Andrei, a 35-year-old IT worker from the far eastern “republic” of Buryatia, started packing his bags almost as soon as Vladimir Putin announced mass mobilisation across the Russian Federation last month.
He had already seen how people from his community, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic minority, had been dispatched en masse by Moscow to the front line of its war in Ukraine.
By the time he began the long drive to Mongolia the day after the call up was announced, his brother had already had a knock on the door from conscription officers. A young man that Andrei picked up en route said 17 men from his village had already been taken — a significant number for a place with just a few hundred residents.
“Most of Russia’s population don’t care about the Buryats dying because ‘they’re not like us, they’re some aboriginals’. It’s easier for them to accept, we’re minor losses,” said Andrei.
Ethnic minorities such as Buryats have been disproportionately targeted by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation drive to bolster his invasion of Ukraine, community leaders said.
The draft has hit a far greater swath of the population than initially promised, prompting officials and state TV to search for scapegoats and forcing Putin to admit to “mistakes” in calling up too many people.
But even among those excesses, ethnic minorities in republics from Dagestan in the Caucasus to Yakutia in northeastern Siberia have seen a larger proportion of the male population rounded up and in a much more aggressive and arbitrary way, according to activists.
As tens of thousands of men are sent to the front, Russia is conducting “basically a genocide of Buryats, Ukrainians and other peoples”, said Alexandra Garmazhapova, head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, an antiwar advocacy group.
“To conquer another territory and make it part of the empire, you use national minorities . . . because they are expendable,” she said. “So what if 200 Buryats die?”
The pattern is rooted in the Kremlin’s attempts earlier in the seven-month invasion of Ukraine to maintain a sense of normality in Russia’s major cities by targeting rural areas, with fewer resources to resist conscription, protest or flee.
That focus has led to high casualties from poorer areas with large ethnic minority populations, often known as “national republics”.
Conquered by the Russian empire and formed into statelets by Joseph Stalin, the republics theoretically enjoy special privileges such as political autonomy and minority language rights.
However, the indigenous people who have faced decades of discrimination — including the forced deportations of Kalmyks, Ingush, Chechens and Crimean Tatars to central Asia by Stalin — are among Russia’s poorest and are often outnumbered in their own republics by ethnic Russians.
“The true history was suppressed, as was language, as were all aspects of identity,” said Garmazhapova.
“Before, people were deprived of an identifying language and everything else. Now, Putin is simply bringing this process to its conclusion by destroying them physically.”
Of the 6,756 Russian troops officially reported killed in Ukraine as of September 23, Dagestan accounted for 306 and Buryatia 276, as opposed to just 24 for Moscow, according to a tally by independent news site Mediazona. The US and Ukraine have said the true casualty figure is likely to be several times higher.
Russia needed at least 300,000 troops to bolster its front line, but the mobilisation drive has gone far beyond that.
In Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine by Moscow in 2014, activists said the mobilisation had mostly targeted ethnic Crimean Tatars, who trace their history on the peninsula to centuries before the Russian empire conquered it.
CrimeaSOS, a Ukrainian non-governmental organisation, said in parts of the territory as many as 90 per cent of men receiving conscription notices were ethnic Crimean Tartars, even though they make up only 13-15 per cent of the whole population and rarely more than 60 per cent even in traditional Crimean Tartar villages.
A Tartar activist now based in Kyiv but with extensive family still in Crimea said he knew of one village where 150 men had been called up, nine out of 10 of them Tartars.
Some believe the Crimean Tatars, who have faced systematic persecution since the annexation, are being punished for their support of Ukraine.
The activist described how two of his nephews had fled the city of Sudak and escaped to Kazakhstan on a chartered bus — 51 of the 53 passengers onboard were Tartars.
One Crimean Tatar currently living in the peninsula, who asked to remain anonymous, said the mobilisation was devastating because “we’re losing the most productive part of the population, the people who could create families and children are all gone and that’s really going to hurt our demography”.
Activists from other ethnic minority regions said the disproportionate draft was also probably aimed at snuffing out dissenting views.
“It’s no longer possible to freely walk around the city. People are just being grabbed left and right. There have been cases of 63-year-olds, 56-year-olds being taken away,” said activist Aldar Erindzhonov, 32, who left the southern republic of Kalmykia in April and is now evacuating busloads of locals to Kazakhstan. “I understand that it’s done to take away all the young men to end any thoughts of separatism,” he added.
In some areas, the mobilisation drive has given rise to rare public displays of dissent. Protesters in Dagestan chanted, “It’s not our war!”, as they clashed with police on several occasions last week, while women led demonstrations against the draft in Yakutia and Tuva.
The draft had drastically changed public opinion in Dagestan, said Idris Yusupov, deputy editor of local newspaper Novoe Delo.
“When they announced mobilisation, even people who had supported the government understood this could affect their loved ones. Now everyone knows what’s going on. It’s no surprise people are upset, have started leaving and finding ways to dodge mobilisation,” he added.
The minorities’ plight has won sympathy from Russia’s neighbours. In an address last week, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged them to avoid the draft and resist the Kremlin.
Mongolia’s former president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj urged Buryats, Tuvans and Kalmyks, who have common ancestry and related languages, to flee to his nation.
“Since the start of this bloody war, ethnic minorities who live in Russia have suffered the most,” he said. “They have been used as nothing more than cannon fodder.”
More than 3,500 Buryats have crossed into Mongolia since mobilisation was announced in Russia. They have been welcomed there as brothers, said Andrei.
He has also reconnected with distant relatives in Mongolia, including those whose families fled Russia in the 1920s, escaping the revolution and the early days of the Soviet state. “Now I joke with them: ‘you fled in the twenties and now so did we!’”