Dying for citizenship

How foreigners are recruited into the Russian army

Dying for citizenship
Photo: EPA

Some time ago, ads began to appear in Moscow public transport offering migrants to sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry for military service. And although this practice was quickly halted, it turned out that foreigners were actively recruited into the belligerent Russian army. Novaya-Europe takes a closer look at how legal it is and whether many non-Russians have already been drafted.

Contract under torture

The first calls for foreigners to join the Russian armed forces appeared, as it turned out, on the eve of the outbreak of war. On 20 February of this year, blogger Bahrom Ismailov, according to some sources close to Russia’s right-wing populist LDPR party, posted a video of his own making on his YouTube channel with an appeal to migrants to enrol in the Russian army. The video promised Russian citizenship for all of them after six months of service.

“Immediately after the war began, I received an avalanche of calls with stories of foreign citizens from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc. They were actively encouraged to join the Russian armed forces as volunteers,” Valentina Chupik, human rights activist and lawyer for migrants, told Novaya Europe. “This happened at any attempt to contact official authorities. More than 300 people contacted me at that time.”

“The first to agree quickly found themselves in Ukraine. It was clear that people were being sent for slaughter.

My colleagues and I launched an information campaign to counteract such recruitment. We managed to convince the vast majority of those who applied not to go. We do not know for sure how many did enlist in the army at that time.”

Soon, Valentina Chupik was hit by a wave of threats for her allegedly subversive activities and attempts to quarrel Russia with allies from Central Asia. She received hundreds of threats daily.

In the summer, the Defence Ministry declared that contract soldiers were recruited not to participate in hostilities, but for auxiliary work. Many migrants who came to work could not figure out the truth. Chupik dissuaded entire teams who planned to agree to such proposals in full. In September, Valentina learned the story of a Kyrgyz citizen who worked as a courier. He was delivering an order by bicycle in the centre of Moscow, was stopped by the police, and escorted to a special bus. There he was immediately beaten to the floor. He had two ribs and a collarbone broken. And they gave him a contract with the Defence Ministry. He understood what it was all about and refused to sign.

Then this man was shocked with a stun gun on the genitals. He had to agree to everything. After the signature, he was thrown out into the street.

“We decided that the guy needed to be rescued urgently,” says Chupik. “We collected money for him and sent him to Kazakhstan.”

“A few days later, I was approached by an Uzbek citizen named Marufjon, who was renewing his work patent at the migration centre. After he signed everywhere, they stuck some kind of sticker with a tick on his passport and let him go.”

Later, Marufjon was stopped by a patrol on the street. The police, seeing the sticker, immediately said that the man had enlisted in the army, which meant he would be killed soon and there was no need to bother with deportation.

Patent for war

It soon became known that slipping Defence Ministry contracts for signing is a common practice for this migration centre. One woman who went there with her son to get a patent found such a contract in a common bundle of papers.

It turned out that the document was printed in very small font on two sheets. After the vigilant mother made a scandal and tore up this contract, the girl in the window explained that no one was forcing her to sign it.

It is not known how many people have signed such Defence Ministry contracts without looking. After all, hundreds and sometimes thousands of migrants pass through the migration centre every day.

Since October, all foreign men who wanted to get a patent for work have been brought into a separate office. There, a man in civilian clothes, but with a military bearing, put very strong psychological pressure on them, persuading them to sign a contract. At the same time, migrants were caught on the street outside shops and were also forced to sign contracts.

A group of Uzbek citizens were taken to a police station, handcuffed and chained to a grate for the whole night with their hands over their heads. They weren’t allowed to go to the toilet, nor were they given water or allowed to make a phone call. 

The migrants tried to refuse, explaining that in their country this falls under the article on mercenary activity and is a serious crime. But in the end, they had no other choice and had to sign the papers.

“It’s good that the volunteers managed to raise money for them to go home,” explains Chupik. “There were many cases when visitors from abroad were threatened with planted drugs, accusations of sexual harassment of minors, starving to death in a special detention centre.”

‘The wogs who infiltrated our country’

An Azerbaijani citizen working as a director of a company in Russia, who has a temporary residence permit and is married to a Russian woman, came to the migration service to issue a residence permit in Russia. They tried to slip him a contract for military service. He then turned to the head of the department, who called the foreigner “a wog who infiltrated the country” and said that “we Russians now have to die for you in the war!” As a result, the Azerbaijani decided to close his business and leave Russia.

Bakhtiyor Juraev, a citizen of Tajikistan, was taken directly from the construction site he worked at to one of the pavilions of the All-Russian Exhibition Centre in Moscow. “There were a lot of people there,” Bakhtiyor told Novaya-Europe, “Everyone was handed summonses. They threatened me with violence for a long time, and promised to break my arms. They handed me a summons that I didn’t want to take. But there was nothing to be done. It’s good that the police let me go home so that I could pack my things by the time it was necessary to get to the military enlistment office. I managed to leave for Belarus. Now I have returned to Moscow, and I am afraid that I will be taken into the army during the next wave of mobilisation.”

Army or prison

Recruiters do not pass by foreigners who have violated Russian legislation. “In the Stavropol region, they tried to recruit migrants preparing for deportation in a temporary detention centre,” Ruslan Vakhapov of the Russia Behind Bars Foundation (NGO Charitable Foundation for Assistance to Convicts and Their Families Rus Sidyashchaya, the Foundation is recognized as a “foreign agent” in Russia — translator’s note), told Novaya-Europe. “Tajik citizens who agreed to enlist in the Russian army for a period of six months were offered to immediately apply for citizenship and get Russian passports. It was clear that they would be sent into the inferno with a minimum probability of survival. We managed to stop them, explaining that mercenary activity is a serious crime under the law of Tajikistan, and that they could be sentenced to 15 years. There are a lot of such centres all over the country, and it is unknown how much cannon fodder they managed to collect there.”

