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Uzbeks Adding To Ranks Of Ukraine's Pro-Russian Separatists

A June 22 photo from the Donetsk region city of Siversk shows a Kalashnikov-carrying separatist identified as Bakhtiyor, a native of Uzbekistan.
A June 22 photo from the Donetsk region city of Siversk shows a Kalashnikov-carrying separatist identified as Bakhtiyor, a native of Uzbekistan.

Fresh evidence suggests that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are looking to Central Asia as a potential source of trained military fighters.

A June 22 photograph taken by the Reuters news agency in the Donetsk region city of Siversk shows a Kalashnikov-carrying separatist identified as Bakhtiyor, a native of Uzbekistan.

On June 24, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service anonymously contacted recruiters for the "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR), an unrecognized state in eastern Ukraine and part of the region's unofficial Novorossia separatist confederation. He was assured that he was welcome and that any problems connected to his foreign citizenship could likely be resolved.

The correspondent, identifying himself as an Uzbek citizen, asked if it was possible for him and a fellow Uzbek to enlist. The recruitment spokesman, speaking from the DNR's Moscow office, said it was allowed "in principle," but that "specific measures" would need to be taken to address their lack of a Russian passport.

The recruiter went on to say that no payment was available and that enlistment was on a volunteer basis only. A second DNR representative, located in Ukraine's Donbas region, told the correspondent that the separatists were only looking to recruit people "from law enforcement or with a military specialization."

Fighting For Pay

The revelations appear to confirm the composite nature of eastern Ukraine's separatist armies, which have battled the Ukrainian military and self-defense forces in an attempt to break free of Ukrainian control in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Separatist battalions at first claimed to be homegrown but have since proven to include fighters from throughout Russia, including the North Caucasus, as well as from Russia-friendly regions such as South Ossetia, the breakaway territory located inside Georgia. A small number of Central Asians are also said to be among their ranks.

Military observers and journalists in eastern Ukraine say Russia is actively backing the recruitment drive, using both money and ample tanks, armored cars, and other armaments as an enticement.

Some of the fighters claim to be fighting out of pro-Russian or Orthodox Christian sentiment. Others appear to be mercenaries drawn by the promise of steady pay.

An amateur video posted recently on the Internet shows a 21-year-old Russian military cadet who had attempted to enlist with separatist forces but was captured by Ukrainian national guards. In the video confession, the cadet says he responded to an Internet recruitment ad and was promised $1,000 a day to join the DNR troops.

Shavkat Mukhamed, an Uzbek citizen who has participated in Ukraine's pro-Western Euromaidan protests, told RFE/RL he had contacts in the Luhansk region who have been offered between $50-$100 a day to fight with separatists there.

Ukraine's national news agency, Ukrinform, reported on June 23 that Russia had attempted to recruit veterans of the French Foreign Legion, offering up to 10,000 euros ($13,600) per month.

Fighting For Citizenship?

The existence of unofficial separatist bodies in Donetsk and Luhansk -- each with their own armed forces and recruitment boards -- allows Moscow to argue that it has no direct connection to eastern Ukraine's Russian-speaking foreign forces. (The June 25 vote by Russia's upper house of parliament, revoking authorization for military intervention in Ukraine, adds a further degree of plausible denial.)

But some recruits may be looking to make the relationship with Russia more explicit -- particularly Central Asians, who make up the bulk of Russia's undocumented temporary workforce.

In April, the Russian Migrants' Foundation said as many as 100,000 migrants had expressed readiness to "defend Russia's interests anywhere in the world" in return for Russian citizenship.

It is not clear how many Central Asian migrants have the military experience that pro-Russian recruiters currently crave. Uzbekistan, which like most post-Soviet countries still has compulsory military service, has the second-largest army in Central Asia after Kazakhstan, and arguably the most experienced. Many Uzbek soldiers fought in the Soviet-Afghan War, as well as conflicts associated with the Soviet breakup, including the Tajik civil war, Chechnya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Daisy Sindelar and Merkhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report

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