Russia is nearing the first anniversary of its re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and supplying sufficient manpower for the war effort remains a key factor in determining the war’s outcome. For several weeks, Ukrainian officials have been warning of Russia’s impending new offensive and waves of mobilization, which seem to be driving Moscow’s increased recruitment of Central Asian labor migrants through aggressive means and a blatant disregard for the law (Euromaidan Press, January 13; The Kyiv Independent, February 6; see EDM, February 15).
The pool of Central Asian migrants who work in primarily low-skilled jobs in Russia is large, and, in 2022, the Russian Federation received a record-high number of Central Asian labor migrants since the early 2000s, when Russia started to become a primary destination country. Last year, Russia accepted approximately 3 million labor migrants from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan combined—namely, 1.3 million from Uzbekistan, 1 million from Kyrgyzstan and 850,000 from Tajikistan (Rosstat.gov.ru, July 2022; 24.kg, February 10, 2022) The Russian ruble has remained relatively stable since its rebound from the early weeks of the war, which has encouraged migrants to stay and has attracted more migrants from Central Asia (DW, May 4, 2022). Russia’s ability to reorient its oil and natural gas exports from Europe to the Asian market and reap the benefits of high prices, as least for the first half of 2022, allowed the country to maintain its primacy as the main destination for Central Asian migrants (Finexpertiza.ru, August 8, 2022).
Russia’s upcoming mobilization waves could disproportionately target naturalized Russian citizens of Central Asian origin, predominantly those labor migrants who obtained Russian passports out of convenience for legalizing their stay. Several cases were already reported in which Tajikistani and Kyrgyzstani dual citizens were informed by Russian officials of their appearances on military service rosters as reservists, though they had never given their consent (Radio Azattyk, January 17; Radio Ozodi, February 6).
These encounters between the Central Asian migrants and Russian officials took place at metro stations, airports and land border-crossing points. These migrants were requested to remain in their current residency and not leave the country until February 12, which could be related to Kyiv’s warnings regarding Russia’s second wave of mobilization. The Central Asians were warned that they would be criminally prosecuted for disobeying the order, which was delivered verbally and has no legal basis. Some migrants were handed summons to appear at military enlistment offices and were prevented from leaving Russia (Radio Azattyk, January 17; AsiaPlus, January 27; Radio Ozodi, February 6).
Largely, these cases are taking place in isolation and have not affected all dual Central Asian citizens leaving Russia. They are so far examples of the “ingenuity” of local officials to recruit and pressure people who economically depend on remittances from Russia. It is notable that such encounters started happening soon after the chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, Aleksandr Bastyrkin, stated on January 13 that it was the duty and constitutional obligation of naturalized Central Asians to serve in the Russian military. He added that the naturalized Central Asians should be sent to the special military operation in Ukraine ahead of others (Rossiyskaya gazeta, January 13).
The city of Moscow and wider Moscow Oblast offer the greatest number of job opportunities for labor migrants and therefore are top destinations, absorbing around 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of all labor migrants who come to Russia (Rosstat.gov.ru, July 2022). This likely explains why the military recruitment Central Asian migrants is the most active in these locations. For instance, in December 2022, advertisements in Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik targeting migrants to join the Russian military appeared in buses that service the route from the closest metro station to the Sakharovo migration center, a centralized location that migrants working in Moscow must visit to legalize their stay. Sakharovo also became a military recruitment point after the law on expedited Russian citizenship in exchange for a one year of military service was passed in September 2022. The advertisement campaign was initiated by Sakharovo and served as an extension of the recruitment campaign to prime migrants before their arrival to the center (Migrant.news, December 12, 2022).
Furthermore, metro stations in Moscow have booths to recruit volunteers to join the fighting in Ukraine. In a recent instance, propaganda leaflets addressed “citizens of the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] countries,” lauding them to join the war effort and “resist the Nazis in Ukraine within the framework of the CSTO.” Listed benefits for serving included “joint opposition to the Nazis in Ukraine”; “an opportunity to gain invaluable military experience”; and “the opportunity to become a hero of Russia and go down in history on the side of good, with the opportunity to revive the bonds of the congenial peoples of Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan” (AsiaPlus, December 21, 2022).
The notorious Wagner Group has also adamantly recruited Central Asian inmates serving prison time in Russia, though it recently announced that it is ceasing such efforts (Meduza, February 9). Reportedly, the recruitment being carried out among the Central Asian convicts was happening without their consent and legal contracts (Kloop, February 1). No reliable statistics exist on the number of recruits that have come from Central Asian convicts in Russia. According to the latest information, Russian prisons hold an estimated 7,000 Tajikistani, 6,300 Uzbekistani and 1,077 Kyrgyzstan citizens (Podrobno.uz, July 25, 2017; Bomdod.com, January 23; Akipress, February 3).
The longer Russia carries on its war against Ukraine, the more aggressive its recruitment methods become of the large pool of 3 million Central Asian labor migrants in Russia. At the beginning of the war, recruitment was largely voluntary in exchange for sizable payments and fast-track citizenship. Since the mobilization announcement in September 2022, those efforts quickly turned to strategies of deception and psychological pressure. Recently, these migrants have found themselves being forcibly enlisted with threats of prosecution that have no legal basis. Overall, Russia’s recruitment among Central Asians is evidence of undisguised arrogance and disregard for foreigners in their country—as well as the reoccurring manpower shortages Russia is facing on the Ukrainian battlefield.