As Russia’s manpower shortages are exacerbated by losses during its current offensive in the Kharkiv region, Russian officials are forcing thousands of migrants and foreign students to fight in its so-called special military operation in Ukraine, Bloomberg reported on Sunday, June 9, citing unnamed European officials.

Moscow authorities are employing tactics akin to those used by Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group to recruit convicts, combining promises of good pay with threats to cancel the visas of African students and young workers unless they agree to enlist in the military.

In September, the UK Defense Ministry reported that Russia was employing a campaign to recruit foreigners from former USSR countries and to force migrant workers to enlist for its war against Ukraine which would allow “the Kremlin to acquire additional personnel for its war effort in the face of mounting casualties.”

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There are numerous reports of Africans in Russia on work visas being detained and threatened with immediate deportation unless they agree to fight. Some of those targeted have, reportedly, been able to avoid being mobilized and to remain in the country by paying bribes to the recruiters.

The Russian practice of forcing migrants and students to join its war has been going on since the earliest days of the full-scale invasion a European official said. These foreign troops are thrown into battle after receiving the bare minimum of training and suffer extremely high casualty rates. Bloomberg said that the Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Belarus remains one of the few European countries to have death penalties, and a human rights group said this was the first time someone has been tried for mercenary activity in Belarus.

Ukrainian intelligence agencies say that Russia is engaged in a global recruitment drive seeking foreign mercenaries in at least 21 countries, many in Africa. They offer lucrative signing bonuses and salaries for individuals who will join up as contract soldiers, often using employment agencies in those countries to identify those who have looked for employment in Russia.

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In January, it was reported that mercenaries from Somalia, Syria, India, Cuba, China and Serbia were fighting for Russia in Ukraine. A Serbian recruiter, Dejan Beric, said that Moscow’s commanders treated Serb volunteers “like cattle” calling them “gypsies.” Some Serbs who refused to be sent into a “meat assault” with virtually no weapons were branded as “deserters and war criminals.”

In February, CNN reported that as many as 15,000 Nepalese had been recruited, many fooled into thinking they would be working in service industries, according to Nepal’s former Foreign Minister Bimala Rai Paudyal.

According to former Nepalese mercenary Suman Tamang, Russian commanders used him and his foreign compatriots as “cannon fodder,” who were punished severely if they refused to fight on the front line.

Reuters reported last year that the mercenary group Wagner had recruited several African citizens from Russian prisons to serve in Ukraine and cited the case of three men from Tanzania, Zambia and the Ivory Coast who had been sent to Ukraine, two of whom were killed within weeks.

An unidentified senior Ukrainian military official told Bloomberg that there has been a major increase in the number of foreign fighters captured by Ukraine on the battlefield, with those from Africa becoming increasingly common.

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Yevgeny Primakov, the head of Rossotrudnichestvo, an organization whose mission is to “strengthen Russia’s humanitarian influence in the world,” said at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Thursday, June 6, “Every year we sign up about 6,500 students from Africa to study in Russia – for free.”

Various estimates put the number of African students currently in Russia at between 35,000 and 37,000, with similar numbers employed on work visas.

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