Crossroads Asia

Are Central Asians Being Conscripted by Russia to Fight in Ukraine?

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Are Central Asians Being Conscripted by Russia to Fight in Ukraine?

Moscow denies that Central Asians are being conscripted into the Russian military, but the risk is real.

Are Central Asians Being Conscripted by Russia to Fight in Ukraine?

Ukrainian servicemen walk along a road while they search for dead bodies of their comrades in the recently recaptured town of Lyman, Ukraine, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

Russian embassies across Central Asia warned on October 3 that reports of foreign citizens — including Central Asian migrant workers — being conscripted into the Russia military were fake. On Telegram, the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan further stressed that reports citing a Russian Interior Ministry order stating that Central Asian migrant workers who refused military contracts faced the annulment of their work permits and deportation were also fake.

“Those who launch such fakes aim to overshadow relations between our countries,” the Russian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan noted.

There have, however, been several detailed reports that lend credence to concerns that Central Asians working in Russia are being pressured or otherwise lured into joining the war effort in Ukraine. This risk is not fabricated.

One focal point of concern is the Sakharovo migration center where, in the days before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial mobilization” of Russian reservists, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that the city would be opening a military recruitment center for foreign citizens. Given that the bulk of migrant workers in Russia are from Central Asia, it is not a huge leap of logic to believe Central Asians are a major target.

Subsequent reports, such as from Eurasianet, state that foreigners waiting at the migration center — where permits are obtained and renewed — “are handed leaflets with an offer: Sign up with the Russian armed forces, go fight in Ukraine and earn a simplified path to citizenship, as well as a monthly salary of almost $3,300.”

Central Asian embassies in Russia have warned their citizens against joining the war. In those warnings, Central Asian governments have reminded their citizens of criminal penalties in their home countries stemming from participating in any foreign conflict. The embassies have refrained from directly accusing Moscow of recruiting Central Asian citizens, using much more ambiguous phrasing that could apply to both official efforts to recruit Central Asians, the establishment of “volunteer” battalions by Central Asians in Russia (with Moscow’s encouragement), and scams tricking Central Asians into the conflict.

Dual citizens (which not all Central Asian states recognize) and Central Asians who have become naturalized Russian citizens are at particular risk, in part because of their ambiguous status. After the partial mobilization was announced, The Moscow Times reported that Kirill Kabanov, a member of the Russian presidential human rights council, said the body was drafting new rules for migrants who became Russian citizens within the last decade. “The draft rules include compulsory military service within a year for Russian citizens hailing from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, he wrote on his Telegram channel,” The Moscow Times writes.

The Kyrgyz Embassy in Russia, meanwhile, warned that dual Kyrgyz-Russian citizens would be considered Russian citizens while residing in Russia. An embassy spokesperson told RFE/RL on September 23 that, “according to Russian federal law on migration, Kyrgyz citizens who obtained Russian citizenship, and therefore have dual citizenship, are considered Russian citizens only.” 

Russia may not conscript Central Asians, but it certainly would conscript Russian citizens. And Moscow isn’t going to stop Central Asians from taking jobs that just happen to be in the conflict area, either.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, also known as Radio Ozodi, reported on October 3 that Russian construction companies sent a number of Tajik laborers to Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city on the Sea of Azov occupied by Russian forces since May. Radio Ozodi interviewed one 30-year-old Tajik citizen who has been in Mariupol since the end of August. He’d worked for Restavratsiya, a construction company in Moscow, which sent him to work in Ukraine. In the first month, he said, their salary was double what it had been in Moscow. The report notes that not all workers took the option of going to Ukraine, citing security concerns.

Russian officials have a habit of calling “fake” what is all too real, including Ukraine’s statehood itself. Moscow may not be “officially” recruiting Central Asians, but Central Asians are dying in Ukraine with the Russian military all the same. How they end up there is worthy of investigation and discussion. The financial incentives to take jobs connected to the war are powerful, and the levers the Russian state has over migrant workers are too.