Russia Says 16,000 ‘Volunteers’ Want to Fight, Most from Middle East

Russian military police members stand outside an armoured vehicle along a road in the coun
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced on Friday that his government has identified over 16,000 foreigners, most of whom come from the Middle East, willing to fight on Russia’s side in the ongoing war with Ukraine.

Shoigu made this declaration in a meeting of the Russian Security Council, according to the Russian news agency Tass, which noted that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was present and approved helping these foreign fighters enter the Ukrainian war theater. Putin reportedly pointed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s repeated pleas to foreign nationals to travel to the country and fight Russia as legitimizing Moscow making a similar effort.

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, colonizing the Crimean peninsula and fueling separatist violence in the eastern Donbas region for eight years. In late February, Putin announced that he would recognize the two territories of Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk (also spelled Lugansk), as sovereign nations, and send the Russian military into Ukraine at the request of those “governments.” Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was one of the few leaders in the world who followed Russia in recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.”

Russia was heavily involved in the now mostly resolved Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, on behalf of dictator Bashar al-Assad. The conflict began as a violent, largely Sunni uprising against the Alawite Shiite leader, but the fighting soon attracted a variety of foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State jihadist organization, which attempted to establish a sovereign state with its capital in Raqqa, Syria. Iranian proxies, Kurdish forces that attracted Western volunteers, the militaries of: Iran, Russia, America, and Turkey, Al-Qaeda affiliates, and Christian militias, among other belligerents, all played some role in the decade-long war.

Russia, Shoigu said on Friday, had received “numerous requests from various volunteers from various countries, who want to come to the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics [Donbas, eastern Ukraine] to participate in what they believe is a liberation movement.”

“The majority of requests came from the Middle East, as we have received over 16,000 of them,” he claimed. “Certainly, we believe it is right to respond favorably to these requests, especially since these requests are not for [making] money, but about the true desire of these people.”

Shoigu said that many of the fighters had experience fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

Putin agreed with Shoigu that Russia should invite foreigners to fight Ukraine, according to Tass, citing Zelensky’s similar policy.

“As for the mercenaries from all over the world being sent to Ukraine, we see that they do not conceal it, the Western sponsors of Ukraine, the Ukrainian regime, do not hide it, they do it openly, neglecting all norms of international law,” Putin reportedly said. “That’s why if you see that there are people who are willing to come as volunteers, especially not for money, and help people residing in Donbass, well, we need to meet them halfway and assist them in moving to the combat zone.”

Zelensky announced shortly after Russia exacerbated its hostilities against Ukraine last month that he would formalize the introduction of foreigners to fight alongside the Ukrainian military. Zelensky founded the “International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine” on February 28 and urged foreign nationals to apply to join it.

Ukrainian authorities have attempted to maintain some control over the foreigners by publishing a set of rules for joining the international legion that begin with applying for a spot at their nearby Ukrainian embassy, not just attempting to cross a border into Ukraine. Zelensky has also taken other unconventional measures, such as freeing convicted criminals with combat experience to fight in the “hottest” areas of the war theater and handing out thousands of firearms to civilians.

“With their governments refusing to send troops to Ukraine out of fear of sparking a world war, Americans and Canadians told Reuters they were inspired by Ukrainians’ fierce resistance,” Reuters claimed. “Many believe their democratic rights will be threatened at home if they do nothing to defend Europe.”

According to Reuters, “dozens” of Americans and Canadians, many with combat experience, have expressed interest in the program.

On the other side, some reports have surfaced of fighters in Africa with ties to Russian companies expressing interest in migrating to Ukraine. The U.K. Times revealed that fighters in Central African Republic have declared their interest in supporting Russia, as the Russian government has offered military support to the government there in its ongoing struggle against rival militias. The news of the Ukrainian invasion prompted pro-Russia manifestations in the country.

The Times identified several other African countries where individuals allegedly announced their interest in fighting Ukraine:

Similar videos from other African states have also been published by Russian state media.

In one, released by the news agency Ria Novosti, a lone gunman says: “We Congolese soldiers are ready to support Russia in the fight against Ukraine. Everything that happens there is the work of Europeans.”

In another, a fighter in Cameroon says: “We know that Nato is behind this. We Cameroonians, if we are asked to go and support Russia, we will go without resisting.”

The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, claimed on Friday that he had spoken to Putin about the war and that his country “has been approached to play a mediation role.” South Africa belongs to a bloc of countries known as BRICS after its members: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

“I outlined our position [to Putin] on the conflict … as well as our belief that the conflict should be resolved through mediation and negotiation between the parties and – if need be – with the help of agencies that can help,” Ramaphosa reportedly said.

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