KANT, Kyrgyzstan -- People in the northern Kyrgyz town of Kant, where a Russian air base is located, say hundreds of troops from the facility have been dispatched to fight in the war in Ukraine in recent months.
One Kyrgyz man in Kant said about 300 contract soldiers from the Russia's Tyva (aka Tuva) region had been deployed to the Kant air base in late 2021, just months before Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
"But we haven't seen them here since the war in Ukraine began," said the man, who lives near the air base, some 20 kilometers east of the capital, Bishkek. "One of the Tyvans once told me that he might be sent to the war," the man added.
For security reasons, RFE/RL is not disclosing the names of people who spoke to our correspondents gathering material for this investigative report.
There have been no public announcements or comments by the Russian military about any redeployments of troops from Kant to the front lines in Ukraine.
RFE/RL has asked Russian officials at the air base as well as the Russian Embassy in Bishkek for comment, but as of publication had not received a response.
But a nongovernmental organization in Tyva and a soldier's widow confirmed to RFE/RL that an unknown number of contractors from Tuva had indeed been sent from Kant to Ukraine, with several of them also being killed in the fighting.
Novaya Tyva, an NGO that supports ethnic Tyvans refusing to fight in Ukraine, provided the photos of a man it described as a Tyvan serviceman -- aged about 30 -- who was deployed to Kant. One of the photos seems to be taken in Bishkek, while another shows the soldier at a location that appears to be Kant.
The exact number of the ethnic Tyvan contractors redeployed from Kant is unknown. Locals say there were between 300 and 500 Tyvans at the base before the war began.
According to Novaya Tyva, at least 90 Tyvan soldiers were deployed from Kyrgyzstan to Ukraine this summer. A representative of the group told RFE/RL that the soldiers were dispatched to Ukraine in two separate groups. At least 10 of them have been confirmed killed and about 20 were wounded in the conflict, she said. More than 30 Tyvan soldiers have left the front line -- refusing to fight -- and returned home, the representative said.
It's not known if there were Russian soldiers of other ethnic origins among the troops allegedly repositioned from Kyrgyzstan to Ukraine.
'On Friendly Terms'
Kant residents say the first group of contractors from Tyva came to the air base in 2014.
Ethnic Tyvans and the local Kyrgyz have been on "friendly terms," one resident said, citing cultural similarities and shared words in Kyrgyz and Tyvan, which are Turkic languages.
There were initially several dozen Tyvans at the air base, but their number rose drastically to several thousand in late 2021, according to residents. "They were undergoing military training, parachuting from airplanes," a Kant resident said.
Yryskeldi, a Kant taxi driver, recalls discussing the war in Ukraine with one of the Tyvan servicemen. "The soldier was looking for a short-term apartment to rent because his wife was visiting," Yryskeldi said. "The next time we crossed paths, he said, 'We're being sent to Ukraine, they're sending everyone there.' That conversation took place after the war had begun."
Tyvan servicemen have told locals that they joined the army as contract soldiers. "Although the Tyvans were deployed inside the air base's territory, apparently they were not part of the base's original contingent," another resident said. "The Tyvans had their own barracks, canteen, and washrooms inside the air base. They also had their own equipment and weapons."
RFE/RL cannot independently verify the claims.
The Tyvan contractors in the Russian Army lived in several tents on the territory of the military facility, according to the residents living close to the base.
One resident told RFE/RL the Tyvans "were still in Kant in the spring," but that the locals hadn't seen them recently. He was unable to say when exactly the contractors had left Kant.
Images from Google Earth Pro taken in June show about a dozen tents inside the air base where the Tyvan contractors allegedly lived. When RFE/RL correspondents visited the base in September, the area where the tents had been located was empty.
'Sent To War Against Their Wishes'
The average monthly wage in Tyva is about $200, as it's one of the poorest regions in Russia. That makes serving in the army as a contractor a relatively good option for many Tyvans.
But what they didn't up sign up for was taking part in a war.
According to the Novaya Tyva representative, a Tyvan contractor serving in Kant contacted the NGO in their home region on June 21 saying he didn't want to go to Ukraine.
The soldier told Novaya Tyva that he and several fellow contractors wanted to terminate their contracts and leave the army. But their commanders refused to release them, saying they could only end their contracts after coming to Ukraine, the representative said.
Citing several Tyvan soldiers, the NGO representative told RFE/RL that they were originally stationed in the Tyvan capital of Kyzyl as part of the 55th Motorized Rifle Brigade. "They were sent to Kyrgyzstan in November and December of last year," the representative said. "Then the [army] began to deploy them to Ukraine [this] summer."
She said the military command had withheld the passports of the contractors. But nine Tyvan servicemen managed to get their documents back in late June, falsely telling the commanders they needed an ID to collect parcels from the post office.
They immediately boarded a Russian-bound plane at Bishkek's international airport and arrived in Tyva on June 29, according to Novaya Tyva.
The same day, several of their fellow servicemen reportedly died in fierce fighting in Ukraine's hilltop city of Lysychansk, a major battleground this summer in the Donbas region. Russian media at the time reported casualties among the "brave Tyvan servicemen" from the 55th Motorized Rifle Brigade.
RFE/RL spoke to the widow of one the Tyvan contractors killed in Lysychansk. She confirmed that her husband had served in the same brigade. "He flew to Kyrgyzstan for temporary duty in March. After three months there they were supposed to come home for leave, but their leave was cancelled and they were all sent from Kyrgyzstan directly to Ukraine," she said. "He went to Ukraine on June 19 and was killed there on June 26."
The slain soldier's name is being withheld due security concerns for his widow and their children.
The woman said her husband was dispatched to Ukraine against his wishes. "The contractors wrote an appeal refusing to go [to Ukraine], but their petitions were not accepted," she said.
Base Quieter Than Usual
Back in Kant, locals say they have noticed a lot "less activity" in recent months at the air base, which occupies 925 hectares of land fenced in with barbed wire on the southern outskirts of town.
There is, for example, significantly less traffic on the only highway that connects the base to a special residential area nearby where military personnel live, one Kant resident said.
"There's a parking lot at the entrance of the base for about 100 to 150 [civilian] vehicles and it was always full," the man said. "But after the war in Ukraine began, there are no more than 20 to 30 vehicles parked there. The traffic on the road has decreased, too."
Kant residents have also noticed a substantial decline in the number of military aircraft taking off or landing at the airfield; or taking part in training exercises. "When the war had just begun, we saw various aircraft conducting exercises every single day. There was a high level of activity," one said. "There were a lot of people parachuting from helicopters. There is no such activity anymore."
"There are almost no planes in sight either," he said. "Now, aircraft take off and land only about once in a week or so."
But sources close to the Kyrgyz military and authorities told RFE/RL that flights at the Russian air base continue to be carried out according to a timetable as before.
The Kant air base -- which first opened in 2003 -- reportedly houses about 500 Russian servicemen. It and three other Russian military facilities were merged into a single combined military base in 2017.
RFE/RL doesn't have any information about other Russian soldiers from Kant besides the Tyvans being sent to Ukraine.
A U.S. air base opened nearby, outside of Bishkek, in 2001, to host U.S. troops as part of the military campaign in Afghanistan. But Kyrgyzstan had it closed down in 2014 amid pressure from Russia.