In War’s Wake, Russia’s Ethnic Minorities Renew Independence Dreams

More than 200 groups call the country home, and the Ukraine conflict has prompted an unprecedented call for breakaway status

In War’s Wake, Russia’s Ethnic Minorities Renew Independence Dreams
A protester holds a placard expressing their opinion during a demonstration opposite the Russian Embassy in London, U.K., where ethnic minorities of Russia protested against the war and mobilization. Credit: Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

“I burned my Russian passport — I was so angry,” Nikita Andreev said. It was Feb. 27, 2022, three days after Russia initiated its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Andreev was attending an anti-war demonstration in the U.S., where he has been living since 2011.

The act, Andreev told New Lines, was spontaneous. Perhaps he was caught up in the moment as he stood near an open pit, surrounded by people singing Ukrainian folk songs and waving Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag. It was also bold: Andreev holds a work permit, but he is not a U.S. citizen.

That moment had a lasting effect on Andreev. It was then, he said, that his activism began.

Andreev, a 34-year-old with close-cropped hair and a mustache, co-founded the Free Yakutia Foundation, which campaigns against the war and helps potential conscripts to avoid mobilization. He has been a speaker at the Forum of Free Peoples of Post-Russia, a platform that brings together members of Russia’s myriad ethnic minority groups to discuss Russia’s future.

Andreev is not alone. He is one of thousands of members of ethnic minorities from Russia who are part of a movement calling for the decolonization of the country, with some going as far as calling for independence from Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 triggered a surge in national movements among Russia’s ethnic minorities, but their grievances with “Muscovy,” as many members of the movement refer to the central power in Russia, are decades, and some might say centuries, in the making.

The war in Ukraine exposed to the West what many inside Russia already knew: that Russia is an imperial power. For some, Russia’s revanchism became apparent following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but less recognized is that the Kremlin has behaved like a colonizer within its borders, exploiting its vast regions for their resources and denying ethnic minorities the opportunity to express their cultural and linguistic heritage.

Although there are more than 200 ethnic groups in Russia, which has a population of some 143 million, ethnic Russians, or Slavs, overwhelmingly dominate and make up nearly 80% of the population (according to the 2010 census, considered the most reliable). Apart from a group categorized as “other” at 10% and an “unspecified” group comprising 3.9% of the population, the next largest group is Tatars, who account for just 3.7%. It goes down from there: Bashkirs, Chuvash and Chechens each make up 1% of the population. Some of Russia’s ethnic minority groups also speak non-Slavic languages, and the distribution of language use follows a similar pattern.

Outwardly, Russia boasts of its high number of minority groups; Putin has pointed to Russia’s multiethnic makeup as being unique in the world. For the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the country’s official posters showed a patchwork quilt that was to represent the country’s diversity, employing traditional patterns from lacework, woodwork and other crafts. Inwardly, however, Russia’s ethnic minorities have been treated like second-class citizens, looked down upon for speaking their own languages and for their non-Slavic appearance and habitually harassed on the street and on public transport.

Perhaps the most noteworthy example of Russia’s behavior as a colonizer can be seen in its wars with Muslim-majority Chechnya, the first from 1994 to 1996 and the second from 1999 to 2009. In the early 1990s, then-President Boris Yeltsin sought to overthrow the leadership of Dzokar Dudaev, who had dared to declare Chechnya’s independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union broke apart. After decimating much of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and tens of thousands of deaths, the Russian government called a ceasefire in 1996. The first Chechen war effectively marked the end of Russia’s liberal experiment.

Then, in 1999, after a series of apartment bombings were blamed on Chechens, Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, ordered troops into the republic, setting off the second war. It was off the back of this conflict that Putin rose to prominence. Both wars stand out for their brutality, and Russia has used the same playbook in Syria and Ukraine. It has instilled fear in the country’s ethnic minorities; the Russian government has shown what it is capable of and the lengths it will go to in its efforts to prevent regions from breaking away.

The colonialist dynamic is a legacy with roots in tsarist times that has continued, virtually unabated, through to today’s Russia with Putin at the helm. Natalia Arno, president of the Free Russia Foundation, explained that, historically, “there was a deliberate policy to take resources from the regions and redistribute them unevenly to make the regions dependent on the center. It’s a control mechanism that promotes a cycle of loyalty; the more loyal a region is, the more resources it will get.”

How this manifests in the world’s largest country by size, across its more than 80 regions, varies. For example, in Tatarstan, located some 500 miles east of Moscow, where approximately half the population is Tatar and Islam is a major faith, the effects of such loyalty are visible. Aida Abdrakhmanova, a deputy prime minister of Independent Tatarstan, a government in exile, explained that behind Kazan’s beautiful architectural facade, “There is a lack of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the absence of many other freedoms; an absolutely totalitarian regime that is projected onto Tatarstan from Moscow and fully supported by the collaborative authorities of Tatarstan.”

