Why Should Russia, ‘The Last Living White Nation’, Have Sergei Shoigu (A Tuvan) As Its Top General In Ukrainian War? – Analysis


According to Sergei Kurginyan, a Kremlin propagandist, the Russians are ‘the last living nation, representing the white race’. He said this on air of the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov program on Russia 1 TV channel. He is also referred to as one of the promoters the so-called ‘Russian world’ ideology. Here is another thing to look at. The current developments in Ukraine are often described in Russia as a war for the interests of the ‘Russian world’. Maybe there is some truth to this. Only a couple things remain unclear. 

First, why such a war is being conducted under the command of General Sergei Shoigu, an ethnic Tuvan and a person of East Asian descent, whom Russians don’t find as one of their own kind? Second, why members of his ethnic group, Tuvans, and their like with [East] Asian appearance, such as Russian Kazakhs, Buryats, Kalmyks, Yakuts and Khakasses, while still suffering from racial oppression and discrimination by white-dominated ruling power and society, are to go to this war on behalf of the ‘last living white nation’, and to be injured, or killed in disproportionately higher numbers than ethnic Russians themselves? It’s important to better understand what is behind these two questions.

The longest-serving minister in the Russian government

Let us start seeing the first of them. Sergei Shoigu has been and still is the longest-serving minister in the government of post-Soviet Russia that is sometimes characterized as a ‘white-centric racist empire’ which, being at war with Ukraine, ‘is all the more likely to resort to more severe forms of racial discrimination and mistreatment’ of those ‘who have darker skin and visibly Asiatic features’. How do these two things tally with each other? It is difficult to understand this without a grasp of what Tuva actually means for Russian foreign and domestic policy.  

At the UN’s founding in 1945, the then China, one of the Four Powers (the four major Allies powers of World War II) which stood at its origins, made a reservation relating to non-recognition of Tuva’s annexation by the Soviet Union that had been carried out just a year earlier. It had good reason for doing this. Here is why. Tannu Uriankhai, a historical region of the Mongol Empire (and its principal successor, the Yuan dynasty) and, later, the Qing dynasty, the territory of which largely corresponds to the modern-day Tuva Republic of the Russian Federation, neighboring areas in Russia, and a small part of the modern state of Mongolia, was part of China’s Qing dynasty from 1758 to 1911. During the 1911 revolution in China, the tsarist government of Russia encouraged a separatist movement among the Tuvans while there were also pro-independence and pro-Mongol groups. And then it sent in its soldiers, as Russian settlers there were allegedly being attacked. And this reminds us something, specifically, the story with the Donbas, right? Thus Tuva came under Russian rule as a protectorate, just as did Mongolia.    

With the dissolution of the Russian Empire, things began changing in its outlying ethnic regions. And China restored its control over Tuva for over one year – from February 1920 to June 1921. By the end of this period Russian Bolsheviks came along and took matters into their own hands. They established the Tuvan People’s Republic, popularly called Tannu-Tuva. From August 1921 to October 1944, Tuva was de jure an independent state, albeit strongly dependent on Moscow. Then it was annexed by the Soviet Union. The then Chinese official authorities recognized neither the declaration of the Tuvan People’s Republic nor its annexation by the USSR and incorporation into the RSFSR as the Tuvan autonomous region more than two decades later.

The decision on non-recognition was initially taken and announced by the government of the Republic of China, originally established in 1912 and retreated to Taiwan in 1949 because of its military defeat from the PLA, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. Much has changed in the world since then. But present-day Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), lacking international recognition, in its turn still doesn’t recognize Tuva as part of Russia. As to Mainland China, which means the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation, they, as Vladimir Putin once stressed, ‘have no territorial claims against each other and that this recognition rests upon a firm legal basis’. Yet here is a different view on the matter: “It is interesting to mention that China, which recognized the independence of its former province of Outer Mongolia (Tannu-Uryankhay was a part of) in 1949, did not officially renounce its sovereignty over Tuva. The situation is similar with that of Taiwan: the independence of Mongolia was recognized only in 2002, and the fact that Tuva is now part of Russia is still not recognized there”.

