Is Russia recruiting Muslim migrants to fight its war in Ukraine?
Moscow appears to be flouting its own laws to boost its forces, targeting foreign workers from Central Asia.
Kyiv, Ukraine – In mid-October, Mamut Useinov performed on Sing Better Than a Star, a popular Russian television show for aspiring singers on the state-controlled Channel One network.
“I’ve been anticipating this and can’t hide my excitement,” the 25-year-old from annexed Crimea wrote on Telegram on October 15, as he thanked “the Almighty” for the chance.
But Useinov’s way to stardom was cut short.
Five days after the broadcast, Useinov went to a “prayer house”, a type of informal mosque that offers a place to worship in the absence of officially sanctioned places for prayer.
Heavily armed riot police officers detained him along with several dozen men who gathered for the Muslim Friday prayer in Kotelniki, an overpopulated southeastern suburb of Moscow where labour migrants settle because rent is cheap.
All the men were forced into a police bus for an ID check and taken to a military conscription office in the nearby town of Lybertsy, according to Useinov and media reports.
There, they underwent a medical evaluation that deemed Useinov “fit for military service”, despite flat feet and a recent surgery, he said.
They were reportedly shipped to a military base east of Moscow and given a choice – go to jail or enlist.
“We were all told that we have to sign one-year contracts, otherwise – jail,” he said in a Telegram-posted video on October 21, without specifying the charges they may face.
He fears that once they sign the contract, the men will be sent to the front lines in Ukraine, the nation where Useinov was born and whose national he was, before accepting Russian citizenship in 2014, he wrote.
“During a morning lineup, I heard we would all be send to the special military operation,” he wrote using the Kremlin’s preferred euphemism for the war in Ukraine.
In a video he posted, he is seen in a small room filled with men next to bunkbeds listening to an elderly ethnic Russian man in camouflage.
One more video shows the courtyard of a large building whose sand-coloured brick walls are adorned with a Russian flag and a banner reading, “Devotion to the motherland.
He went incommunicado on October 22.
At the time of publishing, Useinov had not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
He has been taken to yet another military base for basic training, his representative told the Astra telegram channel on October 23.
What Useinov described blatantly violated Russian rights legislation.
The men were detained and denied access to lawyers. They were told about being conscripted without receiving a written notification issued by the conscription office where each man is registered – and then signed by the recipient.
The men had no chance to overrule the forced conscription in court – or voice their objection to military service. Conscientious objectors have a right to an alternative service in Russia.
“This procedure violated all of my rights,” Useinov wrote.
Dire demographic problems and oil wealth turned Russia into a magnet for millions of labour migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia.
Some Crimean Tatars, a Muslim community of about 200,000 in the annexed peninsula, became part of this influx as they share ties with Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia, a region their forefathers had been deported to en masse in 1944.
Meanwhile, Russia’s mostly Muslim, impoverished and corruption-choked North Caucasus is one of the few regions with high birth rates, and hundreds of thousands also move to Moscow and other big cities. But attending a mosque almost anywhere in Russia can be complicated and sometimes dangerous.
Moscow only has five official mosques, and tens of thousands of believers throng areas around them during Muslim holidays, putting their prayer mats on the asphalt or even tram tracks.
Most labour migrants choose to attend informal “prayer houses”, which some locals and police see as hotbeds of “extremism”.
These houses have mushroomed because authorities routinely do not sanction new mosques, even though Muslims are Russia’s fastest-growing population stratum.
While the Kremlin tries to revive its Soviet-era clout in the Middle East, courting Muslim leaders and calling Islam one of Russia’s “traditional religions”, Russian police snub religious rules and rights during their raids on prayer houses.
They do not take their boots off, interrupt prayers, shower believers with slurs, and spray them with tear gas, according to dozens of reports, photos and videos.
Russian far-right nationalists help organise raids on “prayer houses”, in an apparent effort to kill two birds with one stone.
They see the forcible conscription of Muslims as a way to rid Russia of unwanted “aliens” and help the faltering war effort, according to analysts.
Zov (Call), a group whose closed Telegram channel has 141,000 subscribers, routinely informs police about Muslim gatherings – and proudly announces raids, detentions and deportations.
“Just now, police visited two illegal mosques organised in apartment buildings. More than 70 people were rounded up. Awaiting deportation,” one of Zov’s posts said.
The group is led by Andrey Tkachuk, head of a small media group in Moscow, and Andrey Afanasyev, a former staffer of the Tsargrad television channel whose oligarch owner Konstantin Malofeyev has been sanctioned in the West as a sponsor of separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Muslim labour migrants have faced hate attacks, arbitrary detentions and arrests, police brutality, extortion and threats for decades.
But after the Kremlin realised that its blitzkrieg in Ukraine failed amid disastrous losses of manpower, it threw a new curveball their way.
As part of a nationwide series of raids dubbed “Illegal 2023”, police have been combing construction sites, markets, farms, restaurants, apartment buildings, hostels and “prayer houses” – or simply rounding up anyone who does not look Slavic, according to rights groups and media reports.
During ID checks, they find “problems” – both imaginary and real, such as a lack of registration, a blurred stamp, or an expired work permit.
The migrants are locked up and forced to enlist in military service, facing several kinds of threats to ensure their cooperation, an expert said.
