Putin Speeds Up a Citizenship Path for Foreigners Who Enlist in the Russian Military

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in the opening ceremony of the Vostok (East) M-12 motorway to Kazan, via videoconference, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

TALLINN, Estonia — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday signed a decree that speeds up a path to Russian citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the country's military amid the 22-month-old war in Ukraine.

The move comes as Moscow is trying to replenish its troops in Ukraine by various methods, including the recruitment of migrants. Russia is a magnet for hundreds of thousands of people from poorer Central Asian countries, and many of them seek citizenship each year.

Putin first allowed fast-track citizenship for foreigners who sign contracts with the Russian army in September 2022, shortly after announcing a partial mobilization to draft 300,000 reservists for Ukraine.

Those immigrants who signed a contract for at least a year and take part in active hostilities for at least six months were allowed to apply for citizenship without demonstrating sufficient knowledge of Russian or the fact that they'd lived in the country for five straight years under a residency permit. Spouses and children were also eligible to apply. Authorities were obligated to decide on such applications within three months, according a presidential decree at the time.

Another Putin decree from May 2023 additionally simplified the procedure: the clause about participating in active hostilities for at least six months was removed, and anyone who signed at least a year-long contract during the Kremlin's “special military operation” in Ukraine, as well as their spouses and children, was allowed to apply in the fast-track procedure.

The decree signed Thursday made the citizenship path even quicker, saying a decision on such applications shouldn't take more than a month, instead of three. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin on why Putin decided on that change.

The new decree comes amid regular media reports of police raids in Russian cities that target migrants According to the reports, those detained in such raids are often offered or even pressured to sign contracts with the military, and those who have recently acquired Russian citizenship are sent to enlistment offices to determine whether they're eligible for mandatory service.

The most recent raid, reported by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, took place on New Year's Eve in St. Petersburg and saw more than 3,000 migrants detained in the streets. The report cited an anonymous police source as saying the goal of the raid was finding men to recruit into the army.

In fall 2022, Moscow authorities ran advertisements for enlistment and offers of fast-track citizenship in Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz languages on several bus routes, the RBK news outlet reported. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin also promised to set up a makeshift enlistment site at a government service office for migrants outside Moscow.

Since invading Ukraine, Russia's leadership has sought to boost its military strength. Putin has twice ordered it to increase the number of troops, most recently in December, to bring it to a total of 1.32 million. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has declared a force of 1.5 million is needed “to guarantee the fulfillment of tasks to ensure Russia’s security.” He didn’t say when the military would reach that size.

The Kremlin previously considered the size of its military as sufficient, but the calculus changed after hopes for a quick victory were shattered by fierce Ukrainian resistance.

In August 2022, Putin ordered an increase in the size of the Russian military to 1.15 million starting from Jan. 1, 2023. In September 2022, he ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists. That number is counted as part of the military’s current strength.

While Putin repeatedly has said there was no need to round up more, his mobilization decree is open-ended, allowing the military to call up additional reservists when needed and essentially keep those already drafted serving indefinitely. That decree also banned soldiers from terminating their contracts.

Regional authorities have tried to bolster the ranks by forming volunteer battalions for Ukraine. Across Russia’s vast territory, a campaign to entice more men to enlist has been underway for months, with advertisements promising cash bonuses, recruiters making cold calls to eligible men, and enlistment offices working with universities and social service agencies to lure students and the unemployed.

Putin said last month that 486,000 new soldiers have signed contracts with the military in 2023. He didn't say how many of them were foreign nationals.

Some media reports and rights groups say the authorities also have offered amnesty to prisoners in exchange for a tour of military duty.

Both Russia and Ukraine have kept a tight lid of secrecy on their military casualties. The Russian military has confirmed only just over 6,000 military casualties, but Western estimates are much higher. In October, the U.K. Defense Ministry said Russia has “likely suffered 150,000-190,000 permanent casualties,” a number that included troops that have been killed and permanently wounded.

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