Shortly before and after the collapse of the USSR, it had the potential to become a trigger for turning the ‘parade of sovereignties’ by Russian autonomies into something real. And most of it was because of Tuva’s being annexed to the USSR and incorporated into Russia later than all the other Soviet-era ethnic republics. 

So it’s not surprising, that at the very beginning of the 1990s, in Tuva, there were attempts to secede from the Russian Federation and restore the country’s independent statehood following the models of the Baltic countries. The then Yeltsin administration in Moscow could not allow this to happen. Such a precedent, should it become a reality, may have encouraged other ethnic regions to split off from the Russian Federation, too. So those attempts were stopped by the Kremlin and the Russian security services.

In Moscow, the policy and decision makers then apparently had to consider the necessity to single out someone from among the ethnic Tuvans and make him part of the Russian ruling establishment to insure themselves against surprises where Tuva is concerned. Their choice likely fell upon Sergei Shoigu. 

He was the Minister of Emergency Situations from 1991 to 2012. And from 2012 to the present day he has been the Minister of Defense. Sergei Shoigu has been a member of the Russian government for as long as the Russian Federation (not to be confused with the RSFSR, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Soviet Russia) has existed. 

And it doesn’t look like he will stop being part of the Russian ruling establishment in the near future. It appears that if Sergei Shoigu leaves, the Kremlin may not be able to find a suitable replacement for him from amongst the ethnic Tuvans. That’s just a guess, but you never really know. Anyway Sergei Shoigu doesn’t seem like somebody who is bored holding top government offices in Moscow. For those thirty-some years, he has also been the only non-White (non-Caucasian) member of the Russian government (other than Amangeldy Tuleyev, an ethnic Kazakh, who held the office of the Minister for Cooperation with CIS Countries in 1996-1997). We don’t know how Sergei Shoigu feels being at the highest echelon of the State which some call the ‘last living white nation’, others a ‘white-centric racist empire’. Be that as it may, his authority as Defense Minister is extremely low nowadays. 

This is what Roland Oliphan and Nataliya Vasilyeva wrote about that in The Telegraph on 24 September 2022: “Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s minister of defense for the past decade, is often called “the plywood marshal”. He is also often criticized for having no military background or combat experience. In a word, there’s every chance that he could become the one that can be blamed for all the Russian woes in the war with Ukraine. There is this eternal Russian idea that the tsar is good and the boyars are bad. The answer to the question of who will get the role of the worst boyar is apparently becoming increasingly clear.

Russian Asians in someone else’s war

Now let us go on to the second of the above-cited questions: why Sergei Shoigu’s countrymen, Tuvans, and their like with [East] Asian appearance, such as Russian Kazakhs, Buryats, Kalmyks, Yakuts and Khakasses, are to go to this war on behalf of the ‘last living white nation’, and to be injured, or killed in disproportionately higher numbers than ethnic Russians themselves? There is such a view: if your country needs you to go to war, you have to go. Then what are the reasons why Russian Asians, while being citizens of the Russian Federation, may consider their nation’s invasion of Ukraine rather as someone else’s war?! They’re simple and easy to understand. Consider these statistics published by BBC: “The two regions with the highest death tolls are Buryatia (mortality rate: 28.4 deaths per 10,000 young men) and Tuva (27.7). They are followed by the Pskov region (17.1), North Ossetia (16.8), the Republic of Altai (16.3). In Dagestan, the mortality rate is 7.6, in Chechnya – 7.1, in Ingushetia – 6.4.

