Russia’s ethnic minorities disproportionately die in the war in Ukraine

In the nearly two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, 300,000 Russian soldiers have died or been wounded, many of them conscripts. For soldiers from Siberia and Russia’s Far East, home to many of Russia’s ethnic minorities, the price has been overwhelming. Nick Schifrin and producer Sarah Cutler have some of their stories.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the nearly two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, 300,000 Russian soldiers have died or been injured, many of them conscripts.

    And as Nick Schifrin and producer Sarah Cutler report, for soldiers from Siberia and Russia's far east, which is home to many ethnic minorities, the price has been overwhelming.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Russia's far east, the funerals are all too common. The widows are so distraught, they have to be carried by an honor guard. And the cemeteries are filled with soldiers, many of their graves freshly dug.

    Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, men from this part of Russia, remote, poor, and home to many of the country's minority groups, have borne the brunt of the war and died disproportionately.

  • Alex, Fled Russia (through interpreter):

    A lot of people have been sent there. It looks like Russia is trying to eliminate our Russian groups.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thirty-year-old Alex, who ask we hide his identify, is from the Republic of Sakha, an area the size of India, many of whose one million residents are ethnically Turkic.

  • Alex (through interpreter):

    It seemed as if they were officially mobilizing only our ethnic peoples and sending them to war, as if they were trying to kill some people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    His social media from before the full-scale invasion shows a normal life, a day on the job, posing with a new ride, spending time with loved ones. That world, his world was lost when he was suddenly conscripted last September during a wave of mobilization and flown from his hometown to a military base a few hours away.

    He was shocked by what he saw.

  • Alex (through interpreter):

    Normally, there are informational stands to show, for example, who was on duty. But, this time, there were only photos of dead Ukrainian soldiers, and the inscription was: "They should be killed."

    In this way, I believe that they were preparing us toward what would happen.

    Natalia Arno, Free Russia Foundation; It's easier to take those who know less, and, usually, these are very remote places, rural villages.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Natalia Arno:is the founder and president of the Free Russia Foundation. She says Vladimir Putin's war machine considers ethnic minorities with less education and fewer resources cannon fodder.

  • Natalia Arno:

    The more remote they are, the less information they can get, the less human rights organizations working with them and advocating for their rights.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The BBC found that six of the 10 Russian regions with the highest mortality rates in Ukraine are located in Siberia and the far east.

    And that men from Buryatia, a Russian republic whose residents are descended from Mongols, are 75 times more likely to die than men from Moscow.

  • Natalia Arno:

    When Putin's Russia attacked Ukraine, it's definitely a genocide, a very tragic genocide of Ukrainians. Simultaneously, inside Russia, there is an ethno side of ethnic minorities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Arno is half-Buryat and says minority recruitment is just a crescendo of decades of discrimination.

  • Natalia Arno:

    It was impossible to learn my own language, Buryat language in schools. When I moved to Moscow and I couldn't afford to allow my son to use the Moscow metro, for example, it was very dangerous.

    And that's why I can relate to all these ethnic minority groups saying, like, it's not our war. You are not treating us as normal citizens of Russia. We cannot even be safe in the capital of our country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A handful of Buryats have risked certain arrests to protest the Ukraine war. And new advocacy groups are helping men from communities such as theirs avoid the draft or leave the country.

  • Alexandra Garmazhapova, Free Buryatia Foundation (through interpreter):

    Indigenous peoples are needed for only one purpose, to die for the sake of the empire. Vladimir Putin is acting very consistently in this regard.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alexandra Garmazhapova is the founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, which receives daily calls and texts from new conscripts and their families.

  • Man:

    "Need a lawyer's phone number? Someone I know was mobilized two weeks ago and tricked into signing a contract for a year."

  • Woman:

    "My son is writing a letter to officials refusing to serve, but we are both afraid they will deny him. How can we get him out of this situation?"

  • Man:

    "What will happen to a mobilized person leave if he doesn't return to Ukraine?

  • Alexandra Garmazhapova (through interpreter):

    We explain to military personnel how to terminate their contracts. We are doing what the Kremlin considers most dangerous. We explain to people what their rights are.

    One of the official reasons for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin cited the denazification of Ukraine. But we are people who have repeatedly encountered manifestations of racism and xenophobia on the territory of the Russian Federation itself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This year, Moscow introduced new laws to expand their pool of recruits, raising the maximum age and restricting recruits' ability to access government services until they report for duty.

    And the government launched a campaign to try and convince more Russians to sign up, including ads on TV that suggest soldiers, not civilians, are real men. And Moscow increased soldiers' pay, often appealing to Russian minorities.

    As for Alex, days after he was mobilized and arrived on base, he crawled under a hole in the fence and into a taxi. He sped to the airport and got on the first flight he could to Kazakstan, where he still lives today. He's safe, but stuck in limbo. He lives incognito, with a Russian criminal case for desertion hanging over his head.

  • Alex (through interpreter):

    I don't do anything. I don't have official employment right now. There are 17 people like me with criminal cases opened. All of us, we're just hoping that some countries will give us asylum.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Until then, he waits, knowing he has at least avoided the fate of so many fellow minorities who fought in Ukraine.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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