Attempts to recruit immigrants into the Russian army are increasing. This particularly affects workers from Central Asia. Human rights activists report on the methods and tricks the Russian authorities use.
The Russian authorities are increasingly trying to fill the ranks of the army with migrant workers from Central Asia. They are taken straight from the street to the enlistment offices and there they are persuaded or forced with threats and violence to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
Many migrants have so far sought Russian citizenship. But in mid-August, the Human Rights Council proposed changes to migration laws to the Russian president that would make military service registration a mandatory requirement for obtaining a Russian passport.
And at the end of August, the Communist Party introduced a draft law into the Russian State Duma that would allow citizenship to be revoked from “new Russians” in the event of conscientious objection, fleeing mobilization or failing to register for military service.
“Is Mariupol in the Moscow region?”
The fact that migrant workers were being recruited to serve in the Russian army first became known shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On February 20, 2022, Uzbek blogger Bakhrom Ismailov posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he urged migrants to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense and promised that they would receive Russian citizenship after six months of service.
Valentina Chupik, a lawyer representing migrants, received a flood of messages after February 22, when Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine began, that citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and other migrants were being persuaded to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry to sign.
“My colleagues and I discovered a video filmed by a Tajik. He was driving a truck in Ukraine and said he didn’t understand what was happening, that he had signed up for the Russian army and now he didn’t know whether he would survive,” the human rights activist told DW.
The video with a comment from the lawyer was widely distributed on social networks. Tschupik and her colleagues launched a campaign against recruitment into the Russian army, which resulted in a decline in the number of recruits. In the summer of 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defense finally began recruiting migrants for construction work in Luhansk, Donetsk and Mariupol, i.e. in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Tschupik says that people from Central Asia who were not clear about what was at stake signed corresponding contracts in entire brigades.
“In October, people from Uzbekistan called me and asked if Mariupol was in the Moscow region. It turned out that their salaries were withheld where they worked, and a large group of them signed a contract for construction work, allegedly somewhere in the Moscow region. They were put on buses with taped windows and taken in an unknown direction – 20 buses with 53 people each. When they arrived, they saw only ruins, and they began to realize that this cannot be the Moscow region. One of them had my phone number and they contacted me. I was horrified and started calling Uzbekistan’s embassies in Russia and Ukraine. But contact with the workers broke off. “They probably signed contracts with the Ministry of Defense because the guards who accompanied them reported that they were taken to the army,” Tschupik said.
Using deception to the Russian army
Soon, human rights activists became aware of another trick by which the Russian authorities are trying to replenish the army with people from Central Asia. At the Sakharovo migration center in Moscow, where one can obtain all sorts of documents, from a work permit to a residence permit, men were deceived into signing contracts with the Russian army.
“You give them a whole stack of documents to sign, up to 40 sheets, and you give them half a minute to read through it. There is a huge queue behind them and there is no time to read. Many people simply sign without looking. It later turns out that they signed a contract to serve in the Russian army. People then panic, call and ask what they should do. There are many cases where migrants gave up everything and quickly left Russia despite having a residence permit,” says Tschupik.
Recruitment of foreigners in prisons
Attempts are also being made to recruit migrants into the army who have violated Russian law and are in detention centers awaiting deportation. “They are offered to enter into a contract with the army promising that after six months of service they will receive a Russian passport. If this doesn’t work, people will be intimidated and threatened that they will spend the rest of their lives behind bars,” said Tschupik.
Foreigners serving sentences in prisons would also be recruited. Attempts are being made to force her to serve in the Russian armed forces using beatings, torture and the threat of rape.
“In January 2023, I was contacted by the father of a man serving a sentence in Prison No. 6 in the city of Vladimir. He said that a khaki-colored car had pulled up there and was used to transport all prisoners of non-Slavic descent in an unknown direction. They said they would be back in two weeks. The young man who talked about it was completely horrified. He was in the hospital ward with the flu and therefore didn’t have to compete. “I contacted journalists, they sent a request to the prison, and when another car like that pulled up there two weeks later, the prison director said he didn’t need any unnecessary problems and sent the recruiters away again,” says Tschupik.
The human rights activist goes on to say that at the same time she received many letters with reports from prisons across the country. The head of a prison in Mordovia told recruiters that his superiors in the Mordovia penal service would not allow people to be taken away. On the other hand, the head of a prison in Irkutsk forced inmates to sign contracts with the army. He threatened to be imprisoned for longer under harsher conditions.
Citizenship only with military service registration
On May 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the simplified granting of Russian citizenship to foreigners who sign a one-year contract with the Russian army. Since then, it has become increasingly common for foreigners applying for naturalization to be sent to the enlistment office for a certificate. There they then try to force them to sign a contract with the army.
“Without a certificate from the Conscription Office, people will not be accepted for documents that they must submit for naturalization. This is completely illegal, there are no written orders regarding this. In some regions this happens regularly, in some rarely and in some not at all,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, chairwoman of the social organization “Citizens’ Support,” which is committed to helping refugees and displaced people.
The activist is also on the board of the human rights center “Memorial”. She attributes the attempts to forcibly recruit foreigners to the Russian authorities’ desire to increase the number of soldiers in the Russian armed forces.
Valentina Tschupik, for her part, links the pressure on migrants with Russia’s failures on the front, but also with the regional elections and “with traditional Russian racism and Nazism.” Today this is maintained as a state ideology.
“Before every election in Russia, a phobia against migrants is stirred up. Now a new form of this has been devised, namely forced recruitment. Those who are least able to defend themselves are kidnapped and recruited,” said the activist.
Homelands persecute mercenaryism
In all Central Asian countries, serving in the army of a foreign state is considered a criminal offense and is prosecuted as mercenary activity. Therefore, migrants who have signed a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense will be prosecuted for this if they return to their home country. Prison sentences range from five to 12 years in Tajikistan, five to 10 years in Uzbekistan and 10 to 12 years in Kyrgyzstan.
Meanwhile, the embassies of these countries are warning their citizens that participating in hostilities on the territory of foreign states is a punishable offense. The Islamic clergy of Uzbekistan even issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from participating in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Tajik authorities have now drawn up lists of Tajik mercenaries fighting in the ranks of the Russian army in Ukraine.
And in Bishkek in May 2023, a Kyrgyz citizen was sentenced to 10 years in prison for mercenary behavior for fighting for Russian troops in Ukraine for a year and then returning to Kyrgyzstan.
It is currently unclear how many people from Central Asian countries are fighting for the Russian army on the territory of Ukraine. According to some reports, there could be tens of thousands of migrants recruited into the Russian army.