As Russia’s military grows—to 1.5 million soldiers, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, or even to 2 million, according to Ukrainian intelligence—you can be sure that one group of Russians will be left unscathed: the children of the elite. Indeed, the first 11 months of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression have made Russia’s stark class inequality ever more apparent, as poor regions and ethnic minorities continue to suffer from the war’s casualties, while young professionals in Moscow and St. Petersburg remain largely unscathed. , are saved.
It’s a well-documented but under-recognized pattern — and one the U.S. should do more to publicize.
Let’s look at what happened in September, when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the Kremlin’s plan to mobilize 300,000 reservists. While he promised to recruit only men who had previously served in or were associated with the military, the mobilization disproportionately targeted prisoners and ethnic minorities. For example, independent journalists in Russia have reported that Buryatistan, a poor region of Siberia, has received thousands of notifications despite its small population. In Crimea, 80 percent of the mobilization leaflets were sent to the Crimean Tatars, although this minority group makes up less than 20 percent of the Crimean population.
These numbers are in stark contrast to the lack of young elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg participating in the wars. The 27-year-old son of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is just one of many examples of those who have remained neutral. And these young elites seem to be well aware of their special status. In a viral video last fall from a YouTube channel run by supporters of opposition to the jailing of Alexei Navalny, a prank caller identified himself as Nikolai Peskov, the son of Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov, to an invited official. Upon hearing that he was being called up to the army, young Peskov said with all the arrogance of a noble’s son: “You must understand, if you know that I am Mr. Peskov, how wrong it is for me to be there. ” and noted that he will “deal with it on a different level”.
The disparity in the war is also reflected in the casualties, with more than 100,000 Russian soldiers now killed or wounded. Last April, the BBC’s Russian section compiled a death toll list by officially recognized deaths and tracked the regions where the deaths occurred. It is said that they did not find any death from Moscow. In comparison, 5 of the 10 regions with the highest reported losses per capita were ethnic republics.
Meanwhile, poor and rural soldiers often turn a blind eye to the potential superiority of Russian society. As Egor Firsov, a Ukrainian army doctor, wrote last year, “before this war, these men were encouraged to believe that Ukrainians lived in poverty and were culturally, economically and politically inferior.” Firsov recounted how the people of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, told him that when Russian troops first entered the city, they “asked if they were in Kyiv. they could not believe that such extraordinary gardens and cottages existed outside the capital. A woman who was taken hostage by Russian soldiers said, “They didn’t get over the fact that she had two bathrooms and insisted that she should have more people living with her.”
Not surprisingly, Russian forces retreating from areas across Ukraine have looted common household items, including toasters and even underwear.
The Kremlin has targeted poorer and minority areas for troops because they are less able to mobilize opposition than wealthy people in big cities. However, in recent months, protests have broken out in areas most affected by the war, such as the ethnic republics of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Sakha, where protesters chanted “No more war!” and “No to genocide!”
Such anti-war sentiment is Putin’s biggest threat, and the US can foster and strengthen it by improving its information operations against Russia, particularly on platforms popular with Russian youth, such as Instagram, VK, Telegram and Snapchat. Social media campaigns should implement memes and videos that highlight the dangers of conscription and also highlight how men from poor ethnic areas are being used as pawns in Putin’s imperialist war.
US intelligence operations should also target mothers of soldiers. Last year, Radio Free Europe highlighted a mother who turned from an ardent supporter of the Kremlin into a staunch opponent after her son was drafted into the army. And while groups like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers have been less visible and influential in the current war than in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Chechnya, they have nevertheless sought to expose its disproportionate impact on areas outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. Petersburg.
America’s obsession with post-Cold War hard power has led to a reduction in intelligence operations, despite their proven value in the 20th century. But digital information tools provide a practical and potentially effective method of further weakening Putin’s hand in Ukraine. As defenders of freedom, America should take the opportunity to challenge Russia’s official narrative.
Ivan Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) at the Center for Media Integrity, where his research focuses on information operations and cyber security, particularly Russia’s use of advanced forms of hybrid warfare and their threat to the West. Follow her on Twitter @ivanastradner.