On November 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing foreign citizens to serve in the Russian Armed Forces, both as contractors and conscripts. Previously, foreigners could serve in the armed forces only as contractors, as conscripted military service was saved exclusively for Russian citizens (Topwar.ru, November 14). The decree was framed by the authorities in Moscow as an opportunity that would generate interest primarily among residents of the Central Asian countries. Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee Andrey Krasov expressed his firm belief that “a comparable number [of Central Asians] will want to come to Russia to serve—with an eye on the potential acquisition of Russian citizenship and career advancement” (Vzglyad, November 14).
Currently, some evidence supports the notion that Central Asians are participating in the war in small numbers, but Putin’s decree has stirred discussions regarding the possible extent for conscription of Central Asian migrants into the Russian Armed Forces. Overall, the question is whether the decision to allow foreign citizens to serve as conscripts is a response to the actual desire of citizens in Central Asian to fight in the war against Ukraine, or rather is a sign of the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to cobble together new soldiers.
Citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as natives of these countries with Russian passports, have taken part in the war from its very inception. The first evidence of this appeared at the end of February 2022 when a video of an Uzbekistani man driving a military truck in Ukraine started circulating on Telegram. He said that many Uzbeks and Tajiks had come to take part in the war. “We have a contract,” explained the man (T.me/fargonalilar, February 24). The next piece of evidence emerged in March when three natives of Kyrgyzstan, allegedly Russian citizens, were buried in Kyrgyzstan after dying in Ukraine. Since then, the deaths of two other Kyrgyzstani citizens have been confirmed (Radio Azattyk, June 15).
Similar news emerged in Tajikistan when four residents were brought home and buried at the end of March 2022. They, too, had allegedly received Russian citizenship (Asia Plus, March 23). By May, the total number of Tajikistani deaths had reached 10 (Current Time, May 11).
In September, the first evidence of Uzbekistani citizens fighting in the war appeared on the internet, when a Ukrainian journalist released a video of two young Uzbekistani men in military captivity. One of them claimed to have joined up with the private military company, Redut. The second one explained that he was an illegal labor migrant in Moscow, who was sent to fight in Ukraine (Kun.uz, September 10).
The main motivation for citizens from the Central Asian states to fight in Ukraine are promises of an expedited path to Russian citizenship and hefty material compensation. The Russian authorities have sought to recruit Central Asians through carrot-and-stick methods. For those with a Russian passport, the authorities have resorted to trickery and coercion, threatening to strip away these potential recruits’ citizenship should they refuse to join the armed forces. Several human rights defenders who work with labor migrants have reported hundreds of cases in which Central Asians with Russian passports received summons to arrive at military enlistment centers or risk being stripped of their citizenship (CabarAsia, April 4).
For those without Russian passports, the authorities in Moscow have legalized organizational arrangements conducive to recruitment. On September 20, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the launch of a recruitment center at the Sakharovo Migration Center, where virtually all labor migrants have to visit to undergo mandatory fingerprint scanning and physical examinations, as well as receive work permits. That same day, the Russian State Duma approved a bill offering a “simplified” path to Russian citizenship in exchange for a minimum one-year term of service in the Russian Armed Forces (RBC, September 20). Previously, the requirement was five years.
Despite these continued attempts to recruit migrants from Central Asia, little evidence supports the idea that they are participating in Russia’s war against Ukraine on a massive scale. To begin with, Central Asians with Russian passports do not harbor any strong patriotic feelings toward the Kremlin. Their citizenship is only a means to better cope with the discrimination and bureaucracy they face daily in Russia. Furthermore, news from the front travels fast and wide, and the news has not been positive as of late. Central Asian migrants are aware of the colossal losses the Russian army has suffered in Ukraine. They understand that they will most likely die in Ukraine if conscripted. Finally, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have issued stern warnings to their citizens not to fight in Ukraine, threatening them with lengthy prison sentences for participating in armed conflicts abroad as mercenaries (Radio Azattyq, September 23). Most migrants plan to return home after their time in Russia and do not want to risk ending up in prison.
Thus, the latest decree to allow foreign citizens to serve as conscripts is a sign of Moscow’s desperate attempts to find new manpower rather than a reflection of any large-scale volunteerism among Central Asian migrants to join the Russian Armed Forces. Putin and his entourage are walking an uncomfortable path between compensating for huge personnel losses while maintaining a sense of normalcy at home. They have done so by recruiting new soldiers from remote and economically destitute regions, including Dagestan, Buryatia, and Kalmykia, and news of protests in these regions is being suppressed in the Russian national media space (Vajnye istoriyi, October 5). In this same regard, allowing Central Asians to serve as conscripts helps the Kremlin carry on in seemingly maintaining a sense of normalcy by creating a manpower pool of faraway peoples, whose deaths in the war will go largely unnoticed in Russian cities.
Overall, the mass participation of Central Asian migrants in the war spells a whole new set of troubles for the region. Besides a significant decrease in remittances, which comprise one-third of the GDPs of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the region faces a threat of welcoming back numerous war veterans, which could lead to a subsequent increase in alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, domestic violence and crime. Compatriots back home who are trying to discourage these migrants from fighting in Ukraine are in direct competition with the Russian government. However, given that most Central Asian migrants seek Russian citizenship out of economic pragmatism, their overall patriotism is questionable, and their large-scale participation in Putin’s war against Ukraine is not likely.