As Protests Erupt Over Putin’s Draft, a More Ominous Threat Surfaces

Demonstrators in the mostly Muslim North Caucasus are hinting at secession

As Protests Erupt Over Putin’s Draft, a More Ominous Threat Surfaces
Police officers detain demonstrators in Saint Petersburg on September 21, 2022, following calls to protest against partial mobilisation announced by President Vladimir Putin ( Photo by Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his mobilization order on Sept. 21, the country’s first military draft since World War II, protests have erupted across Russia. From the glittering Russian capital to army recruitment offices in Siberia to impoverished fishing villages in the Far East, thousands of Russians have taken to the streets to express opposition to fighting Moscow’s war in Ukraine. They have also staged a wave of arson attacks on conscription offices and even shot a military recruiter.

Though subject to a steady stream of anti-Ukraine propaganda that paints Kyiv as a fascist state run by “Nazis,” the number of Russians opposing Moscow’s neo-imperialist war is steadily growing. The “partial mobilization” order was ostensibly for some 300,000 Russian army reservists. But it was disorderly and chaotic: Men with zero ties to the military were called up, as well as fathers of multiple children, men in their 50s and men who are disabled. Men from Russia’s ethnic minorities, such as the Buddhist Buryats and the nomadic and reindeer-herding Yakuts, received their papers in grossly disproportionate numbers to the majority white, Orthodox Christian Russian population.

But there is a corner of Russia where these protests are taking on a different flavor. In the mostly Muslim North Caucasus, the protesters’ message for the Kremlin is stark: “This is not our war.”

“Our” says a lot here. The string of small republics along Russia’s southern flank has long opposed Moscow’s rule, resistance that goes back centuries, and the threat of separatism is an ever-present thorn in the Kremlin’s side. A simmering Islamist insurgency, low standards of living and widespread racial discrimination make these most fragile of Russia’s regions a veritable tinderbox.

Now inside Russia’s Achilles’ heel, dissent is gaining momentum at a record pace. War in the North Caucasus brought Putin to power 22 years ago. Then a little-known prime minister, Putin earned his hard-line reputation with a renewed bombing campaign of Chechnya, paving the way for his presidential win in 2000.

Russia commentators are now wondering: Will war also be his undoing? “Ironically, the state’s great strength in creating propaganda narratives has been to use social media effectively,” says Ian Garner, a scholar of Russian war propaganda. “But they’re not conducting a symphony orchestra, it’s more like throwing bait out to animals who are barely under control. And now the anti-mobilization narrative is spreading, and the state is struggling to restrain what it has, in a sense, created,” he tells New Lines.

Today, Chechnya is governed with an iron fist by pro-Kremlin despot Ramzan Kadyrov. But that didn’t stop a group of over 100 mothers from gathering this week on the central square in the republic’s capital of Grozny in protest against the mobilization order (they were immediately punished by authorities who conscripted their sons later that day). On either side of Chechnya — to its west, Ingushetia, and to its east, Dagestan on the Caspian Sea — people are staging much larger protests. In the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala, protesters have blocked highways as both men and women, T-shirt-clad and wearing hijabs, young and old have clashed with police. On Sept. 26, Telegram channel “Morning Dagestan” announced the creation of a “partisan” movement to stop the mobilization, with plans to attack state infrastructure like railways and gas pipelines every night. “May Allah destroy the occupiers,” one member wrote in reply. Protesters have gathered at night on the beautiful, cobblestone streets of the Dagestani city of Derbent, where Islam first crossed into Russia in the seventh century and where communities attend mosques that were built long before Russia finally managed to annex the region over 200 years ago.

“The Caucasus are not Russia!” another man wrote in a separate post on the channel. “Putin is so scared of color revolutions that he actually brought Maidans to Russia, with his own hands,” he said, referring to the “Maidan protests” in Kyiv eight years ago that ousted the pro-Russian leadership. Within hours, the post had almost 8,000 likes.

