Monday, June 27, 2016

Putin’s ‘Hybrid War’ Against Russia’s Smallest Nationalities

By Paul Goble

Moscow’s approach to the country’s smallest non-Russian nationalities has historically been measured by the opening and closing of schools, the level of support for non-Russian language institutions, the share of officials from indigenous nationalities in key positions, and so on. Over the past decade, the Russian government’s approach has not been good even on these measurements. But lately, Vladimir Putin has adopted a “hybrid” strategy that is even more negative: specifically, the Russian government has been relying on market forces as well as on the use of nominally ethnically-neutral regulations to undermine or coerce some of Russia’s smallest nationalities. Both hit these minute groups far harder than the surrounding ethnic-Russian communities. Thus, this “hybrid” strategy must be factored into any assessment of Putin’s nationality policy.

Like its Soviet predecessors, the Putin regime has ignored the rights of indigenous peoples whenever the recognition of these rights limit top–down economic development goals. That has been particularly true in the development of the oil and natural gas industry in Russia’s northern regions, where Moscow has tilted the playing field against the indigenous populations and in favor of the oil and gas developers (, November 18, 2014;, May 4, 2016;, May 11, 2016). In recent weeks, the central government has done the same thing with regard to the coal industry, allowing its leading firms to ride roughshod over the claims of the indigenous ethnic groups (, accessed June 27).

Perhaps even more important to the fate of the smaller nationalities of Russia—that is, those with fewer than 100,000 members each—Moscow has ended many of its subsidies to them and left them to face market forces alone. Inevitably, this has the effect of limiting the ability of these communities to have media and schools in their own languages, and it forces members of these groups to shift to Russian as their primary language (for examples of this trend in the Middle Volga, see, November 10, 2015).

Two Russian policies announced in recent weeks show that calling Putin’s approach to the smaller nationalities a “hybrid” war is fully justified—specifically, his government is achieving certain goals by taking indirect actions while denying that this is what Moscow is doing. The two cases have not attracted much attention because they involve two groups who live in the Russian Far East: the Orochi, who number under a thousand, and the Udege, who number approximately 1,500.

In the former case, Russian authorities issued a ban on the use of nets to catch fish, something that they have pointed out affects members of all groups. But the reality is that it hits the Orochi and other traditional peoples hardest because that is their primary means of securing enough food (, June 12). And in the latter case, Russian officials have ignored a court order requiring them to hand over land that the Udege have traditionally used for raising food, apparently convinced that there is no reason that the members of that nationality should be so privileged (Regnum, June 22).

More such cases undoubtedly exist. Indeed, by using such “hybrid” means, Putin achieves what earlier Russian rulers could not: the destruction of ancient and unique cultures of peoples who have, often inadvertently, stood in the way of Moscow’s economic goals.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ethnic Balance Shifting Against Moscow East of the Urals

By Paul Goble

In Soviet times, the predominantly Russian Slavic share of the population east of the Urals rose to 80 percent, overwhelming the non-Russians there and ensuring Moscow’s control. This eastward migration of Slavs came about both as a result of state coercion under Joseph Stalin and thanks to large subsidies for workers prepared to live far from European Russia. But with the collapse of subsidies starting in Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, the Slavic share of the population in that enormous region has fallen to 60 percent, with the non-Slavic share rising to 40 percent. If current trends continue, the two groups will be roughly equal in size within a decade, and the non-Russians will be a majority within two—a shift that parallels but is far greater and more rapid than that of Russia as a whole.

That is the conclusion of Yury Aksyutin, a specialist on demography and ethnic regions, in an article in the current issue of Novyye Issledovaniya Tuvy (, June 2). Aksyutin focuses on the change in the ethnic composition of populations of specific regions and republics. His research shows non-Russians increasing relative to Russians in many of these territories even more rapidly than they are in Siberia and the Russian Far East as a whole. If anything, this trend is intensifying as aging Russian populations die off or depart and younger non-Russian groups have more children—even though their fertility rates are falling toward all-Russia averages, as Russian scholars invariably point out.

This trend has important domestic and foreign policy implications. Domestically, it almost certainly means that non-Russians in the titular republics will demand more positions be given to them rather than to Russian minders. This could set the stage for conflicts both within the political elite and in broader society, between the newly self-confident rising non-Russian populations and the declining and departing ethnic-Russian ones. If Moscow concedes the point to the non-Russians, it will have less leverage over these areas; if it does not, it will face a new round of rising nationalism and various kinds of ethnic assertiveness, possibly including a restart of the parade of sovereignties, which in the early 1990s threatened to break apart the Russian Federation (, June 17).

