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Target Russia’s ethnic minorities to counter Putin’s authoritarianism

Alexander Clackson
February 26, 2024

In the ongoing geopolitical chess game between the West and Russia, traditional tactics like sanctions along with financial and military aid to Ukraine have been prevalent in countering the authoritarian grip of Vladimir Putin’s regime. However, the resilience of ‘Putinism’ – a blend of nationalism, authoritarianism, and state-controlled media – requires a more innovative and diverse set of strategies. One unconventional yet potentially effective approach to undermine Putin’s hold on power from within is to promote stronger ethnic identity among Russia’s ethnic minorities.

As a starting point, the West can engage with the diaspora of Russia’s ethnic minorities to learn about each group. There are 22 republics and over 190 ethnic groups within the borders of the Russian Federation, including Tatars, Chechens, Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Buryats, and Sakha. These groups, each with their distinct identities and traditions, provide an opportunity for the West to encourage pluralism and challenge the notion of a singular Russian identity often promoted under Putin’s regime.

The Tatar community, one of Russia’s largest minority groups, has a significant presence in the diaspora, particularly in the United States, Turkey, and Europe. Their efforts in preserving and promoting their language, culture, and history are areas where Western support can be key. By backing cultural events, educational programs, and media in the Tatar language, the West can help strengthen Tatar identity both abroad and in their native region, Tatarstan.

Likewise, the Chechen diaspora in Europe has been active in advocating for human rights and cultural preservation. Engaging with these groups can offer a different perspective on this region, contrasting the often one-sided portrayal by Russian state media.

Several republics, particularly Tatarstan, have historically sought greater autonomy within Russia. While they haven’t pursued outright independence like Chechnya, they have negotiated for more control over their resources and cultural affairs. Under Putin, the Kremlin has generally tightened control over federal subjects, reducing the autonomy that these republics once enjoyed.

Promoting distinct ethnic identities in Russia takes on added significance in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Certain minority groups, such as the Kalmyk and Buryat communities, which have historically maintained a distinct cultural identity within Russia, notably through their Buddhist faith, are now finding themselves at a juncture. Many individuals from these communities have been mobilised in Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine, a situation that has led to increasing discontent among them. This disillusionment stems from a lack of alignment with the narrative propagated by Putin’s regime, particularly the idea of reclaiming historically Russian lands – a concept that does not resonate with the historical experiences and perspectives of these ethnic groups. Many in these groups do not subscribe to the propagandist narratives justifying the war, feeling instead that their participation is a result of geopolitical ambitions that do not reflect their interests or identity.

Many in these groups do not subscribe to the propagandist narratives justifying the war, feeling instead that their participation is a result of geopolitical ambitions that do not reflect their interests or identity. Quote

Through diasporas, Western nations can facilitate the promotion of the unique heritage, identity, and culture of these ethnic groups within their respective republics in Russia. The engagement with the diasporas of ethnic minorities like the Tatars, Chechens, Bashkirs, Sakha, and others can be a strategic, yet respectful approach to promoting diversity and pluralism within Russia.

Additionally, supporting opposition and independent Russian media channels, especially those operating in exile, is another effective way to reach these ethnic minorities. The younger audience in Russia, increasingly dissatisfied with traditional state media, are turning to online platforms for alternative perspectives and information. The West can aid these independent outlets, including online media, by providing financial support and technical assistance. Such support can help these media channels penetrate the Russian media landscape more effectively, offering a broader range of narratives and fostering a more informed and diverse public discourse.

By targeting digital and online media channels, this strategy can influence the younger generation among ethnic minorities, who are pivotal in shaping future societal and political dynamics in Russia. By amplifying the stories and viewpoints of ethnic minorities, these media outlets can help these groups to critically assess and question government narratives.

Ultimately, the West’s engagement with the diaspora of Russia’s ethnic minorities and support for independent media channels can in the long run weaken Putinism. Focusing on cultural diversity and empowering minority voices, especially through digital media platforms, can challenge Putin’s uniform narrative. Traditional economic sanctions have not significantly damaged Russia’s war effort or Putin’s grip on power. It is therefore necessary to try more creative strategies. Engaging with ethnic minorities can offer a new avenue to influence the societal and political landscape in Russia.

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Alexander Clackson is the founder of Global Political Insight think tank in London, and a researcher on Russia, which he has covered for the past decade.

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