The international recruits joining Russia’s war on Ukraine

Kremlin tries to bolster its ranks while avoiding a politically sensitive recruitment drive at home

US Army veteran trains Ukrainian soldiers around Kyiv, February 2023
There are believed to be around 2000 foreign recruits currently fighting for Ukraine
(Image credit: Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Russia is luring foreign fighters to join its forces in Ukraine to strengthen the narrative of international support for its invasion while avoiding a politically hazardous domestic recruitment drive.

With casualties mounting just as "its pool of domestic fighters dries up", Moscow is in "a scramble for manpower", Newsweek reported.

Vladimir Putin is reportedly "under increasing pressure to take a more aggressive approach to his war against Ukraine and introduce a full-scale mobilisation". Instead, however, Moscow is resorting to a series of tactics to lure, coerce and trick foreign nationals into signing up and so increasing the number of Kremlin-backed troops on the ground.

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Where are recruits coming from?

Most foreign recruits fighting for Russia in Ukraine come from Africa and Asia, including countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, where soldiers have particular experience of urban warfare.

In November 2022, Putin signed a decree offering fast-tracked citizenship to foreigners who signed up as contract soldiers, "hoping to tempt recruits from neighbouring countries as well as immigrants living in Russia", said the i news site.

In recent months, however, citizens from as far afield as Nepal and Cuba have been "targeted through various means", Newsweek reported.

In September the Cuban government announced it had arrested 17 people for involvement in a human trafficking ring recruiting young men to fight for Russia. Hacked documents, allegedly belonging to recent Cuban recruits and published by the Ukrainian website Inform Napalm, revealed instances of teenagers being tricked into signing military contracts written in Russian.

Politico said the news "raised questions about the extent of cooperation between the two Cold War allies, and whether cracks were beginning to show in Havana’s support for Russia’s invasion".

Bellingcat, the investigative journalism site, found evidence that similar tactics had been deployed to recruit Nepali soldiers training at a military camp geolocated to the Moscow region.

Why are they needed?

The aim, said i news, is to "plug manpower gaps as the Kremlin seeks to avoid another round of mobilisation for the war in Ukraine that could be politically damaging".

UK intelligence reported by Newsweek assessed that Russia "likely wishes to avoid further unpopular domestic mobilization measures in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections". But amid mounting losses, the Russian military "needs the cannon fodder", Pavel Luzin, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, told Politico.

That has seen the Kremlin resort to more drastic measures. According to The Moscow Times, hundreds of mainly male migrant workers hailing predominantly from Central Asia have been rounded up "in a wave of police raids that has swept several Russian cities in recent weeks". Many of those detained are forcibly taken to military enlistment offices, local media reported, while there are also reports of foreign nationals being recruited directly from prison.

"It is unclear exactly how many foreign citizens have joined Russia’s ranks," said Politico. A BBC Russia investigation, based on figures for bodies repatriated and buried in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, found 93 fighters from central Asian countries have been killed in Ukraine.

But even though relatively limited in number, Luzin said the presence of foreign fighters serves to boost Russia’s narrative that it has international support for its war.

What about Ukraine?

Not long after Russian bombs first started dropping on Kyiv in February 2022, "one of the iconic stories capturing the imagination of the West was the waves of foreign fighters rushing into Ukraine on foot, by car, or train", Vice reported.

In the days following the invasion Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a plea for "anyone" from "Europe and the world" to fight alongside his people against invading Russian forces, even laying out plans for an "International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine", a subdivision of the Ukrainian army made up of non-national volunteers.

The appeal for international reinforcements was "unprecedented in modern warfare", said The Guardian, and it is believed more than 20,000 foreigners answered the call. But a year into the conflict, the flow of foreign fighters had "measurably slowed down", said Vice. A source in the Ukrainian security services said the "romantics" from the early months of the war "are gone" and only around 2,000 foreign fighters are believed to still be on the ground fighting with Ukraine’s forces.

“The war tourists and thrill seekers have decreased in number,” agreed Carl Larson, an US Iraq War veteran who joined the International Legion in 2022.

Most of those who are left – drawn from more than 50 countries including the US, UK, Canada, Georgia, Poland, Sweden, Nigeria, South Korea, Norway, Spain and Israel – "are former soldiers of Western militaries and have fought in Afghanistan or the Middle East", said Outlook India.

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