Is Russia preparing to conscript migrants in the next phase of its war with Ukraine?

To sustain its war in Ukraine, the Russian army needs conscripts. Olga Vlasova explores a growing anti-migrant discourse in contemporary Russian media. She concludes that it is probably connected to the country’s need for a further round of conscription before the spring 2024 elections

Anti-migrant discourse

Russia is witnessing a significant growth in news about migrants. Analysis of major Russian news agencies, newspapers, online platforms and TV channels reveals a substantial surge in migrant-related coverage. There is an overwhelming predominance of negative discourse; in particular, references to migrant crime. The result is heightened animosity among Russian people towards the migrant population. The consistent rise in such content, particularly since July 2023, indicates a shift in the dynamics of public discourse.

Volume of publications about migrants, 1 January–30 October 2023

Number of times migrants mentioned in russian media
Source SCAN Interfax

Top Russian media sources, 1 January–30 October 2023

Source SCAN Interfax

Why so anti-migrant?

There may of course be conventional reasons for this rise in negativity. One is that hostility to migrants aligns with Putin's broader strategy of unifying Russian society by portraying it as confronted by external and internal 'enemies'. This approach rallies citizens around a common cause, fostering a sense of unity against perceived threats.

Another is that, amid concerns of waning public support for the ongoing war in Ukraine, highlighting perceived threats from migrants could maintain public support for the war effort and the national leadership.

Yet, valid as these reasons might be, there appears to be a third, more unusual explanation at work. There is evidence that Russia is exploring a novel solution to address the ​shortage of frontline personnel. The government wants to mobilise migrants for the Ukraine conflict.

There is a war-weariness among people previously mobilised for the Ukraine war. Their families have called on the government for change. However, to ensure sustained military effectiveness, Russia must mobilise yet more conscripts to bolster and rotate frontline military personnel.

By encouraging negative media stories about migrants, the Kremlin can render them more 'palatable' to the public for deployment to the front

Announcing a second round of conscription in the run-up to presidential elections presents obvious challenges for the Kremlin. Pushing through an unpopular measure just before an election may well put the Kremlin on edge. Hence, the idea of conscripting migrants to avoid a further call-up for native Russians is gaining traction.

By encouraging persistent negative stories about migrants, the Kremlin may be attempting to delegitimise this group. It wants to render them more ‘palatable’ to the public for deployment to the front.

Biased reporting

In Russian media, narratives about migrants often revolve around specific incidents, painting a biased picture. Reports suggest that nearly half of migrants resist Russian laws. One incident in St Petersburg, in which migrants clashed with locals, prompted an investigation. Other reported cases involve migrants brutally assaulting paramedics, and a horrifying double beheading in Moscow. These examples, along with numerous others, perpetuate a one-sided view of migrants. They fuel stereotypes and may influence Kremlin policies and decisions. There is noticeable media bias that tends to attribute crimes to migrants, placing a disproportionate focus on incidents in which they are involved.

This bias persists even though the proportion of criminal activity by foreign nationals is relatively low: just two to three individuals per 1,000. The rate among Russian citizens is significantly higher, averaging around six individuals per 1,000. In the first half of 2023, for example, only 18,000 crimes were committed by foreigners and stateless individuals: just 2.2% of the total.

These statistics are noteworthy, especially considering that the estimated summer population of foreigners in Russia was 6.6 million. Unofficial estimates claim the summer figure exceeded ten million.

Foreign workers from Uzbekistan in St Petersburg

Negativity from officials

It is not just the incidents themselves that make headlines, but the comments and statements from high-ranking officials. For instance, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church warned of the risk of 'losing the country' to migrants of a different faith. Alexander Bastrykin, the Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, labelled ethnic enclaves a threat to the local population. Bastrykin even proposed imposing a 'significant tax' for using migrant labour, and suggested revoking the citizenship of migrants who refuse to join defence units.

The Chair of Russia's Investigative Committee has suggested revoking the citizenship of migrants who refuse to join military defence units

A bill is currently going through the State Duma aimed at banning migrants from working in schools and hospitals, and from driving taxis. There is also a proposal to prevent migrant labourers bringing their families to Russia.

Enlisting migrants

All the evidence points to media manipulation with a view to conscripting migrants. Official media is not paying much attention to this evidence.

The government is seizing migrants from mosques, markets, and migrant holding centres, and forcing them to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence

For several months, in cities across the country, government raids have been targeting migrant enlistment. The government is seizing migrants from mosques, markets, and migrant holding centres, and forcing them to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence. The raids appear to be preparing for the unrestricted mobilisation of a substantial number of citizens, particularly among the migrant population. The irony, of course, is that the raids are taking place at a time of growing criticism and scrutiny of migrants. This has contributed to growing concerns about migrants' potential role in future military efforts.

In short, Russia’s dearth of frontline soldiers and its concerns about conscripting Russian natives in the run-up to the March 2024 elections appears to be having an impact on media portrayal of migrants. Migration, conscription and elections are becoming interconnected in a rather toxic way that is having a damaging effect on public discourse and policy direction.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Olga Vlasova
Olga Vlasova
Visiting Researcher, Russia Institute, King’s College London

Olga conducts research on Russian politics.

Her background is in practical politics and political science.

Olga's educational journey includes a PhD in political science from Lomonosov Moscow State University, with a focus on the comparative analysis of educational policies in contemporary European states.

She also holds dual Bachelor's and Master's degrees in political sciences and high school teaching.

As a visiting scholar at King’s College London, Olga conducts research into the 'politics of fear and calming' in Russia.

Since January 2016, she has been an Assistant Professor at the State Academic University for the Humanities in Moscow, where she has taught various disciplines, including regional politics and comparative politics.

Olga's contributions extend beyond academia to practical politics.

She has been Director of International Internship at the Higher School of Economics University and has held various management roles at the Moscow School of Management, SKOLKOVO.

Olga's dedication to democracy and public service is evident in her active involvement in Russian politics.

Olga currently serves as an advisor to the leader of the Yabloko faction in the Moscow City Duma and is a member of the Youth Public Chamber of Russia.

She has also been a candidate in parliamentary elections, an authorised representative in presidential elections, and has played a significant role in YABLOKO party campaigns.

Throughout her career, Olga has received prestigious awards, including the Scholarship of the Government of the Russian Federation and the Scholarship of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation.

Olga's research primarily focuses on propaganda and media, societal support for violence, digital authoritarianism, educational policies, and political education in contemporary European states.

Currently, Olga continues her work on the complex tactics employed by the Russian government to manipulate public sentiment in connection with Russia's war in Ukraine.

This project focuses on contemporary 'politics of pacification' strategies employed by the Russian government since the start of the war.

It aims to determine the effectiveness of these pacification efforts and their implications for contemporary governance during crises.

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