The lowest mortality rate is in the Moscow region (1.7), Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (1.7), Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (1.7), St. Petersburg 1.4) and Moscow (0.3). Thus, the risk of dying in the war in Ukraine for young men from Buryatia and Tyva is about 100 times the same as for young Muscovites…

Among the Buryats and Tuvans, the share among the dead is 5 times higher than their share in the population of the country. For the Bashkirs, Tatars and peoples of the North Caucasus, the proportion of those killed is higher than the proportion in the population of the country by about 20%…

It was revealed that ethnic inequality in exceptional cases among local residents is lower than in Russia as a whole. For example, in Russia as a whole, the risk of death in Ukraine for Buryats exceeds the risk of death for Russians by about 5 times (500%)”.

Here are the facts regarding Russian Kazakhs. Well, judge for yourself. Astrakhan Kazakhs are the second biggest ethnic group in Astrakhan Oblast, making up about 16 per cent of its population. As of mid-May, they accounted, according to Idelreal.org, for 80 per cent of those from the Lower Volga region who died in the war in Ukraine. And here’s something else. None of the five vice-prime ministers and the eleven ministers in the Government of Astrakhan, and the numerous department heads and division chiefs in the regional administration is an ethnic Kazakh. Ethnic Kazakhs seem to be not particularly welcome there. What other word is there for it?

Yet there is an explanation for that. In modern Russia, problems of Kazakhs, Tuvans, Buryats and those of their kind are often being ignored. These people are quite often being humiliated, degraded and stripped of their innate human dignity. Russians who run by the slogan ‘Russia for Russians’, target and brutally attack those who don’t have a ‘European face’.

A model of forming a scornful attitude towards Asian communities all over the world is being set by top Russian officials as well as leading Russian media. Here are a couple of examples of this. After 20 March 2021, the top Russian TV networks were making fun of Joe Biden stumbling thrice while boarding Air Force One on his way to visit to Atlanta. As was well known, he went there for the purpose of meeting with Asian-American leaders and condemning the rising violence against the community after six Asian women were shot dead in the US state of Georgia. Yet the reasons for that visit were almost totally neglected by the Russian mainstream media. It looked like a kind of conspiracy of silence. RIA Novosti’s Irina Alksnis has been almost the only one author to speak specifically on the topic linked to prejudice toward Asians in America in the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

Yet everything becomes clear when you look at the title of her article, reprinted by a few Russian periodicals, on the matter: “New white people in the US: Asians are bearing the costs of their success”. That sounded like a highly unethical, even cynical reasoning at a time when there were increases for anti-Asian hate in the US. Or like, ‘you [Asians] deserve what you’re getting’. What happened next was quite remarkable. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement expressing his profound concern over the rise in violence against Asians, and people of Asian descent. On April 1 2021, Sergei Lavrov, kind of made his contribution to the high-level statements on racial discrimination. Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, 60 percent of whose territory has historically belonged to ethnic groups of [East] Asian origin, spoke against the aggression towards white people, white US citizens and warned that anti-white racism might be building in America. 

His statement might appear to be somewhat paradoxical, but it most likely reflects the Russian power’s and public’s attitude towards ethnic and racial minorities not only in America, but in Russia itself as well. And such behavioral models set by Russian officials and journalists are being taken up with enthusiasm by the broad ethnic Russian masses. On June 26, 2022, two Tuvan young women were not allowed into the Air club in Yekaterinburg. In response to the girls’ question what was the reason why they were not allowed in, the guard simply answered: ‘On the grounds of racism’. One of them wrote about this on her Instagram account and added: “I know that I don’t want to live in a world where Russians think they are the centre of the universe”. Let’s see someone saying after all this Tuvans and their like, such as Russian Kazakhs, Buryats, Kalmyks, Yakuts and Khakasses, should not consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rather as someone else’s war. Nobody is his own enemy.

In Russia, demand for Kazakhs, Tuvans, Buryats and those of their kind appears when the Kremlin is desperate for cannon fodder, as it is now. But even then, most ethnic Russians do not cease to despise them. And there is nothing to do about it.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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