And internationally, it has an impact on Russian national security. Compared to ethnic Russians, the non-Russians in Siberia and the Russian Far East are far more welcoming of the Chinese and Mongolians, viewing them as fellow Asiatics who have also been oppressed by “European” colonial powers. That has already led to a resurgence of pan-Mongol thinking about the Tuvins and to greater cultural and economic ties between Beijing and leaders of the non-Russian regions of Russia east of the Urals. As the population shift continues and the Russian economy declines, such relationships will only multiply and deepen, adding to Moscow’s security concerns about the expansion of Chinese influence there.

One immediate consequence is already apparent: Many of the non-Russians in this region are choosing to study Chinese as their preferred second or third language and are attending universities in China.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Volga Tatars in Iran Being Turkmenified

By Paul Goble

Many observers are aware that ethnic Azerbaijanis constitute more than a quarter of the population of Iran, but fewer have taken note of the fact that other Turkic groups from the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation are present in that country and are undergoing some remarkable ethnic and political transformations. Perhaps the largest of these, and certainly the one with the most resonance in Russia today, are the Volga Tatars, who arrived in several waves over the last century but who are treated by the Iranians as Turkmens and, consequently, are being “Turkmenified.”

A rare window on that community was recently provided by Kazan’s Real Time news agency, which has both interviewed specialists on Turkic groups in Iran and conducted its own research into a national diaspora few have ever heard of (Real Time, June 2, 3). The reason for this new focus lies in Kazan not Iran: Recently, under pressure from Moscow, Kazan Federal University closed its Tatar studies faculty; and the Real Time news agency has been publishing materials on Tatar communities abroad in order to make the argument that Kazan needs to restore that scholarly center in order to keep track of developments across the Volga Tatar world.

Volga Tatars have resided in what is now Iran for more than a millennium, but the largest recent group to arrive was composed of those who fled Soviet power in the 1920s and 1930s, for religious or ethnic reasons. No one knows exactly how many Volga Tatars live in Iran. (Some estimates put their number in Iran as high as 30,000.) The Iranian census avoids asking about ethnic identities. And according to experts like Gorgun University’s Arazmuhamad Sarly, himself an ethnic Turkmen, many of the Volga Tatars have assimilated to the Turkmen community and are viewed both by most Turkmens and almost all Persians as part of that community given that they have learned Turkmen, intermarry routinely, and share culture activities. One of the few remaining distinctions is that, in many places, the Volga Tatars still prefer to be buried in their own national cemeteries (Real Time, June 2).

Turkmen-language publications currently exist in Iran, and many of them contain stories about the Volga Tatars in Iran and in their homeland. But so far, according to Sarly, the Volga Tatars of Iran do not have their own publications or public associations, preferring instead to participate in those of the Turkmens, who are estimated to number as many as 100,000 in Iran. The Turkmen scholar told the Kazan news agency that he would welcome cooperation with Tatarstani scholars to study this group (Real Time, June 2).

It will be interesting to see whether Moscow promotes or allows such contacts to take place. On the one hand, the Russian government would certainly like to have more information about a potential ally, however small, within Iran that it could use to pressure Tehran. But on the other, Moscow may be quite reluctant to allow Tatarstan to be the point of contact because of the possibility that religious influence could flow from Iran into the Middle Volga region.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hitherto Secret Communist Party Documents Corroborate Evidence That Holodomor Was ‘Genocide’

By Paul Goble

It is a hallmark of the post–World War II era: those peoples who have been subject to mass murder, expulsion from their homelands, or other crimes intended to destroy them as an ethnic community have wanted the world to identify what happened to them as a “genocide.” Meanwhile, those who have inflicted such violence have generally done everything they could to deny the charge. This type of denial is often relatively easy because, with a few horrific exceptions, no leader declares in advance that he is planning to commit “genocide.”

Consequently, there is usually a fight between the one side and the other. But definitive evidence is routinely scarce that the actions of one state against an ethnic group or nation rise to the level of “genocide” as first defined by Raphael Lemkin to describe the Holocaust and as codified in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948.

