‘Putin is using ethnic minorities to fight in Ukraine’: Activist

Russian minorities are much more likely to die in Ukraine, the Free Buryatia Foundation tells Al Jazeera.

A man holds portrait of Russian Army officer Naidal Tsyrenov, who was killed during fighting in Ukraine, during the Immortal Regiment march in Ulan-Ude, the regional capital of Buryatia, a region near the Russia-Mongolia border, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2022, marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II. (AP Photo)
A man holds the portrait of Russian Army serviceman Naidal Tsyrenov, who was killed during fighting in Ukraine, during the Immortal Regiment march in Ulan-Ude, the regional capital of Buryatia on May 9, 2022 [File: AP Photo]

On October 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his partial mobilisation order was to conclude by the end of the month.

In his words, 222,000 people had been drafted out of the target of 300,000 and there were no plans for further recruitment.

When he declared the draft four weeks earlier, the chaotic mobilisation process provoked nationwide protests and drew criticism from politicians and public figures close to the Kremlin, revealing tensions within the Russian political elite.

Reports of men being rounded up highlighted the disproportionate impact the war has had on Russians from impoverished regions and ethnic minorities.

According to data collected by Russian independent media, a number of areas with high minority populations have suffered the most casualties in the war.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian media and authorities have accused ethnic minority Russian soldiers of carrying out war crimes in Ukraine.

In May, Lyudmyla Denisova, the then Ukrainian ombudsman for human rights, said Chechens and Buryats were responsible for the war crimes in Bucha.

After this statement and Ukrainian media reports of atrocities, the Free Buryatia Foundation released an investigation challenging the finding that Buryat units were deployed in Bucha and were responsible for war crimes there.

Al Jazeera spoke to Victoria Maladaeva, vice president of the foundation, about the war in Ukraine and its impact on the Republic of Buryatia, a federal region and historical homeland of the Indigenous Buryat people located on Russia’s border with Mongolia.

Al Jazeera: How has the war affected minorities in Russia?

Victoria Maladaeva: We know that statistically Dagestan, Tuva Republic and Buryat Republic, where minorities live, have the highest death toll.

Moscow [a region of 17 million] has fewer than 50 dead. Buryatia [a region with a population of 980,000] alone has 364.

We have been disproportionately hit hard.

The chances of a Buryat dying in the war in Ukraine is 7.8 times higher than [an ethnic] Russian; a Tuvan is 10.4 times more likely.

We saw the biggest losses [of Buryat servicemen] in the beginning of the war when they sent them there as cannon fodder. Afterwards, the numbers decreased gradually.

Al Jazeera: Did the mobilisation order more closely target Russia’s minorities?

Maladaeva: The fact that the mobilisation was first completed in ethnic republics shows that this is where they first started drafting.

The day of Putin’s announcement, local authorities in Buryatia came to people’s homes at night. They took people from their beds. Some weren’t even given draft notices. They were just dragged onto buses and signed up at military bases. They took everyone, even [in contravention of the rules] people with five children, several men from the same family.

In Dagestan, there are endangered ethnic groups. Some are super small communities with populations of about 13,000, and they were still drafted. We see this as an ethnic genocide.

In Sakha Republic, there are small communities who live in rural villages. If you need medical treatment, you need to call a helicopter. They would never receive help because they are too far away. But with this mobilisation, the government flew to these villages to get men drafted.

People see this as an injustice — that Putin is using ethnic minorities to fight in Ukraine for his imperial ambitions.

Al Jazeera: Why do you think the Kremlin has decided to send minorities to fight?

Maladaeva: It’s because of Putin’s imperialistic mindset. It is obvious that in the war, he is using ethnic minorities. He calls himself a Russian nationalist and he always talks about how great Russian culture is, Russian language, completely denying that there are more than 20 million people of other nationalities in Russia.

He is an imperialist. He propagandises everything that is Russian. In Russia, when you are not Russian, you a second-class citizen. It’s the same with names.

When Putin was meeting Kazakhstan’s President [Kassym-Jomart Tokayev], he would mispronounce his name. This is also imperialist because in Russia, if you have a native name, like a Buryat name — Dolgor Badmaevna — Russians would tell you, “Oi, this is too complicated. We will call you Annie.”

The imperial politics of the Kremlin have always been chauvinist, using national minorities and now even migrants from Central Asia in this war.

Al Jazeera: What do people in Buryatia make of the Russian narrative about Nazi ideology in Ukraine?

