Central Asians Fight in Ukraine Eyeing Russian Citizenship  

To bolster its troops, Moscow is tempting foreign nationals with the offer of a passport.

Central Asians Fight in Ukraine Eyeing Russian Citizenship  

To bolster its troops, Moscow is tempting foreign nationals with the offer of a passport.

Rustam Zarifulin was reportedly killed on March 14 while fighting with the Russian army in the town of Izium, in Ukraine's Kharkiv region. He moved to the Russian region of Sverdlovsk in 2016, where he served in the army and then became a contract soldier. He was buried in Chui, Kyrgyzstan's northernmost region, on March 27.
Rustam Zarifulin was reportedly killed on March 14 while fighting with the Russian army in the town of Izium, in Ukraine's Kharkiv region. He moved to the Russian region of Sverdlovsk in 2016, where he served in the army and then became a contract soldier. He was buried in Chui, Kyrgyzstan's northernmost region, on March 27. © Kloop.kg

Sardarbek Mamatillaev was happy when he was granted Russian citizenship in 2021. But the 24-year-old from Kyrgyzstan did not expect to receive a call to arms a few months later.

“I was told to go to the military commissariat, or else my citizenship would be revoked…I think this is all because of Ukraine,” Mamatillaev, who moved to Russia in 2017, told IWPR. “Various websites post adverts to recruit military conscripts now.”

Originally from Osh, Mamatillaev served in the Kyrgyz army but as Russia needs manpower to bolster its troops in Ukraine, new citizens like him are drafted too.

In 2013, Russia amended the federal law regulating military service and extended the duty to serve to foreigners who have obtained Russian passports, even if they had already served in their home countries.

On March 4, Moscow-based human rights activist Karimzhon Yorov wrote on Facebook that Tajiks with Russian citizenship had been summoned to the military commissariat, adding that some were considering fleeing Russia to avoid enlisting.

“They asked me what would happen if they do not visit the [military commissariat] or if they flee to another state. Today three [Tajiks] have asked me what would be if they renounce Russian citizenship, how much time will it take. One of them was even going to pay for it,” Yorov said. They had left their country seeking a better life for their children, not to fight in a war, he concluded.

Popular Russian websites like Avito.ru, hh.ru and official-rostrud.ru have also been posting military recruitment adverts, directed also at those without citizenship.

Moscow-based human rights defender Valentina Chupik told IWPR that what was effectively forced conscription included men over the usual age limits.

“Citizens of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were also called by unknown persons from some ‘legal firms’ and offered Russian citizenship after three months as a contract soldier in the Russian army. This is impossible, it is a scam,” she said. Chupik has called on migrant workers to not believe the promise of a speedy citizenship process.  

Bekhruz Pirmatov, an Uzbek citizen who moved to Moscow in 2017, has received various calls offering him citizenship in exchange for military service.

“Of course, this is not the military commissariat. There are many scammers at the moment. But I am not ready to serve because my Russian language skills are very poor…. People with heavy debts want to join the army now. For example, my cousin applied,” Pirmatov told IWPR.

Vladimir Yevseyev, an analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow, noted that the number of Central Asians applying to serve in the Russian army was steadily increasing.

“The contract varies, from one month to five years… [They] get salaries and bonuses that can exceed basic pay,” Yevseyev explained. One-month contracts are rare and usually granted to people with good military skills and knowledge. Five-year deals are the regular practice , after which Russian citizenship is granted.

RECRUITS RISK JAIL TERMS

The recruitment potential is huge. According to Russia’s interior ministry, as of December 2021 nearly six million people from Central Asian countries lived and worked in Russia; over 82 per cent from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Contract soldiers must be over 18 years of age, have a good level of Russian and graduated from at least the ninth grade - higher in the case of more senior posts - and must reside legally in Russia. Foreigners cannot apply for the rank of officers. All applicants must undergo a fingerprint check.

