Embracing death in a foreign uniform for a few dollars more

For the unemployed and under-employed in South Asia, Africa and Latin America, war is just another form of paid work unmindful of the risk.

ByV V P Sharma

Published Mar 03, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMar 03, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Representational image. (iStock)

The Russia-Ukraine conflict could worryingly become the newest source for earning high-risk money for unemployed or poorly paid men in South Asia, especially India and Nepal.

India is the latest in the line of 50-odd countries whose citizens are ‘hired’ as helpers, drivers, or full-fledged soldiers fighting on Russia’s side against Ukraine and vice-versa.

The recent furore in Telangana, Karnataka, and Gujarat about a few Indians forced to fight for Russia by unscrupulous employment agents may prove to be the tip of the iceberg.

Indians, among the South Asian unemployed, are realising that becoming a mercenary is one more way of earning money, even if that means facing death in a war unconnected to them. Their penury motivates them, not the idea of volunteering to fight another country’s battle for a price.

War is just another mode of paid work for them.

For all we know, if the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues and with fast-depleting numbers of the domestic male population, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy may be forced to mobilise foreigners on a large scale to the battlefront.

Also read: Conned by Youtuber to fight in Russia

Proxy soldiers in others’ war

The prospect of a Hyderabadi fighting a Nepalese or a Gujarati fighting a Colombian is not unreal, the way Russia and Ukraine are recruiting foreigners into their armies to keep up their conflict.

It is already happening in a small way. Western media reports and investigations reveal the presence of anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 foreign soldiers fighting for Russia or Ukraine.

They are mainly from Francophone Africa – the breeding ground of foreign legionnaires. They are all trained in the military, and most are veterans who have fought in several distant wars in West Asia, Africa, and Europe.

However, growing unemployment and worsening under-employment are luring people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well. Having migrated from town to town in their countries seeking jobs, they are not averse to finding employment in distant lands, be it the battlefield.

The Colombians are the most sought-after. They are all former soldiers, highly trained in jungle warfare with the experience of having faced the soldados of drug cartels.

Then come the experienced mercenaries from various African and European countries, with battle-front experience in Syria or Iraq and other disturbed areas.

Among the Asians, those from countries neighbouring Russia are in demand, but several of these countries have banned their citizens from fighting for Russia or Ukraine.

In South Asia, the Nepalese are favoured. Their hardy features, physical strength, and the ease with which they adapt to dangerous terrains make them the blue-eyed boys of touts and agents on the prowl. A CNN report says over 15,000 are currently fighting on Russia’s behalf.

Also read: Indians discharged

What motivates Indians?

Indians are the latest recruits. It is doubtful if the handful sent to Russia intended to fight the war. They were probably led to believe they would earn in dollars for ‘helping’ out the Russian military. Those who finally went there never had anything to do with fighting. For instance, the man from Hyderabad, Telangana, who went to Russia, had a sales background.

Also, though they received military training, most worked as ‘helpers’. It is not yet clear why they ended up doing such menial jobs, whether they were reluctant to be soldiers or they were ruled out because of their physical stature.

For them, it is all about earning a bit more money. Quick money. The agents told them they would get ₹50,000 (appx. $600) monthly, which could be revised to over ₹1 lakh (appx. $1200). Even here, they were being cheated by the touts because, if reports of CNN, AP, and Washington Post are to be believed, Russia gives foreign soldiers $2,000 (appx. ₹1.65 lakh) a month, whereas Ukraine offers over $3,000 (appx. ₹2.48 lakh) a month.

These fresh faces are also unaware that the Russians or Ukrainians deposit the money in local banks. The ‘soldiers’ are trained to access the money through phone apps but don’t know how to transfer the money overseas to their homes. On the other hand, the experienced mercenaries know how the game works.

However, things may change as the novices gain experience. In Nepal, the worry is that once fully trained in military affairs, citizens may like the taste of fighting and gradually become mercenaries.

According to Nepalese recruits in Russia – as told to Western media – they were initially familiarised with small arms such as AK-47s. Over weeks, they graduate to working with rocket launchers, machine guns, bombs, and, if they have technical aptitude, drones.

They easily acclimate to the cold weather and overcome the language barrier thanks to voice-translating phone apps.

Internal vs external mobilisation

With the Russia-Ukraine conflict completing two years, both sides are offering attractive packages and incentives to lure foreign soldiers. Ukraine promises pay and benefits enjoyed by their soldiers.

Their soldiers are paid a monthly salary of $3,300 (appx. ₹2.73 lakh). Injury compensation could be around $28,000 (appx. ₹23.2 lakh). If they are killed in action, the families receive compensation of $400,000 (appx. ₹3.3 crore). The pay and perks for foreigners might be less, but that depends on the desperation for additional help.

This January, Russian President Putin issued a decree allowing Russian citizenship for foreign nationals fighting for Russia in the conflict with Ukraine. The decree says foreigners serving in the war zone for Russia for at least one year can apply for citizenship for themselves and their family members.

The incentives come in as the two countries find it challenging to mobilise soldiers internally. Their people are wary and weary of war, which appears to have no end.

In Ukraine, where the government does not disclose human losses, US reports estimate over 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers may have died in the last two years, with over 1,20,000 others wounded.

The government is toying with lowering the recruitment age for soldiering and tightening draft rules for mobilising at least 5,00,000 new recruits this summer.

In Russia, things are worse. Putin’s supporters in the government claim that in 2023, around 335,000 people entered military service under contract and in volunteer formations.

However, the Western media has questioned the numbers, pointing out that when Putin ordered a “partial mobilisation” of 3,00,000 reservists last September, thousands of young men fled Russia to avoid being drafted into the military.

As Russia and Ukraine look outside their borders for fresh formations of cannon fodder from other countries, a stark reality takes shape. They may find new recruits from the developing world, where millions can be motivated to face death or injury by economic need alone.