Russia’s efforts to recruit foreign mercenaries to reinforce its troops fight in ukraine they don’t seem to be bearing fruit yet.
Reports of Russian attempts to withdraw experienced troops from other conflict zones – Syria, in particular – have been circulating for weeks. But the United States says that so far, the effort is just lip service.
“We have seen no indication that their recruitment efforts have borne fruit and resulted in the actual arrival of foreign fighters from that part of the world,” a senior US defense official told reporters on Friday, speaking under condition of anonymity on intelligence matters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin formally approved the deployment of up to 16,000 fighters from the Middle East on Friday, and videos purporting to show Syrian forces expressing their willingness to fight have been spreading on social media.
The Syrian-based media outlet DeirEzzor24 quoted sources on Friday as saying that the commanders of at least one Russian-backed militia have already agreed to send fighters to Ukraine.
He also cited sources who say the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization whose owner has close ties to Putin, has already recruited more than 4,000 Syrian volunteers.
But the US official said it was unclear to what extent Russia is aided by Syrian foreign fighters and to what extent it is a propaganda strategy.
“We don’t know if 16,000 is really a target or just a talking point for them,” the official said. “It’s hard to say, but we will continue to see it.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said Moscow was aware of “more than 16,000 requests” from Middle Eastern countries, many of them from people it claimed helped Russia deal with the Islamic State extremist group, according to a Kremlin transcript.
They want to “take part in what they see as a liberation movement,” Shoigu said, speaking from Russia-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
Videos on social media have also shown militia members in Africa promising to join Wagner’s mercenaries already in Ukraine.
But US officials say there is no evidence so far to suggest African mercenaries are prepared to join the fight.
“I haven’t seen anything in the information we have that indicates they are trying to recruit from Africa,” the US official said in response to a question from the voice of america. “I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m just saying I can’t confirm it.
Ukrainian officials have tried to portray Russia’s call for mercenaries as a sign of weakness.
“Where is the mighty Russian army if they can’t get by without the Syrians?” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych told a televised briefing: “If they want us to kill 16,000 Syrians too, let them come.”
* Some information in this report came from AP and Reuters.
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