Moscow’s Search for Foreign Recruits Reveals Its Growing Desperation

Last month, Ukrainian researchers and Politico correspondents revealed that they had identified nearly 200 Cubans who had joined the Russian military in recent weeks, with enlistees ranging in age between 19 and 69. In interviews, Cuban recruits reported a range of Russian tactics to secure new personnel. Many in particular cited monetary incentives and the prospect of Russian citizenship — an attractive draw for young men in a country beset by food insecurity and joblessness.

Other Cuban enlistees tell darker stories. Some have shared experiences of being lured to Russia under false pretenses, such as arriving for a job as a driver and being drafted for the frontlines instead. Subsequent reports out of Havana suggest more Cuban nationals have been forced or deceived into service than these revelations suggest. In September, the Cuban government went public with an announcement that it had identified and disrupted a human trafficking network amassing recruits for Russia’s war effort. While the Kremlin remained silent on Havana’s announcement, it signed a new trade and economic cooperation deal with Cuba in November — a move that could smooth ruffled feathers and potentially pave the way for continued recruitment in the future.

These are not isolated or anomalous developments. Rather, Moscow’s search for foreign recruits provides useful clues about the health of Vladimir Putin’s regime, his confidence, and his views on Russia’s war effort — all suggesting the strongman’s fortunes are looking more and more desperate.

Scrambling for Support

Evidence of Moscow’s desperation goes far beyond a few hundred Cuban enlistees. In fact, Russia has made recurrent and likely growing use of foreign recruits during its war. More than a year ago, Moscow used legal maneuvers to ensure it could conscript Ukrainians caught in annexed territory. According to accounts provided to The Telegraph, Russia appears to have given its Ukrainian conscripts a lose-lose choice: fight, or be imprisoned.

Russia’s recruitment abroad has not been solely coercive. Months into the war, Putin publicly lent his approval to foreign recruitment and soon approached the Syrian government for manpower. Almost immediately, Damascus responded by appealing directly to veterans in its army to join the conflict in Ukraine. The Kremlin has made similar moves in the past year to amass volunteers and veterans from Central Asia, Libya, and Serbia. In recent weeks, hundreds of volunteers from Colombia and Nepal — including seasoned military veterans — have been similarly enticed to don Russian uniforms in the face of limited economic prospects in their home countries.

Other reports indicate authorities have sought to mobilize foreigners already within Russia’s lawful borders. During the exodus of Russians early in the war, citizens of former Soviet republics working in Russia also took flight. Some returned home with stories of having been offered expedited Russian citizenship in exchange for service. Among those who subsequently did enlist, recruits report having pocketed hefty bonuses as an incentive to serve. Other accounts suggest Russian authorities have also looked to foreign exchange students as enlistees, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa.

The Domestic Politics of Foreign Recruitment

How often do states look abroad for soldiers, and what does it tell us when they do? Modern governments have consistently recruited foreigners for combat troops over the past two centuries, and the practice is only growing. States generally recruit foreigners in the face of one of two pressures: external territorial threats that amplify their needs for combat troops on one hand, and domestic factors that make expanded citizen enlistment politically perilous on the other. When governments face political and security pressures simultaneously, this type of recruitment becomes especially likely.

I have examined more than 230 cases over the past 200 years in which governments have recruited “legionnaires.” Much like members of France’s famous fighting unit, legionnaires are soldiers who enlist in the military of a country in which they are not citizens and thus are different from other types of individuals who join conflicts abroad. Unlike “foreign fighters” — a term scholars and policymakers use for individuals who join a terrorist group abroad — legionnaires are members of a state’s armed forces. And unlike private military contractors (who can be either citizens or foreigners), legionnaires work for the state directly by virtue of their membership in the military. There is no firm or company between them and the chain of command. Indeed, one of the reasons legionnaires are so attractive, especially for governments in need of combat troops, is that the state controls them directly and can determine how they are used just like any citizen-recruit.

Modern states generally recruit legionnaires in one of two instances. Some, like Ukraine, are facing invasion or fear the prospect of conquest. Those states often call the international community to their aid in their darkest hours, and when they recruit legionnaires, it represents a government’s determination to go for broke in fending off the worst imaginable catastrophe. For these states, legionnaires are an opportunity to bolster a defensive front without the lag or politicking that can slow the responsiveness of allies. And as Ukraine has found, enlisting foreigners can also be an attractive means by which to rally global support to one’s cause.

Then there is a second camp of states, like Putin’s Russia. These are the countries that enlist legionnaires because of the pressures and dangers of domestic politics. That’s where things get really interesting.