More often, representatives of ethnic movements interviewed for this story highlighted a pattern of disinvestment in the regions.

“Kalmykia is a poor region,” said Davur Dordzhiev, who is an associate member of the Congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk People, a Mongol-speaking ethnic group in Russia’s North Caucasus region, approximately half of whom are Buddhist. “Russia takes resources. There was supposed to be a maritime port in Lagan, but it’s been 15 years since the project has started, and the port project hasn’t been completed.”

Andreev pointed to the tax system as “the biggest problem” in Russia’s largest republic of Sakha, also called Yakutia, situated in the far east of the country and along the Arctic Ocean. “Moscow takes everything and uses it to pay for the war. The regions get nothing but have to go to war. Moscow exploits the regions for resources, spoils the land in Yakutia, burns the forest.”

After a brief period in the 1990s when some independence movements were allowed to burgeon — Yeltsin famously told the regions to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow” — ethnic minority rights have been restricted under Putin. This began in the early 2000s when Putin established a “power vertical,” a top-down command structure with presidentially appointed, and therefore loyal, representatives overseeing newly created federal districts. With this system in place, wayward regions, such as Chechnya, were kept in check and power was concentrated in the federal center.

Alongside this political reorganization, the Putin regime promoted a “Russkiy Mir” (Russian world), which places Russia at the center of a so-called civilizing force, prioritizing Russian language and culture above others across the post-Soviet space. Significantly, “Russkiy” in the Russian context refers specifically to national identity in the cultural and ethnic sense. This is distinct from “Rossiiskii,” which, although it also translates to “Russian,” refers to state identity. The passage of a law in 2018 that canceled mandatory teaching of Indigenous languages in regions that have two or more official languages is one way that Russkiy Mir has been implemented. Another, more recent example came in mid-August, when the state announced that, starting this fall, all college students will be required to take a course on the “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,” in which the topic of Russkiy Mir will be given special attention. Abroad, the concept of Russkiy Mir has been used to legitimize foreign policy, most gratuitously in Ukraine, first with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula nine years ago and later with the full-scale invasion, now in its 19th month.

What was meant to strengthen Russianness at home and abroad has instead been a unifying force for Russia’s ethnic minorities and Ukrainians.

“People saw the same colonial character applied to Ukraine also applied within Russia. Russia is a very intolerant society, there is a lot of xenophobia. Cultures have been suppressed,” Arno said.

The Forum of Free Peoples of Post-Russia, created in spring 2022, was a direct response to this shared suppression and illustrates the way that many perceive the war in Ukraine: Moscow is enemy number one. It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the co-organizers of the forum, Oleg Magaletsky, is Ukrainian.

“For Ukraine to be free, we need to get rid of the empire,” Magaletsky said.

It started from humble beginnings. At the first forum in Warsaw, Poland, in May 2022, “there weren’t a lot of people, maybe around 15,” Magaletsky said. “It was to test the idea, if there is a future.”

It turns out there was indeed a future for the forum.

For the past 18 months, it has evolved into a coordinated movement, uniting different ethnic groups around the common goal of decolonizing Russia and replacing it with a “civilized post-Russian space,” which for some involves the creation of new, independent states.

“For too long, we have worked in isolation,” Dordzhiev said. “Only united can we succeed.”

So far, the forum has held seven conferences from Poland, Belgium and Sweden to the U.S. and Japan, bringing together representatives of dozens of Russia’s ethnic groups, as well as politicians and regional and policy experts. More conferences are planned before the end of the year in the U.K., France, Turkey and Qatar. Fundraising is a major challenge, Magaletsky said, and one of his primary tasks is to find partners to provide support with costs. For the forum held in the U.S. in April this year, Magaletsky said participants covered their own flight costs, host organizations provided venues and a Russian emigre covered the cost of accommodation.

Apart from debating the process of Russia’s decolonization, participants also discuss issues such as the demilitarization and denuclearization of Russia, state-building and the development of regional alliances, among other topics. The forum has also developed a colorful map to depict what a “post-Russia” might look like: Independent states, including the “United States of Siberia” and “Laplandia,” are carved out and marked with their own flag. Ironically, Russian is the language that unites the forum’s participants, and much of their communication is in Russian. Information on the website is provided in Russian and English. All of the representatives of ethnic national movements who participate in the forum and were interviewed for this article see Russia as an existential threat and the country’s collapse as inevitable.

