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America should reach out to children of Russia’s elites

The Hill logo The Hill 1/31/2023 Ivana Stradner, Opinion Contributor
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As the Russian military expands — to 1.5 million troops, according to the Russian defense ministry, or even 2 million, according to Ukrainian intelligence officials — you can be sure one group of Russians will remain exempt: children of the elite. Indeed, the first 11 months of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression have exposed more clearly than ever Russia’s extreme class disparities, as poor regions and ethnic minorities are reeling from war casualties while young professionals in Moscow and St. Petersburg escape largely unscathed.

It’s a pattern that is well documented but not sufficiently well known — and one the U.S. should do far more to publicize. 

Consider what occurred in September, when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the Kremlin’s plan to mobilize 300,000 reservists. While he promised to recruit only men who previously served in or were affiliated with the military, the mobilization disproportionately targeted inmates and ethnic minorities. Independent journalists in Russia have reported, for example, that Buryatia, a poor region in Siberia, received thousands of draft notices despite its relatively small population. In Crimea, 80 percent of the mobilization draft papers were sent to Crimean Tatars, although this minority group makes up less than 20 percent of Crimea’s population.

These numbers lie in stark contrast to the lack of young elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg participating in war efforts. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s 27-year-old son is only one of many examples of those who have remained untouched. And these young elites appear well aware of their special status. In a viral video last fall, originating from a YouTube channel run by supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a prank caller impersonated a draft official with Nikolai Peskov, son of Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov. Upon hearing that he was “being drafted,” the younger Peskov, with all the conceit of a nobleman’s son, retorted, “You must understand, if you know that I am Mr. Peskov, how wrong it is for me to be there,” and noted that he “will deal with it on another level.”  

Inequality in the war is also reflected in casualties, which are now estimated at more than 100,000 Russian soldiers killed or wounded. This past April, the BBC’s Russian service compiled a casualty list from officially acknowledged deaths and tracked the regions associated with the deceased. Tellingly, they found no deaths from Moscow. By comparison, five of the 10 regions with the highest per-capita reported casualties were ethnic republics. 

Meanwhile, soldiers from poor and rural backgrounds often have their blinders removed regarding the alleged superiority of Russian society. As Yegor Firsov, a medic in the Ukrainian military, wrote last year, “Before this war, these men were encouraged to believe that Ukrainians lived in poverty and were culturally, economically and politically inferior.” Firsov recounted how people in Bucha, just northwest of Kyiv, told him that when Russian troops first entered the town they “asked if they were in Kyiv; they could not believe that such idyllic parks and cottages could exist outside a capital.” One woman taken hostage by Russian soldiers said “they could not get over the fact that she had two bathrooms and kept insisting that she must have more people living with her.” 

Not surprisingly, Russian troops retreating from regions across Ukraine looted ordinary household items, including toasters and even underwear.

The Kremlin has targeted poorer regions and minorities for troops because they have less ability to mobilize in opposition than people in wealthy large cities. However, protests have nevertheless erupted in recent months in regions the war has most impacted, such as the ethnic republics of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Sakha, where protestors shouted messages like “No to War!” and “No to genocide!” 

Such anti-war sentiment is Putin’s greatest threat, and the U.S. could reinforce and amplify it by upgrading its information operations targeting Russia, especially on platforms popular with young Russians, such as Instagram, VK, Telegram and Snapchat. Social media campaigns should implement memes and videos that show the risk of conscription, as well as emphasize how men from poorer ethnic regions are exploited as pawns in Putin’s imperialistic war.

U.S. information operations should also target the mothers of soldiers. Radio Free Europe last year highlighted a mother who went from being an avid supporter of the Kremlin to an outspoken opponent following her son’s enlistment in the army. And while groups like the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers have been less outspoken and influential in the present war than they were during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Chechnya, they nonetheless have sought to expose the disproportionate impact it has had on regions outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

America’s post-Cold War fixation on hard power has resulted in downplaying information operations, despite their proven value in the 20th century. But the tools of digital information provide a practical, potentially effective method of further weakening Putin’s hand in Ukraine. As a defender of freedom, America should seize the opportunity to counter Russia’s official narrative.

Ivana Stradner is a research fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Barish Center for Media Integrity, where her research focuses on Russia’s information operations and cybersecurity, particularly Russia’s use of advanced forms of hybrid warfare and the threat they pose to the West. Follow her on Twitter @ivanastradner.

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