Maladaeva: People in Buryatia believe in this propaganda, but we try to explain to our people that the hate Ukrainians have of Russians can be understood. It was not Ukraine that attacked Buryatia. It was Russia that attacked Ukraine. We should not be fighting there.

Al Jazeera: Have you found any evidence that Buryat people have committed crimes in Ukraine?

Maladaeva: It is not our task to identify the participation of Buryats in war crimes. Why is there a focus on the Buryat? All ethnicities in Russia are participating in the war. For Ukrainians, it’s not important who the occupiers are, but they still focus on Buryats. This is despite the fact that we disproved several times claims about Buryats [committing crimes]. We pointed out that these were not Buryat. They were from another ethnicity and were speaking a completely different language. For them, all Asians are Buryat.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian side has also taken this up and are emphasising ethnicity. There is a racist element to this as ethnicity should not be relevant [in criminal behaviour]. When ethnic Russians commit crimes, no one points out they are ethnic Russians.

Al Jazeera: According to reports, 78 Buryat soldiers from the 11th air assault brigade were not allowed to terminate their contracts and were imprisoned in occupied Luhansk. Do you know what happened to them?

Maladaeva: They are still there. Ilya Kaminskiy, one of the 78 who demanded to terminate their contracts, was the only one to return. We don’t know what happened to the rest.

Al Jazeera: Why did you establish the foundation?

Victoria Maladaeva: We, a few friends, recorded a video, Buryats Against the War, and expected a backlash because it seemed like everybody in Russia agreed with the [Kremlin’s war] propaganda.

Surprisingly, we received so many messages of support — Buryat people around the world who wanted to participate. We made another video and found Buryats in Ukraine who wanted to spread the message that there are no Nazis in Ukraine, that they had never experienced discrimination or racism.

We went to meetings around the world and people were interested in our campaign, so we decided to establish a foundation.

We knew there was a lot of work to do, including gathering data about servicemen from Buryatia in Ukraine and counting the death toll because [the authorities] started hiding it.

We wanted to tell the Buryat people about the war.

We are the first ethnic anti-war organisation in Russia. We also helped establish anti-war organisations in other regions like Tuva, Kalmykia, Udmurtia, Sakha.

Al Jazeera: How have you helped those who did not want to fight in Ukraine?

Maladaeva: We received a lot of requests from the families whose sons, brothers were in Ukraine, and they wanted to terminate their contracts, but they didn’t know the laws. They didn’t know how to do it. So we found a good lawyer and she has been helping us to terminate contracts.

We [realised] we can’t stop Putin, but we could take as many men as possible from him, so there would be fewer people fighting. We were quite successful in that. In June, we had a plane with 150 servicemen flying to Buryatia because they all terminated their contracts.

Al Jazeera: Did many people leave Buryatia after the mobilisation call?

Maladaeva: Buryats spoke with their feet. They just ran. Whoever had money and passports left for Mongolia or Kazakhstan or other countries. The lines for Mongolia were quite long. We now have a small community there. Our fund also helped; we managed to help 10 busloads of people escape following the order.

Al Jazeera: Were some Buryats able to return home after challenging mobilisation notices as happened reportedly with thousands of men?

Maladaeva: Some people were able to come back; others were not. There were two cases — one man had five children and the other was the only veterinarian in his village. They were taken at night without a draft notice or a medical check-up and were unable to come back.

There was also a case of a former military man who left the army 10 years ago and is disabled. He has a metal implant in his knee. We contacted our lawyer, and she wrote complaints on his behalf. They finally released him after he spent eight days at the military base and was able to return home.

Al Jazeera: How is the mobilisation affecting the region?

Maladaeva: The economic and social situation is tough. In 2020, Buryatia was 81st in terms of living standards in Russia’s 85 regions. It was a depressing place already. Young men, especially in small towns and villages, have no economic opportunities other than to go into the army or find locally [low-paid jobs] through connections.

So now that they have taken so many men — by our calculations about 6,500 people, but the number might be higher — people are complaining there is no one to do hard work in the villages.

On top of that, people had to give up savings to pay for personal items the army could not provide, like bulletproof vests. They were given a whole list of things they need to buy: first aid kits, bandages, power banks, sleeping bags, warm clothes.

Al Jazeera: There were protests in some ethnic minority regions in Russia after the mobilisation order was announced. Do you expect protests if there is a second wave of mobilisations?

Maladaeva: It’s difficult to say. If there were protests in the first wave, probably there will be if there is a second one. People’s patience is wearing thin.

This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter @mkpetkova

Source: Al Jazeera