Crossroads Asia | Security | Central Asia

Uzbek Government Warns Citizens in Russia Against Joining Ukraine War

The warning came after a video surfaced of a migrant leader in the Russian city of Perm urging compatriots form a “volunteer battalion.”

Uzbek Government Warns Citizens in Russia Against Joining Ukraine War
Credit: Catherine Putz

The Embassy of Uzbekistan in Russia warned Uzbek citizens in an August 10 press release against creating “volunteer battalions” or participating in “hostilities on the territory of foreign states.” The release pointed to Article 154 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code as explicitly outlawing the participation of Uzbeks in armed conflicts in foreign countries, with up to 10 years in jail as punishment for violating the law.

“The Embassy calls on our compatriots not to succumb to provocations and to exercise forethought,” the press release said.

A few days earlier, a video surfaced of an Uzbek migrant leader in Perm, Russia, proposing the creation of a “volunteer battalion” to join the “special military operation” in Ukraine — the euphemism Moscow prefers for the invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine which began in late February. 

According to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, the leader of the Society of Central Asian Uzbeks of the Perm Territory, Jahongir Jalolov, said “Our children attend kindergartens, study at schools and universities. We live and work in Russia. We not only have to, we are obliged to justify the bread that we eat. I propose to form a volunteer battalion and call it the great name of Amir Timur [Tamerlane].”

In 2021, according to Russian government statistics, 4.5 million Uzbek citizens were working in Russia and nearly 32,000 became Russian citizens. (Uzbekistan does not recognize dual citizenship).

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A Kommersant report on August 8 claimed that at least 40 “volunteer battalions” had been formed across Russia, from St. Petersburg to Yakutia, Krasnodar to Perm.

Volunteers reportedly sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense for several months, with pay varying from region to region. It’s not explicitly clear where such “volunteer battalions” are directed or deployed. The push to recruit untrained individuals by the Russian military, a CNN report suggested, may be an effort to boost manpower while avoiding a more general mobilization. “They also appear to be focused on poorer and more isolated regions, using the lure of quick cash,” CNN noted. 

From the start of the war, many in Central Asia worried that migrant workers in Russia would be pressured or lured into joining the war effort. And indeed, by March 2022 reports surfaced of ethnic Central Asians being killed in Ukraine with the Russian military. Some of the early reports pointed to a “driver from Fergana” who made a video that went viral of him driving into Ukraine with Russian forces. He said he’d accepted a three-month contract as a driver in exchange for Russian citizenship, housing, and a salary of 50,000 rubles a month. He allegedly found the job listing on a migrant job website.

The creation of “volunteer battalions” by ethnic Central Asians in Russia with the purpose of fighting in Ukraine has possible repercussions for the states of Central Asia. While Uzbekistan, like the rest of the region, has refrained from directly criticizing or condemning Russia, it has also avoided voicing explicit support for Russia’s war. At least one Uzbek company has run afoul of U.S. sanctions against Russia, and a U.S. government agency warned that the region could serve as a “transshipment points” through which Russian goods could evade sanctions. Nothing good can come from the region’s migrant workers showing up in Ukraine as foreign fighters.

The Uzbek government has communicated warnings to its citizens against joining the war in Ukraine, but one has to wonder what communications have been directed to the Russian government in this matter.