Map of “post-Russia” showing the independent states, as proposed by the forum. (The Forum of Free Nations of Post-Russia)

While some national movements, such as the Movement for the Independence of Siberia, were born out of meetings at the forum, others, like Tatarstan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia, are more established and have made declarations of independence. (Tatar activists made their announcement in 1992, while leaders of the Ingush and Kalmyk movements declared independence at the start of 2023.) In a sense, these are very much performative actions — at least for the moment. Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, has given the movement an unexpected boost. Last October, the Ukrainian Parliament recognized Chechnya’s independence, calling it by its separatist name of Ichkeria and describing the territory as occupied by Russia. Then, in late August of this year, the Parliament went one step further, saying it would create a commission to develop state policies on interacting with national movements of Indigenous peoples of Russia; in effect, this is about creating direct ties to regions and ending what it calls Russia’s occupation. This kind of recognition and political support may prove crucial during any internal turmoil that could lie ahead.

No less significant are aspirations to create national armies and battalions, some of which appear to be in the very early stages of development. Dordzhiev explained that the Congress of Oirat-Kalmyk People is in the process of forming a battalion. Recent emigres and people in the diaspora are willing to fight in self-defense forces for the Ukrainian army. Beyond this, Dordzhiev said he could not disclose details, except to say that this was “moving in a positive direction” and could be the “seed for our own Kalmyk army.” Dordzhiev went on to explain that the declaration of independence was an important first step, but forming an army is also key: “A peaceful process can only be guaranteed with this security. The threat of force is needed to preserve the political process. It provides stability.” The idea is to train soldiers to protect Kalmykia’s independence and have them ready to fight should it come under threat.

Magomed Toriev, a representative of the Ingush Independence Committee, described a similar pattern: “Step one was declare independence; step two was create an army.” With discernible pride, Toriev said theirs was the first region (since the onset of the war) to declare independence, on Jan. 7, 2023, and this was followed by an announcement in April to create an Ingush Liberation Army. Independence is important, Toriev said, because they “don’t want to be a part of Russia’s war in Ukraine or a part of the crimes they are committing there” and “for the safety and security of Ingushetia, to protect against ethnic cleansing of the kind that occurred in 1917 and 1992.”

From a young age, Toriev saw the imperialist nature of Moscow. His grandparents told him of their oppression under Josef Stalin before World War II. An estimated 650,000 Chechens and Ingush — the entire population — were deported by the dictator to Central Asia in 1944. Toriev’s parents were also affected: They were born in the gulag and held passports from Kazakhstan, even though he grew up in Ingushetia. In the early 1990s, there was an ethnic conflict between Ingush militias and security forces on the North Ossetian side, which were often supported by Russia.

While the liberation army is in an early stage of development (Toriev likened it to George Washington’s army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, when they had no weapons), the Ingush Independence Committee also sees it as a critical part of their preparations for the anticipated collapse of the Russian Federation, as their statement on Telegram attests.

In addition to these nascent national armies, there is also a Civic Council, a battalion composed of Russia’s ethnic minorities who fight on the side of Ukraine. When Vladislav Ammosov, an ethnic Yakut and a former officer of Russia’s military intelligence services, the GRU, was unable to join the Freedom of Russia Legion (a volunteer unit of Russian citizens fighting for Ukraine), he instead joined the Civic Council to fight alongside Bashkirs, Tatars, Buryats, Kalmyks and others, against Russia. It’s not entirely clear if Ammosov was prevented from joining the Freedom of Russia Legion because of his GRU links, his ethnicity or a combination of the two. Andreev, who knows Ammosov through his work with the Free Yakutia Foundation, confirmed that when the Ukraine war ends, it is expected that members of the Civic Council will become part of newly formed national armies, like the ones that Dordzhiev and Toriev described.

“Yes, that’s the main goal, Ukraine war — it’s just part of it. War for independence never ends,” Andreev said.

As important as these declarations might be, they, alone, will not be enough. There is also the practical task of getting their message out and garnering support within the regions. But given the level of repression in Russia — criticism of the war can bring a 15-year prison sentence — it’s fair to say that the representatives of these movements face an uphill battle, especially as all of them are based outside the country; several were forced to leave Russia because they felt their lives and livelihoods were under threat. Even activists beyond Russia’s borders aren’t immune from the Kremlin’s wrath. Arno, who is a staunch critic of Putin and the war but favors democratization over dissolution, believes she was poisoned by a “possible nerve agent” in May while in Prague for a private event. She described how, after finding her hotel room door ajar, she became very sick with intense numbness.