Even Robert Conquest, in his magisterial study of the Soviet-orchestrated famine in Ukraine, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), could provide only circumstantial and indirect evidence that what Joseph Stalin did to the Ukrainians was “genocide.” And even though nearly three out of four Ukrainians and most people of good will have been convinced on the basis of his research and that of others that the killing of 4.5 million Ukrainians by organized hunger in 1932–1933 was, indeed, an act of “genocide,” many scholars and governments dispute that. They no longer question, as some did earlier, that there was mass murder, but they argue that it was conducted against a class, the peasantry, and thus does not fall under the definition of “genocide.”

That makes the appearance of documents proving that what the Soviet government did was in fact directed at an ethnic community and therefore genocide especially important. A collection of the originals of such documents is now on public view at the Kyiv Memorial to the Victims of the Holodomor. And both singly and collectively, they show that Moscow systematically carried out a policy of replacing Ukrainians who had died with ethnic Russians and Belarusians, thus transforming the ethnic composition of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and, consequently, its successor, the Republic of Ukraine. Such actions, intended to destroy or at least undermine the existence of the Ukrainian nation fall within the UN definition (, May 15, 2015).

The curators of the Kyiv museum are convinced that the documents they have put on view about Moscow’s policies of replacing Ukrainians with Russians and Belarusians not only mean that the Soviet state stands guilty of “genocide,” but also shows that what the Bolsheviks did in that regard almost 90 years ago, “in part explains the separatism in the East of contemporary Ukraine.”

The portal posts pictures of some of these documents. And after reading them, it is exceedingly difficult for anyone of good will to avoid these devastating conclusions.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Migration Flows—and Not Just Russian Flight—a Problem for Kazakhstan

By Paul Goble

Almost all discussions about migration to and from Kazakhstan focus on the departure of ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers since 1991. This emigration wave has increased the dominance of the titular nationality there. But while the Russian exodus has cost Kazakhstan some of its more highly educated specialists, it has generally not created the difficulties, including outright violence, sometimes associated with other kinds of migration. Indeed, the return of ethnic Kazakhs from abroad, illegal immigration by various groups the state has been unable to control, and increasingly large migration flows within the country have left some regions without the necessary workforce and imposed untenable burdens on others.

In a new article for the portal, Fazilya Yunsaliyeva says it is important not only to look at these various kinds of migration but also to recognize that what matters in most cases is “not so much their size as their structure and their territorial distribution.” Even small shifts in numbers caused by in- or outmigration can have serious consequences for a place’s ethnic, age and gender distribution (, May 6).

Since 1993, the Kazakhstani government has sought to regulate patterns of ethnic migration by means of quotas governing not only how many people may enter the country but also affecting, if not determining, the number leaving or moving from one region to another. And since 2007, Astana has expanded this program to regulate not only ethnic patterns but also the age, gender and skill sets of people on the move. Generally, it has been successful, but not always. And as a result, migration has left some regions without the people they need, and others with new burdens. That reality has sparked tensions and even conflicts that in, several cases, have involved deaths.

Among the most serious migration problems have arisen as a result of the government’s campaign to attract Kazakhs living abroad—a group known in the Kazakh language as “oralmans.” More than 800,000 of them have returned from other countries in Central Asia, China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation, but they have insisted on settling almost exclusively in Kazakhstan’s urban centers, where their skill sets are less in demand. Oralman immigrants have generally refused to move to more rural areas, where they could be put to better use.

This imbalance, Yunsaliyeva says, has sparked conflicts between the oralmans and employers as well as between these newcomers and native-born Kazakhs. On occasion, such situations have “ended in bloodletting,” a euphemism for deaths and serious casualties. But these conflicts have had yet another consequence, prompting many of the oralmans who had come back to Kazakhstan to try to leave, this time often for Russia, Germany and Ukraine. They have also prompted many more ethnic Russians to think about leaving Kazakhstan, further worsening the country’s overall stock of human capital.

Indeed, the journalist says, looking forward one can see that while outmigration to Russia has declined since the highs of the early 1990s, more departures by members of this community are likely, making Kazakhstan more Kazakh but leaving it, for a time at least, without the skilled personnel it needs for modernization.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Centenary of 1916 Central Asian Revolt Likely to Worsen Region’s Relations With Russia

By Paul Goble

One hundred years ago next month, the tsarist administration—which had heretofore excluded Central Asians from the military draft because of its contempt for their abilities as soldiers—was forced by the exigencies of war to announce a draft in the most recently occupied portion of the empire for positions in the Russian military’s rear. That policy reversal sparked a four-month-long popular uprising in which tens of thousands of Central Asians died. But as a result, their sense of national and regional identity grew at the expense of any remaining loyalty to the Russian state. As such, the June 1916 revolt set the stage not only for the Basmachi resistance movement in the 1920s and 1930s but also for the independence of the countries in the region.

