The Indians hired for Russia’s Ukraine war

By Arunabh SAIKIA

New Delhi (AFP) Feb 27, 2024

An apple farmer, an airline caterer and an out-of-work graduate are among the Indian nationals hired by Moscow, with the help of recruiters around the world, for the Russian army in Ukraine.

Two years into the war tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine, and Moscow is on a global quest for more combatants, sometimes with the assistance — complicit or oblivious — of informal intermediaries.

An Indian translator working in a military recruitment centre in Moscow told AFP journalists in New Delhi that his facility was one of a network across Russia.

“Every major city has a recruitment centre where foreign nationals are processed,” he said.

He had personally overseen the enlistment of between 70 and 100 Indian citizens, he said, adding that the number of Nepali hires was significantly higher.

“Only last week, 10 Indians came to my centre,” said the man, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals for speaking to the media.

Some Indian recruits told AFP they were promised non-combatant roles, but they were trained to use Kalashnikov assault rifles and other weapons before being sent to Ukraine.

And a Russian-language defence ministry contract seen by AFP refers to “military service in the armed forces of the Russian Federation”, with a requirement to “participate in hostilities” and “serve the Russian people without limit”.

India is a longstanding ally of Russia which has shied away from explicit condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine.

Analysts say Russian efforts to target recruits from India are just one facet of a global recruitment drive, alongside a vast campaign at home.

AFP spoke to five Indians recruited to join the Russian war effort, all of whom said they had responded to social media videos promoting jobs as “army helpers” for salaries of around $1,200 a month.

None had prior military experience.

– ‘I am scared’ –

The clips were posted by a Dubai-based recruitment agent, Faisal Khan, who has a presence on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok as Baba Vlogs.

In one video Khan walks down a street in Russia’s St Petersburg, spelling out the offer: pay him $3,600 and get a job as a helper in the Russian army.

“You don’t have to fight,” he says, filming himself on his mobile.

“All you have to do is to clear demolished buildings, look after armouries and after a year of service you’ll be eligible for permanent residence.”

In no time, he said, he received an avalanche of enquiries from India where despite rapid economic growth unemployment is at a record high.

By his own account, he facilitated 16 Indian passport holders to go to Russia in November and December, most from India and some from Dubai.

“I am into social media and help people find jobs,” Khan told AFP.

“A friend from Russia got in touch with me saying that the military there was looking for helpers, I thought it was a good opportunity and I made a video.”

In a subsequent conversation he said he had been “taken aback” when recruits were issued weapons, and when “reports began coming in of bodies being sent back, and some returning injured… we decided to put a stop to the recruitment process.”

But his St Petersburg video, headlined “Russia Army Jobs”, has remained online.

One of Khan’s recruits, an unemployed graduate from Uttar Pradesh in northern India, told AFP he had fought on the frontline in Donetsk region in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

“I was hurt in the fighting and taken to the hospital from where I somehow escaped,” he said from Moscow where he is hoping for repatriation.

Another said he had been stationed in Kherson region alongside another Indian — an apple farmer from Kashmir — and nine Cubans to await deployment to the frontline.

“I can be called over to fight anytime,” said the 27-year-old from Gulbarg in the southern state of Karnataka, who used to work at an airline catering company.

“I am scared and I just want to go home.”

Several of the recruits AFP spoke to have shared pictures of themselves in military fatigues with their families back home.

AFP geolocated many of the images to a Russian military facility near Moscow.

One of the Indians said he had fled after beginning basic training.

Sheikh Mohammad Tahir, 24, from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, travelled to Moscow in December.

“As soon as they made us train in arms, I realised something was amiss,” he said. “Since I had not surrendered my passport until then, I bought a flight ticket and got out.”

Neither Russia or Ukraine will say how many foreigners are serving in their militaries or how many they are holding as prisoners of war.

Moscow is believed to have hired thousands of foreign combatants, hundreds of them from India’s poverty-stricken neighbour Nepal.

“There are reports that mercenaries from the Middle East and Asia are involved in the fighting on the Russian side,” said Oleg Ignatov, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Ignatov said Russia was also “trying to recruit mercenaries in Africa”.

– ‘Better life’ –

The foreign ministry in New Delhi has confirmed some Indian citizens have signed up for “support jobs” with the Russian army, without specifying whether they were combat roles.

It said several had been discharged as a result of its interventions with Russian authorities.

But families of the recruits say they were tricked, and blamed Indian authorities for not doing enough to extricate them from their predicament.

Mohammed Imran, a trader in Hyderabad, has not heard from his 30-year-old younger brother for nearly two months.

Mohammed Asfan had last called from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to say that he had been deployed to the frontlines.

“One of the boys who was with him and managed to escape told us my brother had been wounded by a bullet,” Imran told AFP.

“He went so that he could offer a better life to his family, now we don’t know if he is even alive.”

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