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14 September 2023

Russia Uses All Means to Recruit Central Asians for War in Ukraine

Russia seeks to recruit Central Asians for its war in Ukraine, using various tactics including coercion, promises of citizenship, and exploitation of labor migrants, as it strives to avoid mobilizing ethnic Russians and public backlash ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.

Russia Uses All Means to Recruit Central Asians for War in Ukraine

Image: Dmitriy Kandinskiy/Shutterstock

Original article: Nurbek Bekmurzaev, The Jamestown Foundation. Many thanks to The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor for their collaborative spirit.

On August 30, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court held a hearing for the criminal case against Kyrgyzstani national Askar Kubanychbek-uulu, who was originally sentenced to ten years in prison for participating in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Based on complaints from Kubanychbek-uulu’s lawyer, the court canceled the previous verdict and sent the case for revision and a new trial to the Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek.

Kubanychbek-uulu was detained by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security in January 2023. In May, he was found guilty of taking part in the armed hostilities in Ukraine as a mercenary on the Russian side. In June 2022, he signed a contract with the “armed forces” of the so-called Luhansk “people’s republic” to obtain Russian citizenship. After the court verdict, Kubanychbek-uulu requested that the Kremlin grant him a Russian passport and get him out of prison.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came after Moscow began exerting pressure on Bishkek regarding Kubanychbek-uulu’s situation. Kirill Kabanov, a member of the Russian Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, promised to facilitate the process of issuing Kubanychbek-uulu a Russian passport, stating that Russia “is obliged to use all possible pressure mechanisms in response to clearly unfriendly actions on the part of the Kyrgyz authorities.” The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior are also involved in this Kabanov-led operation to free the Kyrgyzstani national.

Kubanychbek-uulu is the first Central Asian sentenced to prison for fighting in Ukraine. Russia continues to recruit Central Asians for its war and in some ways has been intensifying those efforts of late. As such, there is a good chance that this is merely the first case of a Central Asian being sentenced for fighting in Ukraine, forcing many to second guess joining the Russian Armed Forces. Central Asian migrants currently residing in Russia present a large pool of potential recruits and allow the Kremlin to avoid having to mobilize ethnic Russians in its city centers. If the Kremlin is to succeed with these recruitment efforts, it cannot ignore such cases as Kubanychbek-uulu’s and leave Central Asians who fought on the Russian side rotting in prison in their home countries.

Russia is the primary destination country for millions of migrants from the region. In 2022, 83 percent of the estimated 3.35 million labor migrants in Russia came from Central Asia. The majority of these labor migrants work in the service and construction sectors of the economy. Russia has relied on the Central Asian labor force to complete large-scale infrastructure projects, including those facilities needed for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. With Russia’s war against Ukraine, this reliance has expanded from the economic to the military sphere.

The first evidence of Moscow’s recruitment of Central Asians appeared on the initial day of the Russian invasion. A video began circulating that appeared to show an Uzbek man in a military uniform driving a truck in Ukraine’s Luhansk region. The man revealed in the video that many Uzbeks and Tajiks had signed military contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense to participate in the invasion.

In a parallel development, human rights activists working with Central Asians in Russia reported receiving hundreds of calls daily. Those with a Russian passport complained that they were summoned to enlistment centers under the threat they would lose their citizenship if they failed to show up. Those without a Russian passport were summoned with the promise of obtaining one immediately after completing their contract term. This, of course, was manipulation. At that time, in Russia, no legal framework was in place to either strip someone off their citizenship or grant expedited citizenship based on military service.

In the summer of 2022, the Wagner Group began recruiting Central Asian migrants. In July 2022, popular social media pages throughout Central Asia posted job announcements with the promise of a hefty monthly salary ($3,100) and an expedited path to Russian citizenship in exchange for military service. Those interested were invited to the town of Molkino in Russia’s Krasnodar region, where Wagner’s training facility was located.

As Wagner started its recruitment of prisoners, thousands of detained Central Asians were added to the list of potential recruits. Starting from the fall of 2022, the news that Central Asians who had been detained in Russian prisons were now dying in Ukraine started to appear in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. By June 2023, reports were coming out that at least 93 Central Asian prisoners from these three countries had died in Ukraine after being recruited by Wagner (Asiaplus.tj, June 15).

As the Kremlin has grown more desperate, it has expanded efforts to recruit Central Asians. In September 2022, the Russian State Duma passed a bill offering citizenship in exchange for one year of military service (RBC, September 20, 2022). In addition, the Ministry of Defense opened a recruitment center at the Sakharovo migration center in Moscow, where many migrants reported being tricked into signing military contracts that had been hidden among the other paperwork that labor migrants are required to sign.

The most recent reports suggest that Russian officials are using more trickery and coercion to recruit Central Asians. In September 2023, a group of Uzbek nationals were sent off to the frontlines to fight after initially arriving in Mariupol as construction workers. Currently, Russian law-enforcement bodies are conducting raids in mosques where Central Asian migrants frequent to find those holding a Russian passport and deliver them to an enlistment center.

These measures are born out of desperation. As Russia nears presidential elections in 2024, it cannot risk another round of mobilization, especially in the city centers. Instead, it is ramping up its recruitment of those groups, such as Central Asian labor migrants, whose mobilization will not cause widespread public outrage.

The governments in Central Asia have been relatively timid in their response to the Kremlin’s recruitment strategy. They have launched their own criminal cases against those citizens found fighting in Ukraine—on either side—threatening them with lengthy prison sentences upon their return home. Thus, Central Asians face prosecution regardless of which side they fight on.

The outcome of Kubanychbek uulu’s case may challenge that belief. The new verdict will show how far the Kremlin is willing go in defending those who fought within its ranks and how much Central Asian elites are willing to cave to Russian demands.