The groups rely on platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Telegram to inform people about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and at home. Encrypted messaging apps are invaluable for communicating with their networks in Russia. Andreev explained that the Free Yakutia Foundation had worked behind the scenes to coordinate a women’s demonstration in a central square in Yakutsk on Sept. 27, 2022, to protest the first mobilization, for which only men were conscripted. Even with the ability to communicate from afar, Andreev conceded that it’s difficult for those in Yakutia to start a “full-blown riot” for fear of reprisals. Relatively speaking, the protesters got off lightly. Only 25 women were detained and fined for the protest — the number that could be taken on the bus to the local police station.

Radjana Dugar-DePonte, a representative of the Buryat democratic movement Buryad-Mongol Erkheten in the U.S., said that they have a signal for organizing a campaign. But each movement has their own way of doing things, she added. Dugar-DePonte also admitted that there are limitations to what they can do. “You can’t protest anymore. It doesn’t work anymore. Lots of people believe the propaganda.”

Most of the activities that can be organized are smaller in scale and done covertly. “Those in Russia are trying to conduct secret actions of posting flyers, agitation via the internet,” explained Stanislav Suslov, a representative of the Movement for the Independence of Siberia. “Of course they have to hide, hide their faces on social networks. … The activists are hunted by the FSB,” he said, referring to the successor to the KGB security services.

Often the concern wasn’t only about the risk to those doing the “agitating” but also for their relatives. An ethnic Buryat activist who now lives in Europe explained that they have tried to break off relations with family members because of what police in Russia might do. “I’m nervous for my relatives’ safety,” they said.

State propaganda poses a major obstacle for the ethnic national movements. In the years leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russkiy Mir paradigm set the framework for state-controlled media to provide a constant drip of information that pitted the country against its supposedly evil adversaries in NATO and the West. The ethnic national movements have likewise become a target of state propaganda. The regime points to the declarations of independence as evidence of wayward forces that seek to undermine the Russkiy Mir. Toriev believes that the regime has tried to discredit their work by spreading rumors that Western intelligence services have been involved in the Ingush Independence Committee. In addition, there are some Russian opposition organizations in the West, such as Open Russia, the Free Russia Institute, the Free Russia Foundation and the Free Buryatia Foundation, that see these ethnic national movements as a distraction, even detrimental to the broader goal of ending the Putin regime. Talk about independence will help consolidate power around the Kremlin, they argue.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors of Kremlin rhetoric that Russia and Russianness is under attack from the West, the mobilization in September 2022 had a tangible impact on the population. Forced conscription was the clearest sign that the war, which up to that point the regime had insisted was not a true war but a “special operation,” was not going well. Added to this is the fact that not only have ethnic minorities borne the brunt of Russia’s casualties, with a disproportionate number coming from the poorest and most distant regions of Russia, but also in the earliest months of the war, Buryats, who are of Mongolian origin, were blamed for some of the worst atrocities at Bucha.

Still, the impact has been mixed. On the one hand, the mobilization sparked a mass exodus of young Russians from the country, especially men who could be called up. Some estimates put the number who left after the mobilization was announced at 300,000 to 700,000. A number of organizations sprang up to help people avoid conscription and to provide information on how to leave the country and find places to live abroad. The Free Buryatia Foundation and Free Yakutia Foundation are two examples. Of course, not everyone could leave, and many have few options other than to join the war, because of a dearth of job opportunities where they are. This, too, has had an impact on people’s attitudes to the war. In Kalmykia, Dordzhiev said, “Those who stayed feel broke and dissatisfied with those who left.”

Andreev explained how eight 25-year-old men were rounded up to fight in the war with shouts of “Wake up! Let’s go!” accompanying a 2 a.m. knock on the door. By 6 a.m., they had arrived by bus in Yakutsk, ready to board a plane out of Sakha. They never had the chance to say goodbye to their families, Andreev said. However, there was one man who was late and missed the flight. Andreev said he called the recent conscript and told him to go to Kazakhstan, but the young man wasn’t interested. Local government officials and elders subtly pressure young men to go to war, assuring them that it is the patriotic thing to do, Andreev explained. Even when bodies are brought home, the propaganda of patriotism sticks.

“The relatives of the dead need to believe they died for a reason,” Dugar-DePonte said.

As well as facing the challenges of spreading the message of Russia’s aggression at home, the representatives of these ethnic national movements are keen for leaders in the West to hear them. The locations of the forums indicate they have been organized with this in mind, and much effort has been put into cultivating allies. “We try to build partnerships,” Magaletsky said. “It’s important to show that these movements are normal, that we can be partners and trade. We have to show that the Russian propaganda is bullshit.”

But it’s not just any partnership that some are after; what they really need, Toriev said, is to get their message to the State Department.