Not surprisingly given the centrality of that long-ago event for contemporary Central Asians and the Muslims of the former Soviet space more generally, scholars, commentators and political activists are beginning to put out stories about it. Such stories will inevitably have the effect of reminding Central Asians of the attitudes of Russians toward them and hence exacerbate feelings between the two civilizations. One of the most important of these to have appeared thus far is a study by Tajik historian Kamol Abdullayev, which focuses less on the conflict than on its meaning for today (, May 12).

While Russia succeeded in crushing the 1916 revolt, he says, it did so only at the cost of enormous political losses. The suppression of the revolt did not strengthen the tsarist officials. Instead, it undermined the authority of those like the jadids (modernist Muslims), who had hoped to work with the Russians and be integrated into Russia on par with European minorities. Furthermore, Petrograd’s crackdown strengthened the influence of those who argued that the only possible Central Asian reaction to Russian rule was militant opposition.

The destruction of a role for the jadids was, in Abdullayev’s opinion, among the most serious consequences of the revolt and its suppression. It meant not only the intensification of national identities and separateness from a broader society but also undermined the prospects for a more peaceful and democratic development of the region’s societies. And that, along with the violence of Russia’s reactions to the revolt, highlighted not the strength of the Russian empire but rather its weakness and its fears.

But the very most important meaning of 1916—one that Central Asians will be focusing on now—he suggests, is that those century-old events represented the moment when the region began to escape its “subordinate colonial position” and become an actor with its own desires and goals that others had to take into account. Unfortunately, Abdullayev says, the divisions that existed among Central Asians in 1916 limited its development in that direction, just as the continued existence of such splits does today.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Words Versus Deeds: Russian Attitudes Toward NATO’s Defensive Preparations in the Baltic

By Alden Wahlstrom

In March 2016, Estonia received its second shipment of FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile systems. The initial shipment was delivered last September (ERR, September 3, 2015). Estonia received the “Block 1” version of the system, the newest model on the market. The updated systems have improved guidance, faster flight times, and can operate at a range up to 2,500 meters. The exact number of systems delivered and the total cost of the purchase was not made public, but the purchase itself was financed out of the $3.4 billion in European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) funding that the United States promised in 2014 (Kommersant, March 22).

According to Estonian Defense Minister Hannes Hanso, building up Estonia’s defense capabilities against tanks and other armored fighting vehicles is a cornerstone of the country’s military strategy. Estonia’s defense budget reflects just how seriously the government takes building up its military capabilities. In February, the Estonian Ministry of Defense announced that it is allocating $818 million for procurement over the next four years (ERR, February 25). This is a significant commitment for a country whose entire 2015 defense budget was just over $450 million.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine have enflamed regional domestic anxiety about territorial integrity, pushing Estonia and its neighbors to boost their defensive capabilities, and it has prompted the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to refocus their attention on securing the Alliance’s eastern flanks. Of the Baltic countries, Estonia is taking the most serious steps toward developing the capabilities necessary to defend itself from invasion. Ruslan Pukhov, the Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Moscow think tank, thinks that Estonia’s actions need to be taken seriously. In an interview with Kommersant, he said, “unlike other countries in the region, Estonia is seriously preparing for war… and Russia, as the country that these measures are aimed at, needs to respond adequately” (Kommersant, March 22).

Estonia’s push to further develop its military capability poses little real threat to Russia. Russia’s Armed Forces are orders of magnitude larger than the Estonian military in terms of active personnel. With a force of around 750,000 men, the Russian military is larger than one half of Estonia’s entire population. This is not to mention how entirely overwhelming Russia’s military capabilities are in comparison to those of Estonia. Thus, it is unlikely that Estonia itself is the real concern for Russia. Moscow is more focused on NATO’s increased activities in the region—which is itself reacting to Russia’s growing aggression.

In response to Estonia’s Javelin procurement and increased NATO activities in the Baltic, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov recently said, “We need to put an end to spreading horror stories about Russia planning to send tanks into the Baltic States, Sofia, or Budapest. No one is planning to do that. Plans of that sort do not exist” (, March 24). According to him, Baltic countries are only stoking these fears in order to secure financial support from NATO. However, in reality, Antonov’s remarks reflect the perpetual disconnect between what Russian officials say and what the Russian government does.

