By Tom Ozimek
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday gave the green light for “volunteers” from abroad to head to combat zones in eastern Ukraine to bolster Russian forces in the war.
Putin made the remarks at a Security Council meeting, according to Russian state news agency Tass, which described the move as the “provision of military assistance to Donbass on a no-cost basis,” apparently in a bid to distinguish between volunteer fighters and paid mercenaries. Ukraine and Russia have traded accusations of sending mercenaries into the conflict.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was cited by Tass as saying that there have been over 16,000 requests from so-called volunteers, mostly in the Middle East, who are ready to come to the pro-Russian separatist-controlled regions of Lugansk and Donetsk and take part in “what they believe is a liberation movement.”
The 16,000 figure mirrors the number cited by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky when he announced several days ago that foreign “volunteers” would be coming to Ukraine to help resist Russian forces.
“Ukraine is already greeting foreign volunteers. The first 16,000 are already on their way to protect freedom and life for us, and for all,” Zelensky said in a video posted on Facebook.
Ukrainian law allows foreigners to join the Ukrainian military on a voluntary basis, with incentives including being eligible for Ukrainian citizenship. Around 100 U.S. citizens have been cleared to join Ukrainian forces fighting against Russia.
Putin, in his remarks to the Security Council, accused the West of openly sending mercenaries to fight on the side of the government in Kiyv.
“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 said.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, for its part, has accused Russia of enlisting mercenaries affiliated with the “Wagner” group, an off-the-books private military outfit reportedly run by Putin associate Yvgeney Prigozhin, to fight in Ukraine. Prigozhin has always denied any links to Wagner.
That followed a report from British newspaper The Times claiming that over 400 Wagner-linked mercenaries had been sent to Kyiv with orders from the Kremlin to assassinate Zelensky.
There have been reports of a surge in demand for private military contractors in the context of the war in Ukraine.
Robert Young Pelton, a Canadian American author and expert on private military companies told the BBC that there was a “frenzy in the market” for private military contractors to take on missions in Ukraine, including for help with logistics to extractions.
Tass also cited Putin as saying Russia should meet its “volunteers” half way and help cover the costs of transporting them to combat zones.
Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.