From Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, states crack down on mercenary activity.

Central Asian countries are trying to curb Russia’s conscription of their citizens for its war in Ukraine, while Moscow is trying to avoid stirring public discontent with another big wave of internal mobilization.

So far this year, Kyrgyzstan has sentenced one citizen to 10 years in prison and detained another for allegedly serving as a mercenary. In Kazakhstan, in late July, the prosecutor’s office in a region bordering Russia warned citizens of the proliferation of Internet ads urging them to join the war, noting the severe legal penalties for doing so. This warning came a few months after Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee said it was investigating 10 cases of alleged citizen involvement in the war without specifying which side they had sided with.

Also this month, in response to a spate of products marked with the Russian war symbols “V” and “Z,” Kazakh prosecutors proposed to ban the signs and make it a civil offense to distribute products bearing them, among other political symbols sensitive.

The recruitment and propaganda efforts and the backlash against them highlight the increasingly uneasy ties between Russia and the former Soviet bloc states that have largely remained in its orbit. These countries, which are dependent on Moscow for economic and security terms, have avoided condemning the war. But they have also refrained from endorsing it and have abstained from United Nations votes on the issue, instead siding with Russia.

Central Asian misgivings about Ukraine became apparent even before the full invasion began. In 2020, Kazakhstan imposed a three-year suspended sentence on a citizen who engaged in non-war activities for Russia in eastern Ukraine. However, the unrest has only worsened since the February 2022 invasion.

Kazakhstan found itself in a particularly awkward position, having received help from Russian-led forces to quell protests just a month before the invasion began. Fears of Russia turning against Kazakhstan persist, fueled by some prominent Russians questioning its sovereignty. Meanwhile, Central Asia’s largest economy saw a flood of Russians fleeing the so-called partial mobilization announced by Moscow last September, further complicating diplomatic ties.

That call for mobilization prompted warnings from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to their nationals that joining the fight would be considered mercenary activity, a criminal offense in all three countries.

Russia and Central Asia engage in tug of war over Ukraine conscription
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) walks with other regional leaders, including Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, second from left, and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, second from right, at a meeting in Moscow in May.

The mobilization itself was a public relations disaster for the Kremlin. He expelled hundreds of thousands of Russians of enlistment age (18 to 27 at the time) and reservists (under 35, 40, or 45, depending on their rank) from the country to avoid going to war. It also left little doubt about the heavy casualties at the front.

Since then, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the upper limit of the conscription age to 30 and raised the call-up age for reservists by five years while imposing tougher legislation and punishments for those who evade military service. Russian experts in exile say the changes to the mobilization criteria were introduced in the Russian parliament before the summer break to avoid having to announce another big wave of draft calls during the upcoming election season.

“The war must disappear from the public mind because any news from the front frustrates voters and depresses them,” Maxim Katz, a Russian public figure critical of the Putin regime, said on his YouTube channel. “War is an inexhaustible source of inconvenience, not benefit, for the political class, and this logic suggests that there should be no [reminder of] war and no coercion on citizens to participate in it.”

Putin is running for re-election in March 2024. No one doubts that he will win, given the lack of space for genuine opposition. Even a Kremlin spokesman recently told The New York Times: “Our presidential elections are not really a democracy, but an expensive bureaucracy.” He went so far as to predict that “Mr. Putin will be re-elected next year with more than 90% of the vote.”

However, experts say that Moscow would prefer to avoid upsetting the population now.

Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told Deutsche Welle that the goal of the elections is to shore up Putin’s “internal legitimacy” and that lawmakers will want to “give citizens carrots, not sticks.”

Russia and Central Asia engage in tug of war over Ukraine conscription
Men sit next to a screen showing Putin’s results during the 2018 election at the headquarters of the Central Election Commission in Moscow.

Turning to Central Asian labor – including those already in Russia – offers Moscow a way to ease the pressure. Last December, recruitment advertisements in Uzbek on public transport in Moscow caused a stir, although they were apparently withdrawn.

Central Asians end up fighting for Russia in Ukraine for various reasons: they have Russian citizenship and are called up; they are detained or imprisoned in Russia and can buy their freedom by fighting in the war; or they are recruited as mercenaries by Russian private military companies or by companies to work in occupied territories.

Russia also offers fast-track citizenship to foreigners who enlist in the military and go to fight on the Russian side. On the contrary, there are reports of a bill that would deprive naturalized Russians of their citizenship who refuse to perform military service.

More than 559,000 Tajik citizens acquired Russian citizenship between 2016 and July 2023 alone, while an estimated 650,000 Kyrgyz citizens hold Russian passports. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan do not allow dual nationality for their citizens, so in theory, people who acquire Russian citizenship lose their Uzbek or Kazakh nationality.

Rasul Arin, a political scientist at the Kazakh Al-Farabi National University in Almaty, suggested that motivations may also include exposure to Russian propaganda, nostalgic feelings for the Soviet Union, or simply mercantile purposes.

On the other hand, he said that Kazakhstan persecutes citizens for mercenary activities because they “pose a potential threat to national security.”

“These people may be holding a gun, and it is unclear what their loyalties are; if they get paid, they can turn it against Kazakhstan,” he told Nikkei Asia.

In Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek-based independent political analyst Denis Berdakov said authorities can prosecute Kyrgyz citizens or dual nationals but cannot prosecute those who become Russian citizens and revoke their Kyrgyz citizenship. “If Kyrgyz citizens are coerced to go to the war zone, then the country’s embassy can offer them protection, and for those who have dual nationality but don’t want to go to war, the solution is to return to Kyrgyzstan and wait there said.

“The solution for those who intentionally went to war is to never return to Kyrgyzstan, acquire Russian citizenship and stay in Russia.”

Naubet Bisenov