Mercenaries and ongoing conflicts

Harsha Kakar
A recent report in Nikkei Asia, covering inputs from Nepal, quoted the Nepalese PM, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, mentioning that ‘as many as 200 Nepalese nationals may be serving in the Russian Army. A small contingent of Nepalese is also understood to be serving in the Ukrainian army, finding themselves on the opposite side of their compatriots in a faraway war.’ This came after reports emerged that six Nepalese serving in the Russian army have died.
Reports also mention that about a 100 more are either injured or missing.The first group of Nepalese to join the conflict were students on scholarship in Russia. This despite the fact that Nepal had voted against the Russian invasion at the UN. The Russian ambassador to Kathmandu was summoned to provide inputs.
Russia has offered citizenship to those who fight in the Russian army as also to families of those who lose their lives. I met a Gorkha soldier from Nepal, serving in the Indian army, whose civilian relatives had fought in Ukraine and died. The deceased individual’s family, was moved to Russia and assisted in settling down, apart from being provided a substantial financial package, all coordinated by the Russian embassy in Katmandu. Hence, despite all claims, recruitment of foreignersis backed by governments of nations involved in conflicts.
In an investigative report on Afghanistan, nominated for the European Press Prize, Andreas Babst and Shristi Kafle write, ‘In Afghanistan, Gurkhas served as guards for a number of western embassies and other facilities. According to estimates, 35,000 Nepalese have worked as guards in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, but the number is likely to be far higher. Many of them were victims of human trafficking. When Kabul fell, some were simply left behind.’
This was exploitationof a third world country to serve the needs of the powerful, all well-known, but ignored as costs were low and the job carried risk to life. Many of those recruited as security guards for Afghanistan were ex-soldiers from Nepal, including some who had served in the Indian army.
There are also reports of US trained Afghan soldiers, hunted by the Taliban, joining the Russian army.Within two weeks of Russia launching its ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine, Putin permitted upto 16,000 ‘volunteers’ from the Middle East to be deployed in Ukraine. The Russian Wagner group is known to possess mercenaries including prisoners from Russia, as also ex-soldiers from Africa and other nations.Moscow’sintent was to restrict Russian military casualties.
According to the Business Insider,in Mid-2022, Ukraine formed the International Legion of Defence, which included 20,000 (so-called) volunteers from 52 nations, numbers of which are currently reported to have dwindled. Some of them were even former officers from NATO countries including Britain and Canada. They also included those who had fought with the Kurds against ISIS in Syria.
Israel has a law (Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz or Mahal) which permits its army to recruit Jewish citizens from across the globe, who have at least one Jewish grandparent. A recent unconfirmed report in WION mentioned that many mercenaries fighting on behalf of Ukraine are leaving the country to join the Israeli army in its battle with Hamas. In Nov, the Israeli Knesset passed a new law to grant ‘honorary citizenship’ to those foreigners who died fighting for Israel.
While current wars have inducted fighters seeking financial gains, fundamentalist groups, such as the ISIS, attract volunteers based on their ideology. Over 40,000 volunteers, spread across 110 countries, had joined the ISIS, while a lesser number joined the Taliban in the eighties. There are reports of volunteers from Iran backed terrorist groups in West Asia seeking to fight alongside Hamas in Gaza, details of which remain unclear.
Someparticipants are also a result of human trafficking. While some ‘volunteers or mercenaries’ pay for their passage, many, especially ex-soldiers, are moved at the cost of the agent, money to be refunded later. These volunteers are trained for short durations and moved to the frontlines. Nations currently engaged in wars do not possess the populace to sustain a long-term conflict and hence have to bank on volunteers or mercenaries from abroad. It also enables them to hide true casualty figures. The line differentiating mercenaries and volunteer soldiers is thin.
While international laws restrict the employment of mercenaries, nations find ways to bypass these rules. Funding for Ukraine flows from western nations, all of whom are aware of foreigners fighting on Kiev’s behalf. Russia possesses the economy to pay those who fight on its behalf. These are the same nations which support the UN when it seeks to pass laws restricting exploiting of populace from poorer nations in battles across the globe.
Third world countries are the most affected as current wars seem to be an opportunity for ex-soldiers to serve for limited durations for financial gains. India, which would in the coming years, have thousands of unemployed Agniveers could become a lucrative recruiting ground. Since most recruitment is through agents and by word of mouth, it would be difficult to contain.
Those who enlist in foreign armies to fight ongoing conflicts transit through non-combat regions making their detection difficult. Many who joined the Russian army transited through Europe on a preplanned route. Nepal has passed directions for government permission prior to joining any ongoing conflict but this is hardly resorted to. Hence, inputs with the government are unavailable.
As long as volunteers for war is available in poorer nations and trained soldiers retire young, those involved in conflict would never be short of cannon fodder. The only governing factor is that nations engaged in warpossessresources to pay for theirservices. Russia and Israel possess it and the west funds Ukraine. The world is aware of this exploitation but turns a blind eye. Unless the UN with support from majority states strictly imposes laws, including indicting heads of state involved in recruiting foreigners, residents of poorer nations will always be exploited.
In the years ahead, India will need to impose measures to ensure that its Agniveers are not exploited in a similar manner.
The author is Major General (Retd)