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Is the Russian Army about to get a Central Asian face?

Young Tajik soldiers watch a wrestling match during Novruz celebrations in late March in the capital Dushanbe. The recent shortage of conscripts due to labor migration and evasion in the face of harsh conditions has led to impressment, the quasi-legal kidnapping of military-age men. (Photo: David Trilling,
Young Tajik soldiers (Photo:
Is the Russian Army about to get a Central Asian face?

Moscow’s proposals to create a Russian foreign legion and to allow Tajikistan citizens to serve in the ranks of the Russian Army are “extremely timely” ideas, according to Shomurod Madamin. “Russians don’t want to serve in their own army,” but Tajiks have few good options and service in Russian ranks is one of them.

According to the Tajik commentator, Moscow is having increasing difficulties attracting young Russians to the colors: Demographic shortfalls mean the draft pool is declining, and “dedovshchina, corruption, and wars now here and now there” make it anything but attractive: many apparently fear being sent to Ukraine to fight.

But the situation with regard to the Tajiks is very different, Madamin says. A high birthrate means that there are ever more young men of draft age, and that also means that many of them are unable to find work either at home or in the Russian Federation. Consequently, service in the Russian army and a regular paycheck appear to be a good option.

Sweetening the pot, the Dushanbe commentator says, is the fact that foreigners who serve in the Russian military can become Russian citizens. And if they die in the service of Moscow, their families and descendants can acquire as well. Everyone benefits, he suggests, including the Tajikistan government which gets more money even as it sees its social welfare costs decline.

According to Madamin, there are more than one million gastarbeiters from Tajikistan in Russia at present. From among them, Moscow could easily get some 50,000 to 80,000 soldiers. That, he says, works out to between five and eight infantry divisions that the Russian commanders could use for their military plans.

A Russian soldier from Buryatia fighting in Donbas
A Russian soldier from Buryatia fighting in Donbas

That is all very well even if Moscow tracks such soldiers into construction battalions as the Soviet government did. But there is a problem: what will happen if war comes to Tajikistan? What if the Taliban or the Chinese invade? “Who will defend Tajikistan?” Dushanbe says Russia will, but “what if Russia at that time is involved in another war or has other problems?”

Clearly, if young Tajiks join the Russian military, Tajikistan will be left with a depleted and weakened army of its own, something that will benefit “the foreign and domestic” enemies of the country. “None of the citizens of Tajikistan want or will want to defend their Motherland. They will fight for Russia and for money.”

“You can’t call this patriotism,” Madamin says, adding that “I think that the attitude in the Russian army toward citizens of other countries will not be very good. That is how it was in the Soviet army,” with soldiers grouping themselves by nationality, religion or region and suffering as a result. At the very least, he suggests, “this is something to think about.”

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