Their name is legion. Ilya Shablinsky on migrants being sent to the front—the law and common sense notwithstanding

6 January 2024

by Ilya Shablinsky


One of the Russian state’s most urgent tasks is to fill the trenches along the long, very long front line. Even better—with some to spare. A year and a half ago, clever people in the presidential administration turned their attention to the broad stratum of migrant workers from the republics of the former Soviet Union. On the whole, this was a suitable contingent: independent, afraid of the regime, and unafraid of difficult battle conditions. True, these people weren’t exactly rushing off to war.

At the time, in September 2022, a stimulus was devised, and the first presidential order was issued: an easier procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for potential soldiers and members of their families. Not much of a stimulus, in my opinion, but this prospect may have warmed the hearts of some of the Russian capital’s guests who had arrived, say, from the depths of Kyrgyzstan.  

Did many of them end up at the front? There are no precise data. However, the experiment must have been considered useful because on 4 January 2024, a new presidential order appeared that literally repeated the previous one while simplifying the matter even more. Now obtaining citizenship no longer required proof of having served for six months on the front lines as it had previously. It’s very simple: sign a contract and then we’ll sort it out (managing to avoid the front line being unlikely). The foreign contract soldier’s application for Russian citizenship was supposed to be reviewed within one month, not three, as before. And naturally, the conditions for citizenship provided for by law, such as permanent residence in Russia, knowledge of the Russian language, and so on, did not have to be met.

And this does not contradict the law on citizenship. The law, passed in 2023, says that the president can give citizenship to anyone he wants to. There you have it.

True, an order’s an order, but you do have to attach certain additional, encouraging, and stimulating measures. Even before, it was clear—and now it was still clearer—that the men who came to Russia to work as plasterers, masons, or janitors were not burning with desire to volunteer for the front.  

That’s why they decided this way. Take everyone they came across—better en masse, all at once—and ask the question point-blank: either the front or deportation. Things weren’t entirely smooth-going with deportation either, by the way. If you firmly refused to fight, it also had to be decided whether or not there were grounds for administrative or criminal charges, and meanwhile you could sit in a cell for migrants outside Moscow and think it over.

There are still probably quite a few willing to be tempted by the money promised in the contract—about 200,000 rubles a month. Not nothing.  In any event, though, it should be stressed that in this situation workers from neighboring countries are absolutely without rights and helpless. The police does whatever they like with them.

 Here are some of the latest news items on this topic. In St. Petersburg, on 31 December 2023, police conducted a New Year’s raid in search of a new contingent. The police acted in conjunction with the FSB [Federal Security Service]. They snatched people from communal apartment after communal apartment, of which there are quite a few in downtown Petersburg, and on the streets as people went outside to set off fireworks. Based on information from various publications, about 3,000 people were taken captive—men, women, and children. The women and children were sent to a special detention centre in Krasnoe Selo and the men were distributed among temporary detention cells. On the first morning of the new year, they were visited by men in uniform who pressed them to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defence. According to witness testimony, about fifteen hundred men signed these contracts. 

Raids had already been conducted in Moscow and several towns outside Moscow, in Ekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, and in other cities and towns. Evidently, men are being gathered up in other places, too. The goal is the same: fill the trenches.

Mainly, migrants from three states are being targeted: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. They comprise the overwhelming majority of the foreign workforce in Russian cities.

But that is not the full extent of it. For example, literally yesterday, the director of Nepal’s department for employment abroad announced that the country’s government had stopped issuing work permits for Russia. Yes, Nepalese have worked in Russia, as have citizens of several other countries usually categorized among the most impoverished. According to information from the government of Nepal, about 200 Nepalese have been enlisted in the Russian army during the war with Ukraine, of whom 10 are counted dead and another 100 missing. 

There you have it. One in two. Nepal’s authorities, as far as can be judged, are attempting to find out what has happened to their citizens. Nothing definite can be said about the citizens of former Union republics who have ended up in this senseless war, because we have no data.

In general, some countries have had experience forming battle units out of foreigners. There’s nothing new here. The most famous example is the French Foreign Legion. There, legionnaires have the right to ask for a residence permit and then apply to receive French citizenship, usually after five years of untainted service.  If a soldier quits the Legion’s ranks before the five years run out, he loses that right.

We realize that Putin now has no interest in these kinds of formalities and tests. By unleashing the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II, he has raised the stakes to the maximum. I have no doubt that Z-activists and other war-sympathizing citizens wholly approve of sending yesterday’s migrants into the trenches. From their point of view, it’s probably better to pay for seizing foreign territory in an aggressive war with the blood of relatively unsympathetic mercenaries from neighboring countries rather than with the blood of native Russians.

Now some vigorous supporters of the current war, having come together to form the Russian Commune, a patriotic organization, together with the police, are organizing a sweep of foreign workers at shopping centers in Ekaterinburg. They detain a few dozen people and hand them a summons for the military enlistment office. More than anything, this story is reminiscent of the experience of the early twentieth century, when the police worked hand in hand with Black Hundreds organizations. I don’t think this comparison would offend Russian Commune members.

From the standpoint of providing for an aggressive war, the dictator is acting perfectly rationally. The more migrants sent to the front, the less the need for a second wave of mass mobilization. From a legal standpoint, though, it’s not all that simple. The Russian state is hunting down citizens of other states who are located on its territory in order to force them to take part in aggression and be sent to the slaughter. Exactly so. And what about criminal responsibility for mercenarism? So far, Article 359 remains in the Russian Criminal Code and provides for criminal liability for the “recruitment, training, financing, or other material provisioning of a mercenary, as well as his use in armed conflict or military actions.” The penalty is quite serious: 12 to 18 years’ incarceration.

Who is considered a mercenary under the Russian Criminal Code? According to that article, “a mercenary is an individual acting for the purpose of receiving material reward and is not a citizen of the state participating in the armed conflict or military actions, does not reside permanently on its territory, and also is not an individual assigned to carry out official duties.”

And if we are to get into the legal nuances: are the citizens of several states of Central Asia seized, in particular, during a recent police raid, individuals who “do not reside permanently” on the territory of the state (Russia) that is participating in the armed conflict? Yes, they are, if they do not have permanent residency.  We have the Federal law “On the legal status of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation.” According to Article 8 of that law (“Permanent residence of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation”), a residence permit can be issued to a foreign citizen who has resided in the Russian Federation for at least one year on the basis of a temporary residence permit.

I can say with confidence that a significant share of the foreign workers residing right now on the territory of Russia have permission only to temporary residence. That is, once they sign a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry, these people wholly meet the definition of mercenaries.

In this way, the Russian state, by openly engaging in the recruitment, training, and financing or other material provisioning of mercenaries, is committing an obvious crime as provided for by a specific article in the Criminal Code. And this is being done almost pointedly.  

By the way, mercenarism is illegal under the law of Uzbekistan, too. But on the larger scale this means nothing. Two dictatorial regimes can reach an agreement somehow. Only their citizens end up being chump change. For the Russian dictator, the price of a human life is as insignificant as ever. And we’re not just talking about mercenaries here.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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