For the moment, this doesn’t seem to be happening.

“No one in the State Department is interested in talking or addressing the topic. Hill staff are interested, but not members [of Congress],” said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute with two decades’ experience in Eurasian security.

As to why, there are a few factors at play. One is that government policy can be slow to change. But in a recent win for Russia’s ethnic minorities, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe adopted a resolution in the summer on the consequences of Russia’s war that describes the Russian Federation as having a “violently imperial and colonial nature.” It goes on to say that Russia is involved in a “forceful, ongoing and deliberate subordination of indigenous and ethnic minority nations within the Russian Federation, which are denied equal rights and self-determination and subject to abuse and exploitation in violation of the Helsinki Principles and the Charter of the United Nations.” This is the first time that such strong language has been used. It’s a small step, but it could be significant.

Coffey pointed out that, following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, geopolitical fatigue has hampered bold thinking about foreign policy. And, of course, people are more focused on Ukraine winning the war.

Another reason, Arno explained, is that the U.S. government sees the potential dissolution of Russia as a major threat to U.S. security. This alone, however, could be reason enough to engage in a policy discussion about the decolonization of Russia (which does not necessarily mean dissolution, though it is sometimes interpreted in this way) and the prospect that certain groups may seek independence from Moscow. Simply ignoring possible scenarios does not make them any less likely to happen.

The end of the war will see many young men with combat experience return to regions where they will have nothing. “This will be like the gasoline on the flame of the independence drive. It will have significant implications on the struggle for independence,” Coffey said. For those ethnic minority groups that experienced high conscription rates, their relations with Moscow may be especially fraught.

Another potential flashpoint may be between those organizations that seek independence over those that want to maintain the federation. Distrust toward individuals and organizations that seek to democratize Russia to make it a genuine federation was palpable among some representatives of ethnic national movements. Toriev suggested that no one in the Russian opposition at the present time wants to build a “normal” Russian state. “They want to keep the empire. They say they will create a democracy. But they already had that chance in 1991,” he said, citing Russia’s conflicts after the fall of the Soviet Union in the Georgian and Moldovan breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Transnistria, respectively. “Who can trust Russia after Ukraine?”

Stanislav, while less scathing, was equally doubtful: “World leaders and political forces need to understand that they are dealing with adequate and pragmatic people. So far, the West sees only the respected [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, [Garry] Kasparov or [Alexei] Navalny and their teams as such,” he said, naming three top opposition leaders. “But with all due respect, no matter how democratic these people are in their hearts, they are not a guarantee that with them the whole of Russia will continue to be democratic.”

This skepticism works both ways. Organizations like the Free Russia Foundation, Free Russia Forum, Free Buryatia Foundation and Open Democracy, none of which participates in the forum, point to the impracticalities and risks if regions were to break away from Russia. “There is no economic plan. They could become a satellite of China. Everything is currently centralized through Moscow. Some of them have no fresh water. How would they provide this?” Arno said. “When mechanisms are clear and transparent and there are free elections, then there should be clear paths to independence, not just populism,” she added. “It is an emotional conversation, but it’s not helpful. It is an important discussion, but it’s not the right time.”

Within the forum, there are some groups that favor the creation of an improved federalist system over Russia’s dissolution and the formation of new states. The Congress of People’s Deputies, consisting of former Russian deputies from various levels of government, sees itself as a transitional parliament that will exercise legislative power after the Putin regime collapses.

Besides this ideological disagreement over federalism and independence, one side has been able to establish lines of communication with the U.S. government at the State Department, on the Hill, and in development and democracy agencies.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny on June 23 and 24 exposed just how fragile the situation is there. Over 24 hours, Prigozhin led his Wagner mercenary soldiers across the Ukrainian border into southern Russia, where they proceeded to seize control of Rostov. From there, as planes carrying politicians and oligarchs departed from Moscow — including, allegedly, one with Putin aboard — they marched within nearly 200 miles of the Kremlin, only to abruptly cease and desist. The agreement to stop the march was negotiated by none other than Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, widely considered a puppet of Putin.

The march also showed that things can change extremely fast.

No one can say with any degree of certainty what will happen in Russia. But if it does fall apart, Coffey warns that it won’t be like it was in 1991, when 15 Soviet republics gained their independence. “That was like a safety glass breaking. … The next round will be like a single pane of glass, in an old house, breaking. It will shatter in sharp pieces, in unpredictable ways, and it won’t be possible to put it back together.”

The week after Prigozhin’s march, Magaletsky told me, “We weren’t ready and that was a problem.” Next time, he said, they will be.

The question is, will anyone else?

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