Uzbek political analyst Farkhad Tolipov, who heads the Bilim karvoni educational institution in Tashkent, thinks that this recruitment drive will soon falter.

“First, labour migrants can see the tragic outcomes and consequences of participation of their compatriots in combat operations in Syria… Second, here is no ideological motivation as was the case with Syria, it makes no sense to fight and die for someone else’s values and for a foreign country. Besides, I think their relatives and parents tell them about the situation in Ukraine and caution them against participation in the tragedy,” he told IWPR.

For some, a Russian passport is a pass to freedom.

“I am willing to be in the war for Russia. I want Russian citizenship because I have a previous conviction and back home no one will offer me a good job,” said Nurbek, not his real name, a Kyrgyz man who has been living in Moscow for four years.

Faridun Saidzoda, a Tajik lawyer who works at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, told IWPR that Tajikistan’s citizens risk between 12 and 20 years in jail for signing up to fight in an armed conflict abroad.

Uzbekistan has a similar provision. On February 28, the ministry of justice warned that Uzbek nationals risk up to five years in prison if they serve in the military, police or other security bodies of foreign countries. The defence ministry denied allegations that its military personnel was taking part “in hostilities outside the country”.

Dushanbe-based political analyst Abdumalik Kodirov said that ending up behind bars was not a strong enough deterrent.

“It will not stop our men of adventure. Some of them succumbed to the lure of easy money and big bucks; some of them swallowed the bait of Russian propaganda; some wanted to ingratiate themselves to the Russian authorities to obtain citizenship faster; and some might be headed for trouble,” Kodirov told IWPR.

With data hard to gather, there are no exact figures on how many Central Asians are fighting in Ukraine in the Russian army. The Russian parliament recently adopted a law on criminal responsibility for dissemination of fake news about the operations of any state bodies of Russia abroad, with jail terms up to 15 years. The same punishment was introduced earlier for disinformation about the Russian army.

In Kazakstan, unofficial data indicates that at least 16 ethnic Kazaks died in the last three weeks of March, but across the region governments remain tight-lipped about how many of their citizens are fighting or have fallen. Experts note that their neutrality is understandable as the whole region depends heavily on Russia.

In Kyrgyzstan, the funerals of Rustam Zarifulin and Egemberdi Dorboev, two Kyrgyz men with Russian passport who were killed in Ukraine, sparked controversy. Both were awarded the Order of Courage of the Russian Federation and they were buried in March with both Russian and Kyrgyz soldiers carrying each the national flags.

“The use of the national emblems and the presence of soldiers of the National Guard have caused bitter debates, mainly among those who were against the military conflict because it was somebody else’s war,” Medet Tiulegenov, professor of international relations at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, told IWPR. “Russia is our partner. But this action cancels out the attempts of the foreign ministry to show its neutrality. We look as if [we] support the war. This is bad for our country’s image.”

In Tajikistan, a few men are known to have died in Ukraine. The bodies of Saidakbar Saidov and Ramazon Murtazaev, originally from southern region of Khatlon, were delivered to their home village on March 17 by officers of the 201st Russian base in Tajikistan.

Yormukhammad Saidov said that his brother Saidakbar had become a citizen of Russia, where he lived with his family, and served in the country’s armed forces. He told IWPR that his “family has eaten the bread of Russia since 1992, and he is willing to fight for Russia”.

Some Central Asian citizens have also thrown their lot in with the Ukrainian side.

Shavkat, not his real name, is an Uzbek fighting with the Ukrainian army as a volunteer. He told IWPR that he had been in the country for eight years and that in 2014 he fought with the Aidar battalion but left it in 2015. He remained in the country, worked in the construction sector, and applied for refugee status but to no avail.

On February 25, the day after the invasion, he came to Kyiv to sign up as a volunteer.

“I am fighting in Kyiv,” he said. “I have not signed any contracts with any state bodies… I am here as a volunteer combatant to help the people of Ukraine.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

Support our journalists