April 12, 2023

Institute for the Study of War for April 12: Russia continues building defenses in Zaporizhia and Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

April 12, 2023

The Kremlin’s campaign of “Russification” in Ukraine is burning back into Russia itself as it continues to empower and amplify overtly nationalist voices and ideologies. Russia is engaged in a campaign of deliberate “Russification” within Ukraine aimed at the destruction of Ukrainian identity through a multitude of military, social, economic, legal, bureaucratic, and administrative lines of efforts.[1] The ideologies that underpin the basis of this “Russification” also form the rhetorical backbone of the pro-war information space, which frequently mirrors its militarism with staunch Russian nationalism and intense xenophobia that is directed both at Ukraine and Ukrainian identity as well as at domestic minorities within Russia itself.

The domestic ramifications of the acceptance of the ideology of “Russification” are manifested in the responses by Russian authorities and prominent Russian milbloggers to ethnic minorities in Russia. Several Russian milbloggers and commentators published their reactions to a recent news story about the murder of a 17-year-old Russian student by a group of Tajik migrants in Chelyabinsk and used the story to criticize Central Asian migrants and ethnic minority communities for failing to integrate into Russian society.[2] Head of the Russian Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin accused migrants of destabilizing Russia by importing terrorism and extremist ideologies and emphasized the role of migration policy in ensuring public order.[3] Former Russian officer and ardent nationalist Igor Girkin amplified a criticism that authorities of the Tuvan Republic are returning the indigenous Tuvan names to 104 administrative-territorial units, which one milblogger decried as “pushing boundaries” unnecessarily during wartime.[4] Social media footage circulated on April 12 shows a group of Russian men reportedly giving the Nazi salute and walking past administrative buildings in Ufa, Bashkortostan while shouting “Russia is for Russians.”[5] These instances of xenophobia and racism exemplify the crux of domestic “Russification.” The war in Ukraine has empowered the most virulent voices in the information space to consolidate their ideology and project it both towards the Ukrainian people and towards non-Slavic minorities in Russia itself. This dynamic will likely escalate as the war continues and will outlive Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pervading the Russian domestic space for years to come.

These domestic-facing ramifications of “Russification” ironically continue to place the onus of the war effort on the communities that it marginalizes. Bastrykin has previously called for military authorities to specifically recruit migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who received Russian citizenship because these migrants have a “constitutional obligation to protect the country that received them.”[6] Russian officials at the Sakharovo migrant center in Moscow are reportedly requiring the center’s employees to offer migrants contracts for military service, as ISW previously reported.[7] Russian officials have continuously targeted migrant and ethnic minority communities in ongoing force generation efforts, which largely places the military burden of the “Russification” project in Ukraine on communities and individuals that are its targets domestically.[8]

Russian milbloggers offered a muted response to a Kaluga Oblast court’s refusal to hear a case against Russian military doctor and “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” The Kozelsky District Court in Kaluga Oblast issued on April 12 a decision on the “return of the protocol” of Yevich’s administrative offense and other materials of the case to Russian law enforcement agencies, which permits those agencies to resolve any issues associated with the case materials.[9] Russian authorities may still decide to pursue legal prosecution against Yevich for the charge of “discrediting Russian armed forces” after reviewing and formalizing those case materials. Russian milbloggers had previously widely decried the charging of Yevich and voiced concerns that Russian authorities could use the law as carte blanche to suppress any Russian soldier, volunteer, or “patriot.”[10] A very limited number of Russian milbloggers amplified the court’s decision without additional commentary on April 12, however.[11] The court’s refusal to hear the case partially met Russian milbloggers’ previous demands, and the milbloggers’ failure to recognize this fact reflects the fact that this community focuses on promoting salient controversies to criticize Russian officials and institutions. Russian milbloggers’ responses to the court’s refusal to hear the case may also be muted because they are worried that the charges against Yevich represent a trial run for using the law against the “discreditation” of the Russian Armed Forces to suppress segments of the ultranationalist pro-war community. Russian milbloggers may view the court’s refusal to hear the case as a pause in a possible Kremlin plan to begin censoring some segments of the Russian pro-war information space that have been highly critical of the Kremlin, and milbloggers will be unlikely to admit any satisfaction about this controversy until the case against Yevich is completely dropped.  

The Russian nationalist community continues to glorify atrocities and advocate for the expansion of brutality. Russian milbloggers responded to widely circulated footage of a Russian soldier beheading a Ukrainian prisoner of war. A Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel attempted to excuse the beheading by claiming that both sides engage in brutal acts and asserted that this beheading would not be the last violent execution during the war.[12] The channel claimed that being accused of brutality during war is like getting fined for speeding during a car race—a claim it used when discussing two previous Wagner executions videos.[13] Russian forces’ continued use of such violent tactics and its support in the Russian information space undermines professionalism and discipline in the Russian military.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin’s campaign of “Russification” in Ukraine is burning back into Russia itself as it continues to empower and amplify overtly nationalist voices and ideologies.
  • The domestic ramifications of the acceptance of the ideology of “Russification” are manifested in the responses by Russian authorities and prominent Russian milbloggers to ethnic minorities in Russia.
  • These domestic-facing ramifications of “Russification” ironically continue to place the onus of the war effort on the exact communities that it marginalizes.
  • Russian milbloggers offered a muted response to a Kaluga Oblast court’s refusal to hear a case against Russian military doctor and “Union of Donbas Volunteers” member Yuri Yevich for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.”
  • The Russian nationalist community continues to glorify atrocities and advocate for the expansion of brutality.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk line.
  • Russian forces continue to construct defenses in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast and Crimea.
  • Russian officials continue to advance a law aimed at improving the effectiveness of issuing summonses and cracking down on Russian draft dodgers.
  • The Ukrainian Resistance Center released a report detailing the extent of illegal deportations of Ukrainian children from Donbas to the Russian Federation.
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