Shukhrat Ganiyev, a human rights advocate based in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara, told Al Jazeera that the pressure put on migrants included “threat of deportation of [their] families from Russia, the planting of drugs, an intolerable atmosphere for business”.
He said some Uzbeks had signed contracts for construction jobs in the Russia-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, but then ended up on the front line – “and were not heard of since”.
Police in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, said they handed conscription papers to 56 migrants with Russian passports after just one raid on a market on September 6.
A month earlier, about 100 migrants were served with conscription papers, it said.
The Illegal 2023 investigations are “tied to organisation of illegal migration, trade in drugs and psychotropic substances, arms trade and border crossings”, Ministry of Internal Affairs spokeswoman Irina Vovk said.
Another way of forcing Muslim migrants into the trenches has been to deny Central Asians citizenship – a red Russian passport eliminates many of the problems with police and bureaucratic hurdles that migrants face.
In one case, migration officials turned down an application from a Tajik man whose mother is a Russian national, according to rights advocate Tatyana Kotlyar.
The man was told to enlist first, even though as a father of five he cannot be drafted, she said.
In another case, an Uzbek man whose wife and child are Russian nationals, was told that “without a [military] contract and participation in the special military operation, they won’t even accept his citizenship application,” Kotlyar, who is based in the city of Obninsk 120km (75 miles) southwest of Moscow, told Al Jazeera.
Both men did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
And in Kaluga, a region of more than one million people, some 200km (124 miles) south of Moscow, foreign workers have been barred from submitting citizenship applications in recent months unless they enlist, Kotlyar said.
Officials at the Kaluga migration office refused to comment on her claim.
And even if a migrant already has a Russian passport, recently adopted laws allow authorities to take it away with ease.
“If you are a Russian national but are not ready to fulfil your military duty, a decision should be made to strip such a man of his citizenship,” Russia’s top investigator Aleksander Bastrykin told a military conference in mid-October.
Bastrykin said earlier that migrants have a “constitutional duty to defend the nation that accepted them” and that enlisting them should be a “priority”.
There have even been calls to abolish age limits for migrants so that they can be forced to serve in the military. The conscription age in Russia is between 18 and 30.
“You became a Russian national at age 50 – go serve at 50,” nationalist lawmaker Aleksey Zhuravlyev said on October 24.
Muslim migrants are among the most vulnerable people in Russia, said Sergey Abashin, a migration expert and anthropologist based in St Petersburg.
They are often subject to the whims of police officers and officials because they “always” have problems with their documents, he said.
“The [Russian] legislation’s very design makes it impossible to have absolutely ‘clean’ documents,” he said.
The migrants are also dependent on the goodwill of their employers, as many work without the permits to do so.
Meanwhile, public opinion is dominated by rampant nationalism, xenophobia and often portrays Muslim newcomers as hostile and alien, he said.
“The sum of these dependencies makes migrants easily victimised,” he said.
Very few make their cases public, fearing persecution of their families, rights advocates have said, adding the immigrants are accustomed to authoritarian rule and police brutality in their countries of origin, often know little about their civil rights in Russia, do not have access to lawyers, and may not speak much Russian.
Shortage of front-line manpower
Where there is a stick, there follows a carrot – promises of hefty pay and a Russian passport.
“Since at least May 2023, Russia has approached Central Asian migrants to fight in Ukraine with promises of fast-track citizenship and salaries of up to $4,160,” the British Defence Ministry said in September.
In September 2022, Putin signed a decree that gives Russian nationality to anyone who has served on the front line for six months.
The first Uzbek national taken prisoner in Ukraine said he was driven by financial interest, according to a Ukrainian
Lying on his back in a camouflaged coat, Mukhriddin Akhmedov, a 22-year-old student from the central Uzbek city of Samarkand, said he joined the Redoubt military company because he “needed money”.
He said that “one more Uzbek” had joined the company.
Looking ahead, the Russian military faces a shortage of manpower on the front lines after heavy casualties in the so-called “meat storms” on Ukrainian positions, experts have said.
The shortage is exacerbated by Russia’s catastrophically low birthrates and a population loss of hundreds of thousands of people a year in the rapidly aging nation of 143 million.
“By waging the war in Ukraine via the tactics of ‘meat storms’ and thus suffering heavy losses of manpower, the Russian military began experiencing a lack of cannon fodder,” Alisher Ilkhamov, head of the London-based Central Asia Due Diligence group, told Al Jazeera.
Although their forcible conscription has undermined earlier official steps to limit Central Asia natives’ access to firearms – for years, Central Asian migrants were denied permits to buy hunting rifles – the political risk to Russian leaders is minimal.
So far, there has only been a single public incident associated with the forced conscription of migrants.
Last October, two Tajik nationals were forcibly sent to a training camp before departure to Ukraine.
After the men, Ekhson Aminzoda and Mekhrob Rakhmonov, heard their commanding officers “insult their religion”, they got hold of a machine gun and killed 11 people and injured 15 others.
The two were shot dead and pronounced “terrorists” by authorities.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is afraid to declare a second round of mobilisation in advance of the March 2024 presidential election, he said.
The September 2022 “partial” mobilisation triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russian men, making migrants more attractive targets.
“In such conditions, the emphasis is on recruiting migrants, as their loss on the front line will not affect Russia politically or economically,” Ilkhamov said.