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How Russia drafts migrants to fight in Ukraine

Marina Baranovskaya
September 12, 2023

Threats, tricks and promises — Russia's Defense Ministry has many carrots and sticks when it comes to getting Central Asian migrants to join the military. One of those ways is giving them a path to Russian citizenship.

Two workers at a construction site in Moscow
Migrant workers risk prison terms in their home countries if they join the Russian militaryImage: DW/J. Vishnevetskaya

Russia needs soldiers, and its authorities are increasingly turning to migrants to fill the military's ranks. Guest workers from Central Asian countries are often rounded up on the street, taken to recruitment offices and pressured into signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry. This process can involve threats and violence. At the same time, migrants are offered a quick path to Russian citizenship if they join the military.

Recruitment drive launched ahead of Ukraine invasion

The news of Russia trying to enlist migrants first reached the public just days before its troops invaded Ukraine. On February 20, 2022, Uzbeki blogger Bahrom Ismailov published a video on his YouTube channel urging migrants to sign a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry and promised they would receive Russian citizenship in six months.

After that, reports started pouring in about defense officials pressuring migrants to join the armed forces, activist and lawyer Valentina Chupik told DW. This included citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and people from other migrant communities.

Valentina Chupik pictured in 2021 in Armenia
Activist Valentina Chupik became an expert on migrant law in Russia after being forced to flee her native UzbekistanImage: Aschot Gazazjan/DW

"My colleagues and I found a video recorded by somebody from Tajikistan, who was behind a wheel of a truck in Ukraine and was saying he didn't  know what was happening — he joined the Russian army and now he doesn't know if he will survive," the Uzbekistan-born lawyer said.

In response, Chupik and her associates launched a campaign to inform people and dissuade them from enlisting. The recruiters' success rate went down.

'Is Mariupol in the Moscow region?'

But in the summer of 2022, the Ministry of Defense started recruiting laborers to do construction work in the Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine, such as Luhansk, Donetsk and Mariupol. According to the activist, large groups of people from Central Asia signed up without understanding what was happening.

"In October, some guys from Uzbekistan rang me up and asked, 'Is Mariupol in the Moscow region?'" she said, referring to the coastal Ukrainian city that was reduced to rubble before being captured by Russian forces last year.

The workers were apparently told they would be working in the Moscow Oblast.

"They were put on buses with taped up windows and taken in an unknown direction — 20 buses with 53 people on each one. After they arrived, they saw it was just ruins all around, and they started to figure out that this was not the Moscow Oblast. Somebody had my phone number and they got in touch," Chupik said.

"I was horrified. I started calling Uzbekistan embassies in Russia and Ukraine, but we lost communication with those people. Judging by the fact they had signed contracts with the Defense Ministry and by the statements of the guards escorting them, they were recruited into the military."

No time to read documents before signing

Activists also warned of another way that Russian authorities recruited migrants. In the "Saharovo" migration center in Moscow, where people from Central Asia come to obtain work and residence permits as well as other official documents, officials force them into signing contracts with the military.

"They give them a whole folder of documents, up to 40 sheets of paper, and give them half a minute to read through it. There is a massive line behind them, no time to read, and many sign up without looking. And then it turns out that they have signed a contract to serve in the military," Chupik told DW.

"People panic, they call, ask what to do," she said. "There were many cases when migrants, despite already having work permits, would just drop everything and quickly leave Russia."

A watchtower of a prison in Saratov, Russia
Russian mercenary group Wagner also recruited members in Russian prisonsImage: Filipp Kochetkov/Tass/imago images

Another way to add new soldiers to the ranks is at the migrant detention centers housing people awaiting deportation. The detainees are told that they will obtain Russian citizenship after six months if they join the military. If they refuse, they are threatened, told they would be "forgotten" and spend the rest of their lives in detention, according to Chupik. Russian authorities also target foreign inmates in prisons and penal colonies, using beatings, torture and threats of rape to force them to sign up.

'It is completely illegal'

In May 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the procedure to obtain Russian citizenship for foreigners who signed a one-year contract with the Defense Ministry during the Ukraine war. Since then, there have been increasing reports of people applying for Russian citizenship only to be sent to a recruitment office and pressured to enlist.

"This practice has now grown especially common,"  said Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance Committee and member of the Memorial Human Rights Center. "The documents people need to obtain citizenship are not being accepted without a draft office certificate. It's completely illegal — there is no written direction about it."

Activist Svetlana Gannushkina pictured in Moscow, 2021
Gannushkina says there are ways to obtain free legal consult through human rights watchdogsImage: DW

In mid-August 2023, Russia's Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights suggested changing the law to make military registration mandatory for those applying for a Russian passport. By the end of the month, Communist lawmaker Mikhail Matveev introduced a bill that would allow for a loss of citizenship for draft dodgers and those seeking to evade registration and mandatory military training. However, the law would only apply to "new Russians" who were not born with Russian citizenship.

Targeting the 'most defenseless'

Valentina Chupik said that while the drive to recruit foreigners is linked with Russia's battlefield failures, there are also political reasons for the move.

"Before every new election in Russia, they ramp up the anti-migrant sentiment. Now they invented a new way for it — forced recruiting," she said. "They detain and recruit those who are the most defenseless, those who have nobody to stand up for them."

In addition to risking their lives in Ukraine, migrants also risk criminal prosecution if they return to their home countries. All Central Asian nations have laws against serving in foreign armies. Religious leaders in Uzbekistan have even issued a fatwa banning Uzbek Muslims from taking part in the Ukraine war.

'Tear up that paper'

When asked about ways to avoid recruitment, Chupik's first advice is not to pursue Russian citizenship.

"The first thing that people need to think about is how much they even need Russia,"  said the former Uzbekistan refugee who was banned from entering Russia in 2021. "We have evacuated several thousand people, and they all managed to find their feet in other countries."

She said many Central Asian migrants are learning Ukrainian and are planning to live in Ukraine after the war.

A map of central Asia
Many people from former Soviet republics still go to Russia to find work

She also urged people to read all documents carefully before signing them.

"If they are pressuring you or threatening you, tear up that paper, or write 'I do not consent,'" she said, adding that if migration officials refuse to accept papers without a military certificate, people should ask to have the refusal in writing.

"Start video streaming on any social media and ask them to take your documents or to issue a written statement," she said. "That has worked wonderfully so far."

She also noted that migrants can obtain free legal counsel by contacting her.

"We have lawyers who speak Russian, Uzbek, Tajik, Kirgiz, Armenian," she said. "In those situations is much safer to talk to a lawyer in a language that the [Russian security service] FSB does not understand."

This article was originally written in Russian.