As Russia’s military expands — up to 1.5 million soldiers, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, or even as many as 2 million, according to Ukrainian intelligence officials — you can be sure that one group of Russians will remain excluded: the children of the elite. Indeed, the first 11 months of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive war have made Russia’s stark class divides clearer than ever, as impoverished regions and ethnic minorities reel from war casualties while young professionals in Moscow and St Petersburg largely get away unharmed.
It’s a pattern that’s well-documented but not well-known — and the U.S. needs to do a lot more to publicize it.
Consider what happened in September when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the Kremlin’s plan to mobilize 300,000 reservists. While he pledged to recruit only men who had previously served or were affiliated with the military, the mobilization disproportionately targeted prisoners and ethnic minorities. Independent journalists in Russia have reported, for example, that Buryatia, a poor region in Siberia, has received thousands of recruitment notices despite its relatively small population. In Crimea, 80 percent of mobilization documents were sent to Crimean Tatars, even though this minority group makes up less than 20 percent of Crimea’s population.
These numbers are in stark contrast to the lack of young elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg to participate in hostilities. The 27-year-old son of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is just one of many examples of those left untouched. And these young elites seem well aware of their special status. In a viral video last fall originating from a YouTube channel run by supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a prank caller posed as a recruiter with Nikolai Peskov, the son of Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov. Upon hearing that he was being “taken away,” the younger Peskov, with all the arrogance of a nobleman’s son, retorted: “You must understand, if you know that I am Mr. Peskov, how wrong it is for me to be there,” and noted that “will take it to another level.”
The inequality of the war is also reflected in the casualties, which are now estimated at more than 100,000 Russian soldiers killed or wounded. Last April, the BBC’s Russian Service compiled a casualty list of officially recognized deaths and traced the regions associated with the deceased. Significantly, they found no deaths from Moscow. By comparison, five of the 10 regions with the highest reported number of victims per capita are ethnic republics.
Meanwhile, soldiers from poor and rural backgrounds are often blindsided by the perceived superiority of Russian society. As Yegor Firsov, a medic in the Ukrainian army, 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 people in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, told him that when Russian troops first entered the town, they “asked if they were in Kyiv; they could not believe that such idyllic parks and villas could exist outside a capital city. One woman taken hostage by Russian soldiers said that “they couldn’t get over the fact that she had two bathrooms and kept insisting that there must be more people living with her.”
Not surprisingly, Russian troops withdrawing from regions in Ukraine are looting common household items, including toasters and even underwear.
The Kremlin has targeted poorer regions and minorities for troops because they have less ability to mobilize in opposition than people in wealthy big cities. However, protests have erupted in recent months in regions hardest hit by the war, such as the ethnic republics of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Sakha, where protesters shouted messages such as “No to war!” and “No to genocide!”
Such anti-war sentiment is the biggest threat to Putin, and the US could strengthen and expand it by upgrading its information operations targeting Russia, especially on platforms popular with young Russians, such as Instagram, VK, Telegram and Snapchat. Social media campaigns should implement memes and videos that show the risk of conscription, as well as highlight how men from poorer ethnic regions are being exploited as pawns in Putin’s imperialist war.
US information operations should also target mothers of soldiers. Last year, Radio Free Europe highlighted a mother who went from an avid Kremlin supporter to an outspoken opponent after her son enlisted in the army. And while groups such as the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers have been less outspoken and influential in the current war than they were during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Chechnya, they have nonetheless sought to expose the disproportionate impact it has had on regions beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. Petersburg.
America’s post-Cold War fixation on hard power has led to the downplaying of information operations, despite their proven value throughout the 20th century. But the tools of digital information provide a practical, potentially effective method of further weakening Putin’s hand in Ukraine. As a defender of freedom, America should seize the opportunity to counter Russia’s official narrative.
Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where her research focuses on Russia’s information operations and cybersecurity, specifically Russia’s use of advanced forms of hybrid warfare and the threat they pose. represent for the West. Follow her on Twitter @ivanastradner.