Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why are a Few Non-Russians from Russia Fighting for Moscow in Ukraine?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 25 – The exact number of non-Russians from Russia who are fighting for Moscow in Ukraine is unknown, and even those who wish to play up their presence to promote the notion of a broader and more inclusive “Russian world” have suggested that they are not all that numerous, except from Chechnya.


            But there are some, and that raises the question as to why those who routinely experience Moscow’s imperial policies on their own skin are nonetheless fighting for the restoration of the empire in Ukraine.  An article today by one author who has trumpeted their presence provides some useful clues.


             In “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Rais Suleymanov, an expert at the Kazan Institute of National Strategy and someone who is notorious among Muslims and Tatars for his anti-Muslim and anti-Tatar positions, talks about the Kazan Tatars who have volunteered to fight on the pro-Moscow side in Ukraine (


            “Among those volunteers from Russia which have gone to the self-proclaimed republics far from all are Russians by nationality,” the Kazan writer says. “A significant percent [of those] consists of Osetians, Chechens, and Buryats,” and Tatars from the Middle Volga. 


            But despite that claim and those of others, the numbers, again except for the Chechens are not large. According to Suleymanov, who is promoting their presence, his institute has identified a total of “about 70” people from Tatarstan who have fought in Novorossiya, of whom 40 percent or 28 in all are ethnically Tatars.


            According to the Kazan commentator, “the Tatars who are among the volunteers from Russia’s Middle Volga share the ideology of the Russian world, under which they understand a return to the model of the Soviet Union, to be sure in a renewed format (the conception of ‘USSR 2.0’) or the reunification with Russia of territories populated by ethnic Russians, whose ideal is the Russian Empire.”


            Suleymanov says that “not infrequently,” the Tatars fighting in the Donbas have “a dual national identity: while not denying their Tatar origin, they consider themselves [ethnically] Russian. Moreover, he says, not all of them “remain Muslims,” turning either to Orthodoxy or to Russian neo-paganism under the influence of “the ‘Russian spring’” and their fellow militants.


            He adds that those in the Luhansk Peoples Republic which is being constructed “as a Soviet ‘red’ republic” are the more likely to become non-religious, while those in the Donetsk Peoples Republic which is “trying to form itself as an Orthodox state” are more likely to choose Orthodoxy.


            “Nevertheless,” he continues, some Tatars – and although he does not stress this, their numbers are in the single digits – “try to remain Muslims” and view their fight for Novorossiya as a defense of traditional Islam as opposed to “anti-Russian trends” of the faith, including Wahhabism, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Nurjilars.


            In an aside, Suleymanov attacks those Muslim leaders such as Damir Mukhetdinov, the deputy head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Russian Federation, for suggesting that those who follow Islam don’t fit into the Russian world. The presence of Kazan Tatars in the Donbas proves he is wrong, the Kazan writer says.


            But he then provides another explanation for their presence which may be even more important: before the war broke out, there were approximately 60,000 Tatars in Donetsk oblast with their own mosques and links to Kazan. Moscow has not played this up as it has in the case of Crimea, Suleymanov says, implying that perhaps it should.


            He also points to another possible explanation although he does not call it that: some Kazan Tatars are fighting for jihad in Syria, and so it is no surprise that some others might want to fight for others as in Ukraine. Neither of these groups views itself as mercenaries, Suleymanov says. Both “are fighting for an idea.”


            But their fates on returning home are certain to be different: those who go to Syria face prison; those who go to Ukraine “freedom and the respect of their comrades in arms” -- although in a swipe at the Tatarstan government, he suggests, that some of the latter are not getting the support they need and deserve.


            “Many volunteers who have fought in Novorossiya on their return home will experience post-combat syndrome, the inevitable accompaniment of many who have been in real military operations. They will find it difficult to fit into peaceful life where completely different values, rules, orders and worldview requirements operate.”


            As a result, Suleymanov says, many of the Tatars who have returned home are deciding to go back to Novorossiya to continue to fight.  What he doesn’t say but which perhaps some in Moscow fear is that others will decide to put their newly-won combat skills to use closer to home, something that could bring instability to their homelands.




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