Since the start of the current conflict in Ukraine, there have been growing glimpses coming through media reports, social media feeds and personal networks of Central Asian mercenaries and volunteers fighting on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war. But the emergence of this new foreign fighter phenomenon — less than a decade after thousands of Central Asians joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria — is raising increasing concerns and important questions for Central Asian security. Unlike the phenomenon of Central Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria, the cleavages in Ukraine are much closer to home and echo those in Central Asian society, which makes this mobilization much more divisive internally.
Central Asia is not unique in this, with reports of Western veterans and volunteers fighting for Ukraine fairly common. The information on Central Asians still remains fragmentary, but there are reports of Central Asians in Russia being pressured by Russian authorities to join the fight or Central Asians dying while fighting on one side or the other. Fighters who return to Central Asia could wind up as recruits for organized crime or violent extremist organizations and would join those who already have returned from the conflicts in the Middle East.
A Conflict that Resonates in the Region
The conflict in Ukraine has the potential for far deeper societal reverberation in Central Asia than the previous Salafi jihadi mobilization to Syria and Iraq. The conflict in the Middle East was in a far-off place that was perceived by Central Asians as largely having little relevance on day-to-day life back in home. Ukraine, however, is seen through the lens of a shared historical experience, with a former fellow Soviet country balancing its relationship with Russia and the West. The conflict in Ukraine is a daily topic on television, in social media and in the tea rooms of Central Asia. And for the scores of Central Asians reliant on jobs in Russia or remittances sent back by family members, the progress and outcome of this war has real potential impacts. Governments in the region are undoubtedly mindful that divergent foreign fighter loyalties and strongly polarized opinions from those who remain on the home front can have an impact on societal cohesion.
At the moment, there are only some hints that certain ethnicities may be orienting in greater numbers toward the Russia camp or toward the Ukraine camp. If those perceived or actual orientations deepen in the public mind, however, there is a risk of not only stigmatization, but of accentuating ethnic and nationalist divisions that already plague the region.
Central Asia is no stranger to the recruitment of its citizens to serve as foreign fighters. Upwards of 4,000 Central Asians were mobilized in violent extremist organizations in Syria and Iraq — many of whom were killed or imprisoned. While the specific factors for mobilization to the conflict in Ukraine differ from those in Syria and Iraq, the types of attractive features for recruits are familiar: material benefits, such as promises of monetary compensation or citizenship in Russia; being part of something bigger than oneself or a righteous cause, such as restoration of territorial holdings of a former empire or perceptions of battle with an evil force such as “Nazis” or “imperialists;” upholding duty and honor, such as the protection of certain societal values and expectations; overcoming injustice, such as the suffering of women and children caught in the battlefield; or simply the desire for adventure or camaraderie.
Central Asia has seen these and other factors used to great effect in mobilizing its citizens to violence abroad. Even though Russia and Ukraine are state actors in this situation, the processes do not appear to be so distant from those that we saw with the recruitment by non-state actors such as al-Qaida and ISIS affiliates in Syria and Iraq. Early reports, for example, suggest that Central Asian labor migrants are among those being targeted for recruitment. In Russia, this recruitment of Central Asian labor migrants is rumored to be facilitated by Chechen networks — a potential parallel with the previous violent extremist mobilization to the Middle East. In Ukraine, some Central Asian labor migrants are fighting as part of the Crimean Tatar battalions.
Reprising Reintegration Efforts
Beyond the processes of mobilization, this phenomenon also raises a question of the enforcement of legislation on mercenaries or volunteers in foreign wars. Each Central Asian country has existing laws that prevent mercenary activity in war. Should it matter whether the belligerents are a state actor or a non-state actor to view mercenary involvement as criminal and therefore a negative for Central Asian society? Uzbekistan certainly appears to view the question as rhetorical, having issued a stern warning to its citizens of legal peril for involvement with the Russian military in Ukraine. But the other Central Asian countries have remained quiet on the point. As countries frame the risk of foreign terrorist fighters returning to their homelands from jihadi theaters, they typically highlight concerns that those foreign fighters are battle experienced and steeped in the ideology that they have lived while abroad.
The jihadi conflict zones are seen as incubators for future transnational terrorism, whether back in their home countries or in other conflict arenas. Central Asian governments have been particularly concerned that the fighters returning from Syria or Iraq will bring harmful worldviews, their outsider mentality, their penchant for violence, and perhaps surreptitious plans to the homeland. Central Asian governments might recognize that some of these same concerns would be prudent to keep in mind for those returning from fighting in Ukraine on either side. In absence of a formal reintegration process, it is difficult to see how demobilized irregular troops would fit back into society organically and return to peaceful civilian life within the bounds of societal norms and expectations.
It is premature to say that divergent sentiments will solidify in a manner that contributes to undermining domestic stability in Central Asia or allows Central Asians to be susceptible to elite or foreign manipulation. Yet this divergence echoes the cleavage in the contemporary battle of narratives between those advocating a Western-oriented future path for Central Asia and those advocating a Russia-oriented one. Support for Russia or for Ukraine stands as an extension of the fault lines that already exist in the Russia-West competition prevalent in the public psyche. Only time will reveal how this story unfolds. But while Central Asian governments uncomfortably walk the line of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, they would be well-served to consider and discuss the parallels with and the learnings from the previous foreign fighter phenomenon and proactive steps for addressing narratives and actions for strengthened societal cohesion at home.
As a first step, it would be prudent for Central Asian governments to identify and track those who are fighting in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, as well as those who return to their home countries. Longer-term, enlightened self-interest would dictate that governments consider some form of rehabilitation and reintegration for these individuals, just as with the returned foreign fighters and family members from the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.
This prior experience of Central Asian states has shown the importance of being deliberate in developing early and specific action plans for reintegration that involves cross-departmental working groups and experts, including psychologists. Reintegration needs to involve an array of national- and local-level actors. The coordination and division of labor among these actors requires discussion and planning to be effective. Similarly, predetermination of whether to prosecute, pardon or amnesty returning fighters and formalizing the mechanisms for each of these pathways can help to avoid ad hoc outcomes. Finally, this earlier experience has shown that returnees likely need outside assistance to anchor themselves back in society through a job, further education, professional training or even accommodation. Where civil society organizations have been permitted to work with returnees in Central Asia on these issues, their work has been shown to not only facilitate the reintegration process, but also to help serve as a bridge between families, communities and government.
William B. Farrell is principal consultant at Swordfish Consulting International, LLC, and serves on the faculty of the University of Maine.