Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to legalise the military’s use of foreign volunteers in overseas operations, a new step in the country’s increasing engagement in wars abroad.
A decree published on Monday – though still not ratified by Parliament – would allow foreign nationals to serve in what the law calls “counterterrorism and peacekeeping missions,” including in Syria, where increasing numbers of Russian service members are currently stationed.
“The timing of the change is quite telling,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, an analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council.
“Russia’s only military operation abroad is in Syria, and only contractors [volunteers as opposed to conscripts] are serving there. This amendment provides regulation for the foreign nationals who participate in Russia’s Syria campaign.”
Several reports have also emerged over the past three years of Russian security contractors in Syria – oftentimes to protect private facilities like oil and gas infrastructure or engage in “deniable” operations where the government has tried to distance itself from the fighting.
According to Khlebnikov, the decree might establish a basis for these kinds of operators to work with Russian military operations. “This new version of the decree might open the door for [them] to incorporate themselves into the Russian army,” he told Foreign Policy.
In one incident in 2013, units from a shadowy group technically based in Hong Kong known as the Slavonic Corps deployed to Syria. After failing to receive promised equipment and losing a number of members in a series of skirmishes, the corps left Syria and was immediately arrested upon returning to Russia for violating laws against mercenary service.
Another outfit, headed by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian special forces officer known by his call sign “Wagner,” – also the name of the group – played a more successful role in the combined Russian and Syrian drive to liberate the Syrian city of Palmyra from the Islamic State.
By distancing the Russian public from battlefield casualties, the use of foreign volunteers in wars like the ones being fought in Syria and Ukraine might also allow Russia to maintain a longer-term presence in those conflicts.
“If you look at forces in Ukraine and Syria, it’s professional soldiers who volunteered for service doing the fighting. They haven’t sent conscripts at all,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “It makes the issue of public support for these operations less salient. If you’re not conscripting people into a war to be killed, there’s less of a public foundation for opposition.”
The incorporation of foreigners into the military also usefully expands the number of available recruits.
“It gives them a potentially larger deployable force for expeditionary operations that might not have public support if they had to force Russian citizens to fight in them,” Mankoff said.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union made extensive use of non-Russian soldiers in foreign conflicts. During the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war, the Soviet Union deployed separate units of Central Asian fighters in some of the deadliest fighting in the conflict. Planners believed that those soldiers, coming from areas with similar dialects to those spoken in Afghanistan, could be used effectively for covert operations.
While not Russian, those soldiers were citizens of the Soviet Union.
Members of one of these so-called “Muslim battalions” – composed primarily of ethnic Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen recruits – were part of the Soviet special operations unit that stormed the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul in 1979, killing President Hafizullah Amin.
The assassination and toppling of Amin’s government marked the start of increased Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan.
More recently, in 2014 State Duma Deputy Roman Khudyakov proposed a Russian “foreign legion” based in Central Asia primarily designed to combat the threat of the Islamic State. The plan, in which local units would be commanded by Russian officers, never made it out of Parliament.