In October, migrants with suspended sentences in Russia began contacting Valentina Chupik. These people have to systematically register with the authorities. During registration, summonses would be forced upon them. Russian law enforcement officers threatened to change the prison term from suspended to real if a person refused to serve. Chupik says that she already knows cases when these threats have become a reality. According to the human rights activist, foreigners are sometimes even falsely charged with assaulting police officers.

A citizen of Kyrgyzstan, who had a suspended sentence in Russia, went to the Moscow military enlistment office in the Lefortovo district after his country’s embassy assured him that there would be no problems. There he was beaten and forced to sign a contract. It’s good that the support group that came for him was able to literally steal the unfortunate man from the clutches of the military and send him home.

They offered imprisoned foreigners to sign a contract with the Defence Ministry, as well. If they refused, they were beaten and threatened with rape. Chupik received a wave of similar appeals from penitentiaries all over the country. Even seriously ill foreign prisoners are recruited into the army.

Recently, the mother of an Uzbek citizen serving a sentence in the infamous penitentiary in the village of Melekhovo in the Vladimir region contacted the Russia Behind Bars Foundation. This prisoner was forcibly transferred “to the assembly” — to a detachment wishing to fight in the Wagner mercenary group. In a conversation with his mother, the Uzbek uttered a code word meaning that he was in trouble, and told her about recruiting in the PMCs. “We wrote an appeal to the prosecutor’s office and the IC, contacted the Embassy of Uzbekistan and managed to get this man back,” says Ruslan Vakhapov, “Tajiks with long terms went to the frontline right from the prison.” Soon, the brother of one of them was contacted from a Ukrainian number by the prisoner’s colleagues, who stated that his relative had disappeared. Now they are trying to find the missing person. His brother came to the office of the Wagner PMCs, where he was handed 168 thousand rubles — the salary of a missing person. And there are a lot of such stories.”

According to Ruslan Vakhapov, a very significant number of foreigners are currently in prison in Russia. In many penitentiaries, they, along with the rest of the prisoners, are forced to enrol in PMCs, complicating the conditions of detention as much as possible. Prisoners are ready to flee to the front from torture, beatings, and rape. It is impossible to accurately estimate the number of recruited migrants. Vakhapov believes that it is necessary to talk about thousands of non-Russians recruited. Moreover, we are talking not only about residents of the former Soviet republics, but also visitors from very far abroad.

PMC Wagner has already reported on the heroic death of a native of Africa. “Such people do not have any means to protect themselves,” Vakhapov explains, “Migrants from Central Asia can at least contact human rights defenders through relatives.” Our interlocutor explains that in the vast majority of cases, it is virtually impossible to help migrants who are sent to Ukraine from the colonies.

Carrot and stick

On 28 March 1998, President Boris Yeltsin signed amendments to the law on military service, according to which an article appeared in the regulatory act allowing foreign citizens to be recruited into the army. Since then, migrants have been able to serve in the Russian armed forces.

“The latest news is the adoption of amendments to the citizenship law, according to which the period for obtaining Russian citizenship is reduced for those who served one year under a contract,” says Valentina Chupik; “But there are no guarantees in the document. If a person does not have enough grounds to formalize this status, he will not receive it, even after serving. And I already have such examples!”

If the new law can be considered a carrot at a stretch, then the stick was prepared by the Human Rights Council under President Putin. Kirill Kabanov, a member of the HRC, described the idea in his Telegram channel: “As part of the partial mobilisation announced by the President of the Russian Federation, we are preparing proposals for new citizens of the Russian Federation who have had Russian citizenship for less than 10 years, for mandatory military service during the year for people from Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Refusal to perform military duty should entail the deprivation of Russian citizenship not only for the person liable for military service but also for his family members.

The implementation of this initiative will be an adequate response to the official ban by the authorities of the above-mentioned countries on the participation of their citizens in their own voluntary order, for which they face criminal punishment at home.”

In almost all states of the former USSR, there is criminal prosecution for mercenary activities. Service in the Russian army falls under similar articles of local laws. Despite this,

recruitment into the Russian armed forces takes place even directly on the territory of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Meros, a recruitment firm working for Russia, operates in these countries.

Through this company, recruitment for service in the Russian army was carried out. And in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, ads for recruitment to the Wagner organization appeared at all transport stops.

“On 5 October, I received a call from representatives of a huge team of builders, who were tricked into signing contracts for the dismantling of building structures,” says Valentina Chupik, “Promising that the work would be carried out in the Moscow region, more than one thousand Uzbeks and Tajiks were loaded into 20 buses with taped windows for 52 people each and sent to the DPR. It was only on the way that they learned that the final destination of their journey would be Mariupol. Migrants began to suspect something only when they saw destroyed houses all around. Judging by the fact that they signed contracts with the Defence Ministry and according to the guards accompanying them, they were immediately assigned to the troops in Donbas. So far, there is no information about them at all. More than a thousand missing people.”

Apparently, tens of thousands of migrants have already entered the Russian army and PMCs. It is still unknown how the deceived and forcibly recruited people fight. But everyone remembers the emergency at the training ground in the Belgorod region, where two Tajik citizens fired automatic weapons at unarmed fellow soldiers. 23-year-old Rakhmonov Mehrob and 24-year-old Eskhon Aminzod, officially considered to be voluntarily mobilised, killed 11 and wounded 15 more people on 15 October. How many similar cases occur in the troops and on the front line — so far, it is impossible to say for sure.

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