The messaging and framing coming out of the protests evoke the various struggles for independence from Moscow. On social media, protest organizers have drawn on the region’s storied past of resistance for the imagery they use. A flier in Ingushetia shows people dressed in the traditional dress of the Caucasus, with men in the cartridge-laden woolen coats often associated with the fight for freedom. Illustrated posters for rallies in Makhachkala show the outline of a man against a backdrop of the Caucasus mountains, painted in blazing red. It feels like a nod toward the bloodshed that has taken place in those hills in both pre-revolutionary and Soviet times. Josef Stalin’s vicious deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush populations to Central Asia during World War II has had a lasting effect on the people’s psyche and sense of otherization from the rest of Russia. The event, in which at least 130,000 people died, is solemnly marked each year in both republics. As the Soviet Union was breaking apart 30 years ago, Chechnya dared to declare independence from Russia, which led to two bloody wars of secession that ended when Russian troops invaded the tiny republic. The second of these wars started in 1999, when Putin’s troops flattened Grozny and killed tens of thousands of civilians. Though initially fueled by goals of independence, the movement across the North Caucasus morphed into an Islamist insurgency that Moscow has struggled to contain ever since. In Dagestan, with a population of some 3 million, almost 2,000 people left to join the Islamic State group — about the same number who left France (with a population of over 65 million) for that purpose.

Demonstrators are organizing large protests to take place after Friday prayers on Sept. 30. “Invaders do not become martyrs,” one poster says. People in the North Caucasus are acutely aware of what a Russian invasion feels like, even today. The 19th-century, anti-colonial war against tsarist forces, which raged for almost 50 years, took a terrible toll on the highlanders and still influences the modern mindset; there is scarcely a Dagestani home or family that does not have a portrait of the warrior Imam Shamil, the freedom fighter who took on imperial Russia.

Today when residents describe their wish to break free from Russia, they evoke his name, which is also carved into the sides of mountains. A photo of Shamil, sporting a voluminous black beard and grasping a dagger, has even featured on some fliers for anti-mobilization protests.

In recent decades, there has been an unwritten agreement that in return for loyalty to Moscow, the regional political elites get financial handouts and can rule as they wish. But fighting and killing in Ukraine to satisfy Moscow may be a demand too far for the local population, many of whom view the conflict as an intra-Orthodox, intra-Slav issue. “Enough of our brothers’ deaths in a war that is foreign to us!” wrote members of Adat, a Chechen opposition movement, on its Telegram channel this week, notifying followers of a rally in Nalchik, the capital of the North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Not all recent conscripts are opposed to fighting Moscow’s war in Ukraine, however.

It would be remiss to not draw parallels with World War II. Like Putin’s present-day control over the North Caucasus, the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia, was the defining moment of glory in the country’s relatively recent past. During his time in power, Putin has steadily politicized the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany, making May 9 the country’s most important secular holiday. The day is marked with elaborate military parades on Moscow’s Red Square, and foreign leaders have often attended. A staggering 27 million Soviets died in the war. The loss of so many and the ultimate victory have played an instrumental role in the country’s contemporary mythmaking, sense of identity and creeping militarization. Putin used this year’s May 9 speech to build support for his 21st-century war of aggression in Ukraine.

His mobilization order, which dipped into the general population, has effectively transformed the conflict from a so-called special military operation in a faraway place to a war to defend Russian land; the last time this was the case was in 1941, when Nazi troops invaded the Soviet Union. (The only other time Russia called up men for military service was in 1914, when Russia entered World War I, with what was then the largest army in the world). Moscow’s disastrous, decadelong war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, though it involved a draft, was never officially declared as such.

Watching videos of conscripted men on social media last week felt like witnessing World War II in real time. Across Russia, unfit, poorly trained men — just as they were eighty years ago — bid farewell to their wives and relatives as they boarded buses to military bases or straight to the front lines in Ukraine. Shortly before the mobilization order, there was evidence of men being rounded up in prisons to be sent to Ukraine, echoing a central part of Soviet strategy during World War II that involved the creation of battalions with men from penal colonies.

Since the mobilization order, videos have since surfaced of men drinking alcohol and boasting about the Ukrainian women they will abuse and their plans for marauding. Instead of the famous phrase “To Berlin!” — which has become synonymous in Russian society with Soviet victory, emblazoned on hats and seen on T-shirts and cars — many of these men chanted, “To Kyiv!” But once the new soldiers were at their bases, several hastily filmed phone videos show them complaining about the lack of supplies and inadequate food. Some expressed their fear of being “cannon fodder.”

Unlike World War II, the war in Ukraine does not look like it will end in triumph for Moscow. By tapping into past glories to move forward, Putin has ended up in the opposite direction, toward humiliation.

How will Russia wrest back that narrative now?

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy