Vladimir Putin values the life of a conscript soldier at US$1,398. Putin began making monthly payments of 100,000 rubles to families whose father, brother, or loved one was taken to war. But the families of the fallen value them more than the Kremlin.

18-year-old Anastasyia who, like many Russians, has left the country, has stated that Russians are outraged. “Everyone is demanding that he return their loved ones to them instead of trying to bribe them with money,” she continued. “My two cousins were taken from me to the war, and their mother, my aunt, is very concerned about her boys, worrying that they would be killed. It is extremely stressful for parents whose children have been taken away.”

Exodus

In late September, the Kremlin issued a conscription order calling for 300,000 men to report for military service and fight in Ukraine. Almost immediately, young men began fleeing the country. Nearly 80,000 Russians poured into Georgia, while at least 40,000 turned up in Mongolia and about 100,000 in Serbia. Kazakhstan reported the arrival of a whopping 300,000 Russians.

Valeria, a 15-year-old new arrival in Ulaanbaatar, told a story which is becoming increasingly common, “We came because of the mobilisation — I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about this, but my father received a summons from the army. They wanted to take him, but he didn’t want to go.”

Even though the conscription orders are nationwide, the draft is heavily skewed toward ethnic minorities. Russia is home to roughly 160 different ethnic groups, comprising about 20 percent of the country’s population. Even during times of peace, ethnic and religious minorities suffer repression.

Many minority peoples have fled to countries where they have ethnic or linguistic connections. Thirty-nine-year-old Vechaslav who left Russia because he had friends who had already died in the war said that a large percentage of people opposed the war, but dare not say anything for fear of government reprisals. “A lot of people are talking about how they are anti-Putin, but no one expresses it publicly. You could be sent to prison for exercising your freedom of speech.” The reason he chose Mongolia was because he already had relatives there, as is the case for many Buryat Mongols, Tuvins, or people from Altai.

Ochir, a Buryat Mongol, said that the mobilisation and sanctions were driving people out of Russia. One of the reasons why the ethnic minorities are feeling the pinch of sanctions more than other Russians is because of wealth disparity. The average standard of living in Russia is well below that of the US or western Europe.

Impoverished

As a result of the inequality of wealth and distribution, much of the population lives on par with a developing country. Rural and ethnic-minority areas are by far the poorest, and this is where most of the conscripts are taken from. These areas have the highest unemployment rates in Russia. In 2021, Ingushetia (home of the Ingush ethnic group) had 30.9 percent unemployment. Joblessness in the Republic of Dagestan (Turkic Muslim majority) was 15.1 percent. In Tuva (Tuvan ethnic group) it was 15 percent, Chechnya (Chechen) 14.5 percent, and 12 percent in Altai (Turkic and Mongolic).

Ethnic minorities are also dying in disproportionate numbers. Poorer ethnic regions are being ordered to send large numbers of their sons to war. Yakutia, located in Russia’s Far East, is home to just under 1 million Yakut ethnic people, yet the conscription quota was set at 4,500 men. Violent protests broke out in the Muslim-majority republic of Dagestan in opposition to the draft, resulting in 100 Dagestanis being arrested. As of November, 345 Dagestanis have been killed in the war, compared to a total population of only 3 million people.

The Free Buryatia Foundation, which advocates for the rights of ethnic Mongols, called the conscription “one of the most terrible nights in its history”, as officials went from house to house banging on doors forcing conscription notices. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), Buryatia is the region which has suffered the highest casualty rate so far, with 353 deaths from a total population of under 1 million By some accounts, as many as 40 percent of the total casualties in the war have been non-Slavic.

Alexey Bessudnov, a professor at the University of Exeter, determined in an OSF research paper that between February and November, the highest mortality of soldiers was among those from poor regions in Siberia and the Russian Far East, particularly Buryatia and Tuva, with a mortality rate of about 120 per 100,000 working age men. In fact, Russia’s Far East divisions comprised of Buryat Mongols and soldiers from the ethnic Serb minority led the Kiev offensive, which resulted in one of the highest casualty counts.

By contrast, the lowest mortality rates were from Moscow and St Petersburg. However, Bessudnov conceded that it is unclear if the disparity was caused by economic rather than ethnic factors, as these are also extremely poor regions where local ethnic people might view the military as a steady job. Consequently, whether Putin is violating the human rights of conscripts because of their ethnicity or because of their poverty is unclear.

However, one thing is clear — it’s the ethnic minorities of Russia who are fighting this war for a country that treats them like second-class citizens.

Antonio Graceffo

Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is a China economist, the author of Beyond the Belt and Road: China's Global Expansion and The Wrestler's Dissertation. He is based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.