An ethnic Buryat Russian soldier fighting in Donbas
The admission by a Moscow newspaper of what the whole world knows even if its leaders sometimes won’t say — that Moscow has deployed units of its own army in Ukraine – has attracted attention around the world, but one part of that acknowledgement has not, although ultimately this may be the most important part of it.
And that is this: Moscow is not using just any of its own troops. It is using non-Russians in its war against Ukraine, and at least some of their fellow non-Russians within the current borders of the Russian Federation are asking a question that Vladimir Putin certainly doesn’t want them to: when, they inquire, did the Ukrainians attack our nations and republics?
Four of the seven soldiers referred to by Ilya Barabanov in “Kommersant” on Thursday are from non-Russian parts of the country, not surprising given the demographic decline of the ethnic Russians relative to non-Russian nations there and economic problems that drive some non-Russians to see the military as a way out much as less-well-off groups do in other countries.
In reporting this pattern but in not giving the full names so that the nationalities of those involved could be determined, the “Kommersant” journalist says by way of a postscript that “the author knows the full names of all the heroes of the text but the editors do not consider it correct to publish them yet.”
But Barabanov provides one telling detail: an exchange among soldiers of the Russian military. One, who notes that there are Buryats in their ranks, says that they are “Donbas Indians,” a dismissive comment about a proud Mongol nation in the Transbaikal. And then the journalist adds “All smile [because] all understand everything.”
In commenting on this story, however, one Buryat activist makes it clear that not everyone understands everything or at last everything in the way that Vladimir Putin would like them to. Sayana Mongush notes that “Ukraine has not attacked Buryatia, Tuva or Yakutia” and wonders why men from there should be sent to fight there.
Once again, the empire is using its non-Russian subjects to do its fighting, and once again, while some are doing so willingly, others are questioning this practice. And such questions in and of themselves highlight the divisions within Russian society and undermine the supposed monolithic unity of that country.
At the very least, they are likely to give some in Moscow pause about a policy that demographics and economics have left the Russian regime if it wants to continue its aggression with no choice but to adopt.
In the coming days and weeks as Putin’s aggression continues, it will thus be important to watch not only the extent to which the Russian Army in Ukraine is not exclusively Russian but also the way in which non-Russians are reacting to their use, especially as the Kremlin pushes an ever more Russian nationalist line and reduces its support for non-Russian areas.
At the same time, and in yet another indication that neither Russians nor non-Russians are as eager to fight in Ukraine as some have suggested, there are increasingly frequent reports that Moscow will use at least some of the prisoners it plans to amnesty as soldiers in Ukraine.
Indeed, it is not impossible to imagine that some of these prisoners will be offered their freedom only if they agree to fight in Ukraine. To the extent that happens, Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine will take on not only a non-Russian face but very much a criminal one as well.