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Russian Military Eyes Central Asian Recruits Amid Mobilization Drive


Moscow's Sakharovo migration center will be the focus of the recruitment drive, according to Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Central Asian migrants are accustomed to doing Moscow’s dirty work.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of citizens from the countries of the region travel to the Russian capital and other major cities to take jobs as street sweepers, cleaners, construction workers, and on the front lines of the service sector -- employment Russians often shun.

Now it is Russia’s military front in Ukraine that may be looming, with legal amendments passed by the State Duma offering a “simplified” fast track to Russian citizenship in return for a year of military service “in the armed forces of the Russian Federation, other forces, or military formations.”

The context for changes in the legislation on receiving Russian citizenship came a day later, on September 21, when President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to bolster the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion, after results on the battlefield took a turn for the worse.

The announcement and a vaguely worded presidential decree accompanying it has sparked panic, not to mention a surge in demand for flights out of Russia not seen since the first weeks of the war.

By the end of the day, more than 1,300 people had been detained at protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and more than 30 other cities, where many participants held up posters with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag and chanted "No to mobilization!" and “Russia without Putin.”

WATCH: More than 1,300 people have been detained in Russia after rare anti-war protests were held around the country in the wake of President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial military mobilization.

More Than 1,300 Detained In Anti-Mobilization Protests Across Russia
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Online, the mobilization drive is being referred to as “mogilizatsia,” a play on the Russian word for a grave.

And this is doubtless where Russia’s thinking on migrants comes in.

In a first official update on the Russian military’s personnel losses in Ukraine since March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a TV interview that 5,937 soldiers had died in the war.

That is well out of keeping with the estimates of Western governments, who have cited figures of between 15,000 and 30,000.

The Russian passport in exchange for military service offer may be a tempting alternative to “two years of running around” in pursuit of a citizenship that is hard to obtain.

With the prospect of recruitment drives especially unpopular in cities like Moscow, it is not surprising that a disproportionately large part of the fighting has fallen on soldiers from what migration researcher Yan Matusevich calls “the poorest and [most] remote regions of the country, many of which happen to be populated by non-Russian ethnic minorities.”

The turn toward migrants should be seen as part of this trend, Matusevich told RFE/RL, offering the opportunity to “boost recruitment numbers of the big cities without having to draft more well-off Russians from [Moscow and St. Petersburg],” that the decree does not appear to safeguard from the mobilization.

Moscow’s city government, led by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, has wasted little time in rolling out the recruitment mat.

In a post that appeared on his personal website on September 20, Sobyanin said that “full-fledged infrastructure to assist the Russian Defense Ministry in organizing the entry into military service of foreign citizens” will be available at the Sakharovo migration center.

Putin and Shoigu both said the target of the mobilization will be reservists with relevant combat experience, but such statements will do little to assuage concerns that men with only limited training and preparation will be sent to the front.

WATCH: Long lines of vehicles have formed at a border crossing between Russia's North Ossetia region and Georgia after Moscow announced a partial military mobilization.

Russian Vehicles Flock To Georgian Border Following Partial Military Mobilization
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The Kremlin has said repeatedly that it won’t deploy conscripts to Ukraine, but there have been several confirmed cases of them being sent into combat during the campaign.

Azamat Adylgaziev, a businessman and noted diaspora leader among migrants from Kyrgyzstan in Russia, told RFE/RL that the mood of his compatriots is “somewhat panicked, especially the young men,” with some braving a sudden spike in air fares to get on planes leaving the country.

Many of those leaving are Kyrgyz who have already secured Russian citizenship, he added.

For those who haven’t, he said, the Russian passport in exchange for military service offer may be a tempting alternative to “two years of running around” in pursuit of a citizenship that is hard to obtain.

“How many will sign up? It is impossible to say until we see the queues at Sakharovo. But there is some interest and a lot of people who do not understand the consequences,” Adylgaziev said.

Threats Of Jail At Home

The overwhelming majority of the migrants from Central Asia are from three countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Other CIS countries tend either to send fewer citizens there in absolute terms or have economies that are less dependent on Russia-sourced cash transfers.

I am worried that Russian authorities will try to blackmail those currently at migrant detention centers into enlisting."
-- Migration researcher Yan Matusevich

All three are known for their political loyalty toward Russia, but perhaps mindful of the international sanctions against Russia and its closest ally, Belarus, they have instructed nationals that prison sentences await anyone violating laws on participating in foreign wars.

Uzbekistan’s state prosecutor said on September 22 that participation in a foreign war could be punished by prison sentences of between five and 10 years.

According to official Russian data, fully half of the citizens who arrived in Russia for work in the second quarter of this year -- 1.54 million people -- were citizens of Central Asia’s most populous country, Uzbekistan.

Next door, Kyrgyzstan’s embassy in Moscow said on the same day that fighting in foreign wars could be punished with jail terms of “up to 10 years,” and asked citizens to report to the mission any attempts at recruitment.

Make A Run For It

In a Facebook post, former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov called on his government to take action to help what he said were 500,000 Kyrgyzstan-born “compatriots” already in possession of a Russian passport and therefore vulnerable to potential mobilization.

“The call-up of these people into military service will have a negative, if not tragic, impact on their relatives and close ones, for whom they are the sole providers,” Kulov wrote.

While Kyrgyzstan does not officially recognize dual citizenship with Russia, in practice many citizens are able to maintain the passports of both countries.

Tajikistan released a statement on September 22 referring only to “criminal responsibility” for citizens participating in military activities abroad.

It is not clear how many nationals from Central Asian countries have already participated in the Ukraine war as mercenaries.

On September 10, Oleksandr Shtupun, the press secretary of Ukraine’s General Staff, accused Moscow of recruiting soldiers “among retired military personnel in the Kyrgyz Republic via social media groups.”

WATCH: Current Time correspondents asked residents of the Russian cities of Yekaterinburg and Kaliningrad on September 21 how they feel about the partial mobilization.

Russians React To Partial Mobilization Ordered By President
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On the same day, Ukrainian war correspondent Yuriy Butusov posted a video showing captured soldiers who claimed to be from Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL’s Tajik and Kyrgyz services have reported multiple deaths of nationals fighting for Russia in Ukraine. The Kremlin-linked Russian private military company Vagner is also reportedly recruiting nationals from the region.

Skepticism surrounding Moscow’s promises on the limits of the partial mobilization is framed by a number of factors, not least recent territorial gains by Ukrainian forces, who have recently reclaimed hundreds of villages and cities lost at the beginning of the war.

The strength of the recent counteroffensive appears to have driven the mobilization order, while also casting doubt on Russia’s ability to achieve what it might consider a victory in the bloody war anytime soon.

Matusevich, the researcher, says that with Moscow desperate for manpower, its recruitment of foreign-born fighters may go well beyond the voluntary scenario presented by Sobyanin.

“I am worried that Russian authorities will try to blackmail those currently at migrant detention centers into enlisting. Russian authorities may also threaten naturalized Russian citizens with revocation of their citizenship for refusing to 'volunteer' to fight in Ukraine,” he said.

Valentina Chupik, an Uzbekistan-born migrant rights defender who was last year barred from Russia, voiced similar concerns about the government’s potentially arbitrary approach in a Facebook post, noting that migrants could face a choice between becoming “cannon fodder” or “slaves” to the war effort.

“Dear migrants who have Russian relatives or who foolishly acquired Russian citizenship, run immediately! As for the rest, I also advise running,” she wrote.

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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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