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Russia's Foreign Legion Of Doubt

  • Farangis Najibullah

President Vladimir Putin is seen past Russian soldiers at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow in 2012.

President Vladimir Putin is seen past Russian soldiers at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow in 2012.

If you're between 18 and 30 years old, speak Russian, and have no criminal record, you are in for some good news. You are eligible to enlist in the Russian army.

In what is seen as move to boost its military ranks at the expense of former Soviet republics, recruits are being offered five-year contracts, the potential for Russian citizenship, and a monthly salary.

But if Moscow intends to help restore its Soviet-era might by poaching from others, numerous hurdles stand in the way.

Show Me The Money

The Russian economy has suffered from falling oil prices and sanctions, and that makes it more difficult to convince foreigners to sign up for active duty.

Moscow's new policy went into effect on January 2, but the idea to allow foreigners to join the Russian army was first proposed five years ago. That was long before Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict, the resulting international sanctions, and the fall of the ruble.

The amount Russia is offering recruits, 30,000 rubles a month, is not what it used to be. The currency has lost about half its value over the past year and is worth only about $460 today -- presumably less than what Russian planners envisioned would win over volunteer soldiers.

"Thirty-thousand rubles are currently equal to 25,000 Kyrgyz soms," Kyrgyz lawmaker Omurbek Abdurakhmanov noted. "You can earn that amount, if not more, at Kyrgyzstan's construction sites."

Hot Wars

Russia has produced slick ads that sell the military as the "first day of your new life," but those watching world events might wonder if joining up could be their end.

Russia's involvement in a number of military conflicts and hot spots in recent years -- Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova come to mind -- has some prospective recruits thinking twice.

One 20-year-old Dushanbe resident, who didn't give his name, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that he "would prefer serving in the Russian army to becoming a migrant laborer there."

But another young man from the Tajik capital, who gave only his first name, said he wasn't dying for the chance to serve.

"No, I don't want to get killed in Chechnya or Ukraine in the hope of a Russian passport," he said.

Nothing Groundbreaking

Even before the new policy was adopted, several bilateral agreements enabling foreigners to join the Russian army were in existence.

Russia has more than 20 military bases in seven former Soviet republics, as well as in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The bilateral arrangements, such as a 1992 agreement between Russia and Armenia that specifies terms and conditions of the Russian border troops stationed in Armenia, allowed foreigners to serve at Russian army bases.

Some citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also serve in the Russian military, and separate bilateral agreements were reportedly being discussed between Moscow and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Legal Questions

In Central Asia, Kyrgyz and Tajik defense officials point out that their male citizens are required by law to complete compulsory military service at home before considering joining the Russian army.

And while Tajikistan's laws don't prohibit its citizens from enlisting in the Russian army, they could face face legal obstacles.

Tajikistan last year adopted a law that bars its citizens from taking part in armed conflicts abroad, setting a maximum penalty of 20 years' imprisonment. The law was created after dozens of Tajik citizens joined foreign Islamic extremist groups.

No Place Like Home

Some pools of potential troops are seen as offering sweeter deals. One is Uzbekistan, where those who complete their service in the country's conscript military receive numerous benefits, including lucrative jobs in law-enforcement agencies.

Shokirjon Hakimov, a political expert in Dushanbe, noted that "serving in the Russian army is a legal option mostly for those willing to join foreign forces solely for financial reasons, providing Russia would want such people joining its army."

But he added that doing so "could potentially create more demographic problems -- namely a shortage of the male population" in countries like Tajikistan where labor migration has already caused a gender imbalance.

"When it happens, we will see our authorities trying to restrict citizens from joining the Russian army," Hakimov predicted.

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