Moscow recently announced a major restructuring of its tank forces, which will greatly increase Russia’s force presence in its “Western strategic direction,” along the country’s western border. This restructuring involves changes to the 20th Combined Arms Army and the re-formation of the 1st Tank Army (see EDM, April 5). Disbanded in 1999, the 1st Tank Army played an important role in Russian/Soviet military history. After participating in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle to date and a turning-point victory in the Soviet military campaign in World War II, the 1st Tank Army continued on to help take Berlin in 1945 (, June 1, 2015;, February 1, 2016). The Soviet Union’s role in helping to defeat Adolf Hitler is a central element of the Russian political myth heavily promoted by Vladimir Putin’s government. Thus, the revival of the 1st Tank Army as part of a broader restructuring—purportedly in response to US and NATO presence along Russia’s border—was certainly not lost on Russian officials or many of their constituents.

But such attempts to portray Russia as a country facing an encroaching threat from the rapid militarization of countries along its border fall flat when contextualized in a timeline of events in the region over the past two years. In fact, the North Atlantic Alliance had significantly drawn down its forces in Europe prior to 2014. But Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, its direct support for separatism in eastern Ukraine, as well as invasion of Donbas—amid claims of defending the “Russian World”—prompted NATO’s expedited return to the region. Under these conditions, Estonia and its neighbors rushed to build up the capacity to defend their territorial integrity.

Estonia’s actions and the actions of NATO as a whole directly counter the narrative that Russia would like to promote about itself at home and abroad. Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials have worked hard to try to portray Russia as a guarantor of global security. Meanwhile, countries across Europe are coming out to name Russia as a top security threat. In early March, Estonia’s defense minister released a report that explicitly named Russia as the singular external force threatening Estonia’s security. Shortly thereafter, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili named Russia the top threat to security in the Caucasus. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently included Russia in a shortlist of top threats to US security (, March 24). Moreover, these countries are backing their words with action, proving willing to allocate their finite resources, monetary and otherwise, to insure themselves against the danger posed by Russian aggression and revanchism.

Russia’s reaction to the Estonian procurement of Javelins perfectly illustrates the Kremlin’s irritation at having its image challenged in this way. Initially, an undisclosed source from the Russian Ministry of Defense said that talking about Russia invading Estonia is “nonsense” and not worth discussing (Kommersant, March 22). But two days later, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Anatoly Antonov gave a statement disputing the idea that Russia has plans to invade the Baltic. He continued on to say that Russia’s top priority is preventing the spread of terrorism in Russia and surrounding countries (, March 24). The chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs, Aleksei Pushkov, weighed in shortly thereafter, saying that the West is not prepared to partner with Russia in a united anti-terrorism coalition, but instead the West “makes a lot of noise about the necessity to defend the Baltics, which is under no threat, from Moscow” (, March 25). Pushkov’s sentiments reflected the Kremlin line, voiced later by officials in the presidential administration.

Conspicuously, officials in Moscow opted for a strategy of linking the discussion of developments in the Baltic States to the subject of international terrorism. Essentially, this is a continuation of the Kremlin’s informational strategy showcased in Syria. Among Russia’s goals for entering Syria was the desire to promote Russia’s status as an indispensable guarantor of global security and to discredit western claims that Russia is a threat. Thus, by presenting the spread of global terrorism as an alternative danger, Russia is currently trying delegitimize NATO activity in Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, Moscow is painting NATO’s defensive preparations on the Alliance’s eastern flank as a misallocation of resources caused by the West’s misreading of the global threat environment and a broader unwillingness to work with Russia in order to address the “real” risks to international security.

The NATO-Russia Council met on April 20, for the first time since this body was suspended by the Alliance in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in 2014. Few had any illusions as to any breakthroughs emerging from this meeting; and indeed, the two sides departed by highlighting their serious disagreements on issues of European security (see EDM, April 25). Meanwhile, Russian jets have repeatedly aggressively buzzed NATO vessels and aircraft in the Baltic and prompted the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission to scramble its planes five times in the span of a week in response to close Russian flybys near Lithuanian airspace (see EDM, April 21; UNIAN, May 2). Clearly, Russia’s actions in the Baltic speak louder the words.