Why protests in Chechnya and Dagestan should trouble Moscow

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WASHINGTON — When the Russian invasion of Ukraine first began, Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov vowed loyalty and military support for the Kremlin. In bellicose (and frequently deceptive) social media posts, Kadyrov and his military commanders sought to use legends of Chechen military ferocity — embedded deep in the Russian psyche — as a countermeasure to the images of a valiant Ukrainian resistance.

But when it came to sending more Chechen young men to the front last week, Kadyrov made a show of defying the Kremlin, which had just announced a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 troops. Chechen conscription targets had been “overfulfilled,” he claimed, in what was widely seen as an effort to blunt popular discontent over a military operation whose failures could no longer be disguised with blustery Telegram messages.

Russia’s war, fought by many Muslims and poor people

Discontent over the draft has extended beyond Chechnya. While many protests have taken place in the northern Caucasus, there have also been demonstrations in the Siberian city of Yakutsk and even in distant Vladivostok, near the border with North Korea.

Police officers detain a man at a protest as he screams.

Police officers detain a man at a Moscow protest on Sept. 21 against the “partial mobilization” announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

Fury at the mobilization has been especially pronounced in Dagestan, which neighbors Chechnya and shares many of its cultural attributes. “I think Dagestan is going to become a hot spot for anti-mobilization protests going forward,” Russia expert Samuel Ramani told Yahoo News. “Unrest, sometimes, in one autonomous region can extend to others. These protests can move asymmetrically.”

“The first to be pushed to the front will be poor boys from Tatarstan, Buryatia, Chechnya, Dagestan and other minority regions,” London-based Russia analyst Jeff Hawn wrote on Twitter.

The mobilization highlights a reality that has become impossible to ignore. While being fought on Russia’s behalf, the war is devastating mostly poor families, many of them from Muslim or Turkic backgrounds, far from the nodes of power in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where wealthier families have long used connections and bribes to absolve sons of military service.

Despite the Kremlin’s Slavocentric emphasis, Russia is a multinational state; though it is dominated by population centers in the country’s west, the 5,600 miles from its European holdings to its Pacific coast contain a rich panoply of ethnicities, religions and cultures.

“Why are a lot of Muslims going to the army this way? Because they’re poor,” Paul Goble, a former high-ranking State Department expert on Soviet and Eurasian affairs, told Yahoo News. Enlisting men from dispossessed areas to act as replacement forces in the Ukrainian war seemed to involve little risk for an administration thoroughly oriented toward the country’s power elite.

Goble describes the Kremlin’s approach to the mobilization as having been conducted by Russian President Vladimir Putin under a cynical premise: “How do I carry this out so that few people in Moscow and St. Petersburg get rounded up?”

Yet the extent of the recent protests appears to suggest that the Kremlin misjudged how its mobilization order would be received in the areas it targeted. “This partial mobilization is not well planned and is likely to backfire,” Goble told Yahoo News. “This is a classic Soviet approach. They should know better.” In shows of solidarity, Muscovites and Petersburgers have also taken to the streets, where they have frequently encountered rough police tactics.

Mobilized reservists look out the back of a truck at people gathered on the street.

Mobilized reservists at a recruitment center in Makhachkala, Dagestan, on Sept. 22. (Stringer/TASS via ZUMA Press)

Instead of evenly distributing the war’s most obvious hardship — that is, military service, with its resulting risk of injury and death, especially in a military as poorly trained, prepared and led as Russia’s — the Kremlin instead concentrated those hardships in areas with few economic prospects and deepening social despair.

‘Russia ruined everything I had’

The Islamic regions of Chechnya and Dagestan were subjugated by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, shortly after Ukraine was also brought under the control of the czars in St. Petersburg. Their unsuccessful attempts at independence would continue into modernity, surviving the cultural erasures of the Soviet Union and persisting into the present.

Dagestan is believed to have suffered the heaviest losses of any region of Russia since the war began in Ukraine. The rugged region on the Caspian Sea coast is more than 1,000 miles from Ukraine. For many in Dagestan, making further sacrifices for the war effort has become untenable. In one protest following the mobilization order, women confronted a police officer. “Why are you taking our children? Who was attacked? Russia was attacked? They didn’t come to us. It was us attacking Ukraine. Russia has attacked Ukraine! Stop the war!” one woman shouted at a police officer, according to the BBC.

A group of people on a street at night watch a truck drive away.

People watch mobilized troops being sent off in Makhachkala on Sept. 22. (Stringer/TASS via ZUMA Press)

More than 100 people have been arrested in Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, but even the unwelcome prospect of rough treatment by local law enforcement authorities isn’t comparable to being ordered to the front, where Russian troops are facing a Western-armed Ukraine that made astonishing gains last month. It was those gains that prompted Putin to announce a mobilization two weeks ago.

For the Kremlin, keeping these rugged, remote republics as part of Russia is a reminder to other ethnic minorities to put their own dreams of independence aside. Otherwise they could suffer the fate that Chechnya did during the 1990s, when its attempts at secession were ruthlessly suppressed by the Kremlin in two costly wars.

The first of those wars was launched by Boris Yeltsin and ended with a devastating rout of Russian forces in the Chechen capital, Grozny. In 1999, Putin, then Russia’s new and untested prime minister, blamed a series of devastating apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities on Chechens, though compelling evidence points to Russia’s own security services as having engineered the attacks.

A Chechen woman pulls a cart behind her as she walks through the rubble of a near-flattened street.

A woman walks through the rubble of a near-flattened street in Grozny, Chechnya, in April 2000. (Stringer/EPA/Shutterstock)

Putin used the bombings as justification for the second Chechen war, which he won by leveling Grozny and terrorizing its citizens. The Kadyrov family (first Akhmad and, after he was assassinated in 2004, his son Ramzan) has kept the peace since then with its own brand of pro-Kremlin ruthlessness. After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Putin argued that his campaign against Chechnya was no different from the “global war on terror” launched by President George W. Bush, despite clear differences between Chechen militants and fundamentalist groups like al-Qaida.

The war in Ukraine, however, appears to have brought about a shift, one that has been accelerated by Putin’s mobilization. Even as Kadyrov pledged his own forces to the war effort, other Chechens went to fight on the Ukrainian side.

“Russia ruined everything I had,” one Chechen fighting for Ukraine told NPR last month.

A message to Russian minorities, sent via Ukraine

With its ferocious defense against the Russian invasion, Ukraine appears to have jostled long-dormant aspirations across Russia, as well as in independent former Soviet republics that live in the Kremlin’s shadow.

As an emboldened Ukraine continues to push back demoralized Russian lines, the Kremlin has recalibrated its war aims, from outright regime change in Kyiv to holding onto the eastern and southern tracts where it is most entrenched. Yet no amount of propaganda can fully disguise the weaknesses in Russia’s political and military leadership that the last seven months of conflict have revealed.

“The Ukrainians are proving something that everyone thought was impossible,” said Goble. “Namely, that someone could stand up to the Russian army and at least fight it to a draw.”

A Ukrainian flag waves on a street of a recently liberated Ukrainian village.

A Ukrainian flag waves on a street of the recently liberated village of Vysokopillya, Kherson region, on Sept. 27. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Unlike the Ukrainians, the protesters in Dagestan and elsewhere are not fighting the Russian army. But they are also making clear that they have no interest in fighting in the Russian army against a Ukraine equipped with powerful Western weapons.

Across Russia, young men desperate to avoid serving in Ukraine have been streaming into neighboring countries like Georgia and the three Baltic nations. But escape is a luxury unavailable to many. Young men stuck inside Russia are faced with the prospect of fighting in a war that has gone on far longer than the Kremlin intended, and that has already claimed an estimated 25,000 Russian lives. If the reasons for invading Ukraine were never clear, the lack of a clear objective is especially pronounced for young men and their families.

“Our children are not fertilizer!” another woman protesting in Dagestan shouted at authorities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been courting this discontent. In a video posted to Twitter last week, he stands before a Kyiv monument to Imam Shamil, a Dagestani warrior who fought against Russian conquest. “Dagestanis should not be dying in Ukraine,” Zelensky says, naming other ethnic minorities being asked to make sacrifices for Russia’s sake. “Chechens, Ingushetians, Ossetians, Circassians and any other peoples who found themselves under the Russian flag. Almost 200 different peoples. You know who is sending them to Ukraine.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, wearing a sweatshirt that reads

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a video address last week, stands in front of a Kyiv monument to Dagestani hero Imam Shamil. (Twitter)

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, the residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg rose up in protest. There have been anti-mobilization protests there too, but the heart of the resistance now lies hundreds of miles from those redoubts of power and wealth.

The mobilization also deepens seemingly irresolvable contradictions within a multiethnic society where national identity is subordinate to rule from Moscow.

The legend of the Chechens

Known for keeping a pet tiger and brandishing weapons, Kadyrov, along with his adherents, has consciously burnished the prevailing image that many Russians hold of Chechens as hardscrabble fighters unafraid of either meting out death to the enemy or dying in battle themselves. In some ways, Kadyrov is the modern-day version of the larger-than-life warlords depicted in the fiction of writers like Leo Tolstoy, as well as more recent depictions of the north Caucasus in television and cinema.

Kadyrov has been regularly taking to Telegram, a social media platform popular in Russia, to boast of forthcoming battlefield conquests, raising fears that the kind of brutality that once marked the fighting in Chechnya would also inform Russia’s conduct in Ukraine.

Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Russian province of Chechnya, extends his arms as he speaks at a lectern.

Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Russian province of Chechnya, speaks to about 10,000 troops in the regional capital, Grozny, on March 29. (AP Photo)

“For Russians raised on the 19th century literary classics, this is the wild frontier, a land of ferocious brigands, unbreakable blood oaths and fiery passions. It’s what Sicily is to the Italians, what Scotland was once to the English,” Russia expert Mark Galeotti told Yahoo News. “Of course, the Russian perception is based on myth, prejudice and Orientalism, but it’s nonetheless powerful for all that.”

The resistance to Putin’s mobilization contradicts that facile narrative, making clear to the rest of Russia that ordinary Chechens are unwilling to heed Putin’s order. In an effort to blunt popular discontent, Kadyrov said Chechnya had fulfilled 254% of its conscription commitment to Ukraine. While that figure is difficult to confirm, it was also an obvious signal for the Kremlin to back off.

An analysis from the Institute for the Study of War described Kadyrov’s resistance to the mobilization as “a worrisome indicator for the Kremlin” because, as that analysis argued, “if one of the war’s most vociferous and aggressive advocates feels the need to refuse to mobilize his people, at least publicly, that could indicate that even Kadyrov senses the popular resentment the partial mobilization will cause and possibly even fears it.”

While shows of defiance in Chechnya, Dagestan and elsewhere may not result in independence in the short term, it is clear that a movement has been reawakened.

“I don’t expect the borders of the Russian Federation to be where they are now in 10 years,” Russia expert Goble told Yahoo News.

Cover thumbnail photo: Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin via Reuters

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