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Kyrgyzstan Facing 'All Possible' Pressure From Russia After Jailing Citizen Who Fought In Ukraine

Askar Kubanychbek-uulu takes a selfie in what appears to be eastern Ukraine.
Askar Kubanychbek-uulu takes a selfie in what appears to be eastern Ukraine.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In a picture distributed by Kyrgyzstan's National Security Committee following his arrest, Askar Kubanychbek-uulu can be seen posing for a selfie sporting a baseball cap and military fatigues.

Next to him is another man wearing the blue-and-white-striped "telnyashka" undershirt widely associated with the Russian military.

The photo was likely taken in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Luhansk after the Kyrgyz citizen signed up to fight in Moscow's war in Ukraine in the summer of 2022.

Kubanychbek-uulu is presently far away from the front line, serving a 10-year sentence in a penitentiary in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, on charges of being a mercenary.

But after Russian officials publicly objected to the court decision -- and even acknowledged they were considering granting Kubanychbek-uulu citizenship post-factum -- pressure is building on Moscow's dependent Central Asian ally to reverse course.

Valentina Chupik, an expert on migrant rights in Russia, told RFE/RL that the 31-year-old's case was significant insofar as it is the only instance of a Central Asian receiving "deserved punishment" in his homeland for joining Russia's war in Ukraine since Moscow launched its brutal, full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Freeing him would set "a precedent of the opposite kind," Chupik says. "At stake is the very idea of the judicial and investigative system of Kyrgyzstan itself. The Kyrgyz authorities cannot cave-in to the Russian Federation without damaging their own reputation irreparably," Chupik said.

'All Possible Mechanisms Of Pressure'

The narrative surrounding Kubanychbek-uulu's involvement in the Ukraine war is somewhat contested, with close relatives offering different accounts to the one that the film studio technician gave in court.

What is clear is that Kubanychbek-uulu held only Kyrgyz citizenship at the time he received his sentence in May after returning to Kyrgyzstan due to his father's poor health.

Central Asian-born migrants have emerged as key targets of Russia's military recruitment drive.
Central Asian-born migrants have emerged as key targets of Russia's military recruitment drive.

But a member of Russia's Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, Kirill Kabanov, said it was time to correct that situation in a July 21 Telegram post about Kubanychbek-uulu's plight.

Kabanov said he had applied to Russia's Interior and Foreign ministries "with a request that they grant [Kubanychbek-uulu] a passport in the Bishkek [prison] and demand that authorities of Kyrgyzstan free him and transfer him to Russia."

If Kyrgyzstan refuses the request, Moscow should "use all possible mechanisms of pressure as a response to [what are] clearly unfriendly actions on the part of Kyrgyz authorities," he added.

The council that Kabanov is a member of has no executive power. But confirmation that Moscow is pursuing some sort of action relative to Kubanychbek-uulu has since arrived via Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who acknowledged on August 2 that the request was "being processed."

Kyrgyzstan has yet to publicly respond to the comments by Russian officials.

Central Asian-born migrants -- both with and without Russian citizenship -- have emerged as key targets of Russia's military recruitment drive, which went up several notches when President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial military mobilization in September.

That same week, Russia's State Duma passed a law offering migrants a carrot in the form of a "simplified" path to Russian citizenship for foreigners in exchange for a year "in the armed forces of the Russian Federation, other forces, or military formations."

But a disincentive was soon voiced by governments of Central Asian countries -- whose citizens form the majority of Russia's millions-strong, guest-worker cohort -- and who have maintained a neutral stance on the war.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all made statements reminding their citizens of criminal responsibility for participating in foreign conflicts, with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan specifically noting maximum punishments of up to 10 years in jail for the offense.

Fighting For A Passport?

Those statements came after Kubanychbek-uulu made his fateful decision to join the Russian forces, but before he made an equally fateful call to return to his homeland.

In court, Kubanychbek-uulu cited the prospect of a Russian passport as his main motivation for joining the war effort.

But the mercenary had lived more or less consistently in Russia without one for more than a decade, working as a technician on the sets of some of Russian television's best-loved sitcoms and launching an ill-fated business venture with a colleague.

His brother Apsamat, moreover, told the Russian state-owned RT outlet in an interview in May that Kubanychbek-uulu had followed a friend into military service and only told the court that he had wanted a Russian passport because his lawyer advised him to do so.

Kubanychbek-uulu's father, in turn, told RFE/RL last month that he had not known that his son was involved in the war. Yet Kubanychbek-uulu contradicted that claim in a detailed testimony from jail that RT published on July 19.

His father had "blessed" his participation in Ukraine because Kubanychbek-uulu's paternal grandfather had "also fought against fascists" in World War II, he claimed, echoing Russian propaganda that equates official Ukraine with Nazi Germany.

And although many natives of the region have seen frontline action -- reports of Central Asians dying or getting captured by Ukrainian forces are common -- Kubanychbek-uulu said his work was mainly logistical, working from deeper positions in occupied Luhansk.

RT's report on Kubanychbek-uulu was spliced with footage of him in military training -- throwing grenades and firing automatic rifles.

Calling for assistance from Russian politicians to secure his freedom, RT quoted Kubanychbek-uulu as describing Russia as "undefeatable" and boasting that "we will sooner or later win this war."

Although ethnically Kyrgyz, "I consider myself a Russian," he said in the interview, during which he promised to return to the conflict if released from jail.

It was not immediately clear how or when the interview took place.

'Going Beyond The Passive Exercise Of Neutrality'

Experts like Chupik note waning interest among Russian-based Central Asians in the war-for-citizenship offer, even as those sitting in Russia's jails remain vulnerable to forced recruitment, while scams to lure others to the front proliferate.

This gives Russian officials another reason to push for the release of Kubanychbek-uulu, seemingly one of the few foreign mercenaries known to have returned to his homeland alive and well since the Ukraine invasion began (Kazakhstan had earlier imprisoned several citizens who joined Russian-backed separatist forces fighting in occupied Ukraine between 2014 and 2022.).

And Russia never really needed much encouragement to turn the screws on its impoverished partner.

The Kremlin's interference in Kyrgyzstan's affairs seems to be becoming more public and regular, as the Central Asian country continues to crop up in Moscow's Foreign Ministry briefings.

Prior to Zakharova passing comment on Kubanychbek-uulu's case, it was a new law obliging all Kyrgyz officials to be able to speak the state language, Kyrgyz, for official purposes that was causing irritation in Moscow.

Last month, after Russian criticism on the law escalated all the way to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- who called the law "undemocratic" and "discriminatory" -- Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov was moved to issue a televised statement defending the legislation.

Japarov noted that the law had not impacted the "official" language status of Russian, which is still constitutionally guaranteed.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev, Central Asia editor for the website Global Voices, told RFE/RL that both cases exemplified the "colonial sentiment that is still pervasive" in Russian-Kyrgyz relations.

At the same time, Bekmurzaev said, Kubanychbek-uulu's hefty sentence directly undermines the Kremlin's preference for bolstering the war effort with foreigners "while maintaining a sense of normalcy in big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg," where proportionally fewer ethnic Russian citizens were called up.

As such, "the Kremlin views [Kubanychbek-uulu's] prosecution as somewhat of a stab in the back from Bishkek, going beyond the passive exercise of neutrality, which Kyrgyzstan has managed to get away with until this point," Bekmurzaev added.

With reporting by Kubatbek Aibashov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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