Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently approved recruiting foreign volunteers to help strengthen his flagging military forces during their attempt to take Ukraine.

Putin making his point while addressing the world press. Photo Credit: Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik

Justifying his actions, the Russian President stated:

“If you see that there are people who want to come voluntarily, especially free of charge, and help people living in the Donbas, you need to meet them halfway and help them move to the war zone.”

To refresh your memory, Donbas is a region in south-eastern Ukraine. There, Russian-backed separatist groups have claimed independent republics (e.g., the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic) where Putin is accusing Ukrainians of genocide against Russian speakers.

Russia Claims That There Is a Great Demand to Join Their Cause

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claims to have received a “colossal number of applications” from across the globe to join what he is calling the “Ukrainian Liberation Movement.” He has told the press that the Kremlin has received more than 16,000 requests from individuals who want to join the fight. Most of these came from the Middle East.

There are numerous reports that Russia is turning to Syria for experienced fighters to strengthen their ranks. Indeed, there is no shortage of armed factions, militias, and mercenaries in that embattled nation. Pro-government paramilitary groups in Syria include Christian militia fighters, many thousands of National Defense Forces, and numerous army defectors skilled to varying degrees in urban and guerilla warfare.

Danny Makki is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute specializing in Syria. He has recently said, “If need be, Russia could quickly recruit members of these groups to fight in Ukraine.” He continued, “Given the misery of the Syrian economy, there would be no shortage of combat-hardened men of military age willing to put their lives on the line for a modicum of material gain.” 

So, Why Does Russia Need Foreign Fighters?

That’s an excellent question. Let’s have a quick look at the situation:

According to the Pentagon, there are approximately 190,000 Russian troops in Ukraine. US military officials estimate that between 2,000 to 4,000 of these troops have already died in the war. Ukraine claims to have killed upwards of 7,000.

The total strength of the Russian armed forces is roughly 900,000 personnel, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This is in contrast to 210,000 fighters on the Ukrainian side, with more in reserves and more being recruited daily. Russia also has about 2 million troops in its military reserves. Still, only a tiny number of these, perhaps only 4,000-5,000, are considered to be actively trained and prepared for combat along the lines of the U.S. Army Reserves system, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Many of the front line combat formations in the Russian army require conscripts to bring them up to combat-ready status, they fullfill a variety of support roles in these units, like cooks, mechanics, drivers, and artillery crews which are skeleton staffed until ready to deploy for training or for war.

The Russians could always draft new soldiers, but given the time needed to bring them into the service and train them to a level where they would be effective, it would not be practical and it’s illegal under Russian law. Sending them into the war untrained would mean that they would only serve as cannon fodder. Last week, Putin admitted that he sent conscripts into combat in Ukraine and that his specific orders not to were violated by members of the army staff. This use of green conscripts is a violation of Russian law as those with less than four months of training cannot be sent into a combat zone short of martial law or a national emergency.  This is why the Kremlin insists on calling its invasion of Ukraine anything but an “invasion.,” to keep to the letter of the law while violating its spirit.  It could also explain why so many conscripts captured by Ukrainians told their captors they were on a “training mission” and did not know they would do any fighting.

Frederick Kagan, a senior fellow, and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute noted that it’s “hard to say” how many Russian troops around the city of Kyiv remain combat effective. He said it is also difficult to estimate how many more troops would be necessary to take Kyiv or other major Ukrainian cities, considering how badly they have performed thus far.

Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist for the Center for Naval Analyses, feels that Russia has “enough manpower to capture individual cities” but not enough to hold them once they do. He has also indicated that forces are becoming increasingly necessary to repress protests within Russia. Indeed, there are reports that the army within the army, the National Guard, has been sent into the fighting.  This National Guard force, drawn from members of the security forces of the Interior Ministry is under the direct command of Putin’s former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, and reports directly to Putin, bypassing the army staff entirely.  As of 2019, it is comprised of some 340,000 troops with modern equipment. As a matter of historical interest, Adolph Hitler also had his own bodyguard force that grew into the millions by the time he took power.  It too bypassed the army and answered only to him.

What Proof Is There of Foreign Recruitment?

A Facebook advertisement calling for Syrians to fight for Russia.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks that Syrians were being recruited for Putin’s war effort in Ukraine, but there had been little hard evidence of this. Pictured above is a recent Facebook advertisement offering “combat roles existing for Syrian fighters in a foreign mission.”

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“Deployment for Ukraine,” it advertises.

The ad was posted on a private group for soldiers of the Fourth Armored Division, one of the largest in the Syrian Army. The comments were filled with requests for contact numbers so they could enquire further.

The $3000 (in international currency) noted in the ad equates to roughly 7.5 million Syrian pounds. It was not clear what period of time this wage would cover, as the average Syrian yearly minimum wage is $2,984 in international currency.

Unlike the recently formed “International  Brigade” comprised of foreigners actually serving in uniform as part of Ukraine’s armed forces, these Syrians will remain in the armed forces of Syria and meet the text book definition of being mercenaries, or soldiers hired to fight for another state while retaining their status in their own country.

The post, however, stressed that registration is limited. This may be an indication that the Russians are initially looking to trial Syrian fighters before possibly bringing in more for a greater role in Ukraine. It could also be a matter of budget and logistics getting them there.  Given the problems the Russians seem to be having just getting food and fuel to their own troops in the field, bringing thousands of Syrians into the conflict that have to be equipped and fed as well presents all new problems.