When domestic dynamics drive legionnaire recruitment, leaders pursue these policies for fear that further expanding citizen enlistment risks creating an untenable danger to their futures in office. When statesmen lead countries with a recent history of insurgencies, attempted or successful coups, politicized ethnolinguistic divides, or severe labor shortages (let alone a combination of those factors), they tend to wonder whether new citizen-recruits or conscripts are truly loyal, or whether their futures in office could be in jeopardy. When coupled with the carnage of a war going poorly, leaders face internal political disaster if they expand citizen enlistment.

Given Wagner’s recent coup attempt and the citizen pushback Russia has already experienced in attempting to staff its ranks, the Kremlin has good reason to doubt the reliability and commitment of its national troops. That is precisely where legionnaires like Russia’s Cuban recruits come in: they represent an effort by a government to close the gap between the combat troops it needs on the battlefield and the citizen-soldiers it believes it can safely mobilize without creating a coup, election loss, or uprising at home.

Putin’s Prognosis

With roughly 300,000 casualties so far, Russia’s foreign recruitment only seems to be gaining speed. Indeed, since June — a tough month for Putin marked by the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt — Russia has redoubled its appeals for volunteers from neighboring countries

Against this backdrop, British Defense Intelligence warned in September that the Kremlin is now eying the roughly six million migrant workers within Russia as an untapped manpower source for the frontline. Local press reports indicate that some migrants are already being rounded up and pressed into service — a trend with dark parallels to Germany’s frantic mobilizations of foreign laborers in the last months of World War II. This trend is especially alarming because, as my research indicates, once countries start using coercive tactics to bring foreigners into service, they tend to expand those activities quickly.

London’s analysis of the drivers of Russian policies suggests that Putin’s regime is feeling many of the same pressures that I have identified as leading to expanded legionnaire recruitment in other wars: “Russia likely wishes to avoid further unpopular domestic mobilisation measures in the run up to the 2024 Presidential elections. Exploiting foreign nationals allows the Kremlin to acquire additional personnel for its war effort in the face of mounting casualties.”

Between Wagner’s recent rebellion and the recruitment issues that have plagued Russia’s citizen mobilizations since the war’s earlier days, history indicates that Putin is feeling backed into a corner. Even as opinion polls show nearly 70 percent of Russians support the government’s “special operations” in Ukraine, citizen enlistment has continued to lag far behind the numbers Moscow needs to sustain the war — even despite an advertising blitz seeking to entice more citizens into service. At the same time, the Kremlin is seeking to prevent the reoccurrence of any challenges to Putin’s rule, including reportedly by nationalizing remaining Wagner fighters and bringing them under the state’s direct control.

But while these initiatives may help on the margins in reassuring Putin of his personal security, they do not resolve the thorny issue that has only grown sharper during Russia’s campaign: where to get the people, willing or otherwise, to sustain the conflict. With Putin’s narrowing confidence and room to maneuver in mobilizing citizens, foreigners inside and outside of Russia may be among the Kremlin’s few remaining options. By enlisting legionnaires, Putin not only gains new troops for a grinding conflict in Ukraine, he also may amass soldiers he can use to help protect against a threat from elites in the future.

To be sure, details on Russia’s recruitment of foreigners have been scarce. It appears that so far only a handful of thousands of noncitizens have been inducted into Moscow’s war effort, and sparse details on these policies make it challenging to identify trends in Russia’s efforts. But even modest recruitment measures, when coupled with the elaborate methods Moscow has used to secure those added troops, tell a story that belies the Kremlin’s efforts to exude confidence about the trajectory of the war. Russia has slashed foreigners’ service contracts from five years to a brief one-year tour, and in some instances offers payment that not only matches but exceeds those Russian citizens receive. That Russia is taking such extraordinary steps, especially if their return has only been modest, show the high political stakes driving Moscow to look beyond its citizenry for soldiers.

Conclusion

The good news is that the history of foreign recruitment indicates Putin is feeling the heat and does not expect conditions to improve any time soon. For a Ukrainian government seeking to sustain its counteroffensive and keep Western allies engaged supplying necessary military aid, these developments are a positive indicator.

But there is also cause for caution. Cornered creatures can easily turn nasty. We know that leaders feeling under the gun at home and abroad will sometimes prolong even a losing or costly war in hopes of staying in office — a ploy known as gambling for resurrection. In such a context, migrants and other foreigners in Russia could easily become cannon fodder for a government that is beyond all care of international cost or censure.

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