Natives and nationals of Central Asian countries are taking part in the war in Ukraine in small numbers. They are sandwiched between Russia's aggressive recruitment strategies and their own governments’ threats to imprison those who participate in armed conflict abroad.
In the latest news on Central Asians’ involvement in the war in Ukraine, a former parliament member and ex-mayor of Oral in Kazakhstan, Samigullo Urazov, confirmed reports that his son Baurzhan is fighting in the ranks of the Russian army. According to his father, Baurzhan Urazov moved to Russia several years ago and obtained Russian citizenship.
This is perhaps the most high-profile case given his father’s political career, but it is far from being the only one. There are dozens of Central Asians whose participation in the war has been confirmed. Nationals and natives of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have been taking part in the hostilities since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They are fighting for both the Ukrainian and Russian armies.
However, there are more cases of Central Asians in the ranks of the Russian army. That is only expected given that Russia is a common destination country for millions of migrants from Central Asia. In 2022, 83 percent of 3.35 million people who make up migrant labor in Russia were from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Each year hundreds of thousands of them obtain Russian citizenship to find better job opportunities and bypass bureaucracy and discrimination.
Trickery, bribery, and intimidation at the beginning of the war
The first evidence of Central Asians taking part in the war came on the first day of the invasion via a Telegram video of an Uzbek man in military uniform driving a truck. In the video he explained:
There are many Uzbeks and Tajiks who came to take part in the war. We came here with a contract. I was recruited because I served [in the Soviet army] in Afghanistan.
It was later confirmed that he was in Luhansk, where he served a three-month contract for a monthly salary of USD 590.
In early March 2022, rights activists who work with migrant labor started reporting numerous cases of Central Asian natives with Russian passports being threatened with being stripped of their citizenship unless they reported to enlistment centers. For those without a Russian passport, the mobilization was built on the false promise of an expedited path to obtaining one.
The following months were filled with news of Central Asians who fought and died for the Russian army in Ukraine. In July, MediaHub released a YouTube video investigating the recruitment of Central Asians via social media platforms in the region. The investigation revealed that the recruiters promised over USD 3,000 and fast track to obtaining Russian citizenship in exchange for military service.
Investigative journalists from Kyrgyzstan released the following video, explaining how Central Asians are recruited to fight in Ukraine via social media.
The first direct proof of Russian private military companies recruiting Central Asians came in early September with the video of two young nationals from Uzbekistan captured near Balakliya in eastern Ukraine. One of them claimed to have joined up with the private military company, Redut, to make money. The second explained that he was an illegal migrant in Moscow who was sent to fight in Ukraine.
Desperate attempts to find new manpower
Alongside the mobilization announced on September 21, 2021, which directly affected Central Asians with Russian passports, the Russian authorities also tried to recruit Central Asian citizens living in Russia.
On September 20, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the launch of a recruitment center at the Sakharovo Migration Center, where virtually all migrant labor arriving in Moscow visit to receive work permits and undergo mandatory fingerprint scanning and physical examinations. That same day, the Russian State Duma approved a bill offering a “simplified” path to Russian citizenship in exchange for a minimum one-year term of service in the Russian Armed Forces. Previously, the requirement was five years.
These arrangements culminated with the November presidential decree that allowed foreign citizens to serve in the Russian Armed Forces as conscripts. Previously, foreigners could serve only as contractors; conscripted military service was exclusive to Russian citizens. Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee Andrey Krasov expressed his belief that “a comparable number [of Central Asians] will want to come to Russia to serve — with an eye on the potential acquisition of Russian citizenship and career advancement.”
All these arrangements to recruit more Central Asians do not seem to be working as intended, as there are no signs of their large-scale participation in the war. There are no sources that track the total number of combatants from the four Central Asian countries. The only way to get an estimate is the number of deaths, which is around 35 after one year of war.
The latest news on Central Asians fighting in Ukraine revolves mostly around those who were imprisoned in Russia and joined the Wagner group in hopes of cutting short their prison sentences. The Wagner group is a private military company from Russia whose fighters are deployed in multiple areas of conflict in Arab and African countries. In Russia, it is notorious for recruiting prisoners to fight in the war in Ukraine. There are at least 10 confirmed cases of Tajikistani citizens who died in Ukraine while serving prison sentences in Russia. Similar cases have been reported in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Reinforcing the Ukrainian army
Not everyone fighting in the war is doing so on the Russian side. There are two confirmed cases of Central Asians fighting in the ranks of Ukrainian armed forces. The most famous one is Zhasulan Dyuisembin from Kazakhstan, who joined the Ukrainian army in the fall of 2021. He is married to a Ukrainian woman, and they have two daughters.
Speaking of his involvement in the fighting in Donetsk region, he explained that “Russia is terrorizing Ukraine. God forbid my children suffer. They also have Ukrainian blood, and it is my duty to protect them. That's why I'm here.” Another reason for Zhasulan’s decision to fight against the invading Russian army is his homeland. He shared his story in an interview with the Kazakh branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last June.
I am Kazakh, and I understand that Russia will not stop at Ukraine, it will go further, thus we must make every effort so that our Kazakhstan does not suffer.
Zhasulan is active on social media. He regularly shows the war on his TikTok and Instagram accounts.
#война #война2022 #украина #россия Карта для доната на приборы – 5167803215230058 (Ощад Банк) Dmytry Saenko
The second person is Kudaabek uulu Almaz, who initially traveled to Ukraine from Kyrgyzstan as migrant labor and decided to stay there once the war broke out. After the Kyrgyz security services launched a criminal case against him in May 2022, Almaz fired back with a video in which he stated:
Fascist Russia invaded Ukraine, killing civilians, and having witnessed this lawlessness, and since the truth is on the Ukrainian side, I could not leave because I am a man.
He later appeared in another YouTube video, where he is presented as the leader of the Turan Turkic Legion. Its goal is “to fight against the shaytan regime of Kadyrov and imperial regime of Putin.”
The mass participation in the war of Central Asian is unlikely, as Russia is the region’s largest political and security partner, putting the governments in Central Asia in a position where they cannot confront the Kremlin about the recruitment of their citizens nor condemn its invasion. The authorities in Central Asia have issued stern warnings to their citizens not to fight in Ukraine, threatening lengthy prison sentences for those participating in armed conflicts abroad as mercenaries.