflict with Kremlin imperialism. However, in the protracted war, Moscow has started to rely on national movements. In June 2022, the formation of “volunteer national battalions” began in Russian regions, and the authorities intend to send them en masse to the Ukrainian front.
In the Russian post-Soviet army, as well as with earlier Soviet forces, ethnic and regional communities were not welcome. This was largely because these communities form a cohesive structure not only in the face of the enemy but also in the face of regimental commanders and all other higher authorities.
The first to break this tradition was the regional head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. The unique position of this politician in today’s Russia comes from his own combination of hawkish Kremlin imperialism and local nationalism. Kadyrov has already sent several “volunteer battalions” from Chechnya to Ukraine, though some doubt that members’ participation in these units is anything but voluntary. The historical precedent of World War I should be remembered here, when the “Native (or Savage) Division” was created, consisting of Caucasian Muslims who were not recruited into the Russian army (Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, July 14). However, after the fall of Tsardom in February 1917, many volunteers of this division began to create and defend their own independent republics.
The creation of ethno-regional units clearly shows the critical situation in the Russian imperial army, since such units deprive the armed forces of uniform standards and sometimes even a common language. Following Kadyrov, the leaders of other Russian regions, on apparent orders from the Kremlin, have set about forming their own volunteer battalions for the war in Ukraine. The authorities attract only local residents to them and give the battalions names associated with local heroes, toponyms, native languages and other regional specifics: “Vyatka” in Kirov Oblast, “Parma” in Perm Krai, “Tiger” in the Far East, “Alga” and “Timer” in Tatarstan, “Onego” and “Ladoga” in Karelia, a battalion named after Mimazovich Shaimuratov in Bashkortostan, and so forth. In the latter case, it is significant that the Bashkir battalion was given the name not of historical fighters for independence but that of a Soviet-era general. However, all regional divisions have their own insignia: special chevrons and their own flags. Volunteers are offered a monthly income of up to 300,000 rubles along with various benefits (Business-gazeta.ru, June 23; Vlad.mk.ru, July 9).
Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin and now an opposition political scientist, believes that this process is an attempt by Russian authorities to arouse mass complicity in the Kremlin’s politics among citizens: “Now the inhabitants of many regions, especially national republics, think that what is happening in Ukraine is someone else’s war. The conditional Bashkir perceives it as a war of Russians against Ukrainians. At best, he takes a neutral position on this matter and maybe even sympathizes with the Ukrainians.” But the Putin regime has already started actual mobilization at the regional level. And Gallyamov expresses fears that “the strengthening of regional, especially ethnic identity in the context of a general increase in protest moods, will inevitably lead to an increase in separatist sentiments” (Verstka.media, June 22).
But observing the creation of regional battalions in Karelia, where the population of indigenous Finno-Ugric people is quite small, as well as in other Russian oblasts and krais, regional authorities obviously do not seek to build these units precisely along ethnic lines. Although a recent slip by the Karelian military commissar is extremely revealing: “The formation of volunteer battalions is necessary for Russia to get away from general (official) mobilization” (Stolicaonego.ru, June 27).
In Nizhny Novgorod, a volunteer tank battalion was named after 17th-century hero Kuzma Minin—regional authorities openly play on the local historical mythology of the “people’s militia” (Topcor.ru, July 7). This may seem to be true regionalism, formally based on historical regional symbols, but it is actually a façade that serves the interests of the Kremlin empire. Moscow has long propagated such a “turning inside out” of regions with the principle of federation, which in Russia has come to mean not a high level of regional self-government but an instrument of external expansion and the creation of pseudo-independent formations in the post-Soviet space, such as the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (Region.expert, February 8).
It is possible that by creating “volunteer battalions” the Kremlin seeks to retain control over these pseudo-state formations at all costs—in conditions when the Ukrainian army is beginning to strengthen, receiving weapons under lend-lease from Western allies. Private military companies (PMCs), not only regional battalions, are also becoming active in Ukraine. These PMCs are recruiting mercenaries for the war, despite the fact that mercenarism is officially prohibited in Russia (66.ru, July 15). Recently, President Putin even increased the criminal liability for mercenary action, but the government pretends that these PMCs have nothing to do with the state. These statements’ lies are clearly shown by the fact that the well-known Wagner PMC is recruiting Russian prisoners for the war in Ukraine, which no “non-state” company could do (Istories.media, July 4).
In reality, the process of turning Russian regional inhabitants into cannon fodder for the Kremlin is already underway (see EDM, April 20). Hastily recruited “volunteers” cannot be an effective military force; they are attracted only by propaganda and by pay that significantly exceeds the average salary in their regions. It is enormously significant that volunteer battalions are not being created in Moscow, though it is the largest region of the Russian Federation in terms of population. Moscow reserves its status as the creator and distributor of aggressive imperial propaganda throughout the country, but the Russian elite living there have no desire to fight. Even so, Putin’s fixed idea of conquering Ukraine requires increasing sacrifices. And perhaps the price for regional inhabitants will still exceed compensation for the dead, which has been promised to volunteers’ families.
Commenting on this actual mobilization, Jamestown Foundation analyst Paul Goble draws a fundamental conclusion about the prospect of events: “Whichever happens, it will be a turning point not only for the war in Ukraine but also for the Russian Federation itself” (see EDM, July 14). As has already happened in Russian history, it was common for the empire to consider itself “eternal,” but the people, once mobilized, eventually returned and overthrew the national government that had deceived them.