Why are Southern Asians fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war

Which countries do foreign fighters in the Russia-Ukraine war come from?

Men predominantly from Nepal), India and Sri Lanka have gone to fight the war as mercenaries.

In March 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed the plan to allow foreign volunteers to join Russia in its war against Ukraine. Observers speculated that Russia was looking to recruit fighters from Syria. A Nepali mercenary told Al Jazeera that Nepali, Tajik and Afghan fighters are sent straight to the front line.

While the Nepali government does not have an exact number of Nepalis fighting in Russia, a foreign ministry official estimated that as many as 200 Nepalis were fighting in Russia by the end of 2023.

Some analysts estimated that about a thousand Nepali fighters have been deployed. The numbers are largely based on the complaints received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nepal from families of recruits, explained Santosh Sharma Poudel, a foreign policy analyst and co-founder of Nepal Institute for Policy Research.

The unofficial number of Indians fighting in Ukraine is estimated to be about 100, local media has reported.

Why are South Asians going to fight the war?

Several men who went to fight the war told Al Jazeera the reason behind it was their financial circumstances. “My family’s economic condition is miserable so I thought this would be a good breakthrough,” said Bimal Bhandari*, a 32-year-old mercenary from Nepal.

The Sri Lankan men are not joining the war because they believe in the Russian cause, but because it is an opportunity to make money amid economic turmoil, said Gamini Viyangoda, a Sri Lankan writer, political analyst and columnist.

In Sri Lanka, the economic crisis and political disruption in 2022 resulted in a hunger crisis by 2023. Enormous foreign debts and rising inflation led to shortages of fuel, medication and food.

A retired Sri Lankan soldier, now a recruit for Russia, said on the condition of anonymity that he was less worried about the prospect of losing his life by joining the Russian army than he was about the economic hardships in Sri Lanka.

Soldiers currently serving in the Sri Lankan army are also eager to leave their posts and go to Russia, if given the opportunity. A soldier told Al Jazeera that he makes a meagre $65 a month after tax deductions.

Poudel said that there is a trend among Nepalis to go abroad to the Middle East or Europe in search of lucrative income because “the average per capita income in Nepal is just around $1,000 per year.” In comparison, the advertised salary to join the Russian army is “about $4,000 a month, which is huge,” he added.

“Not all of them are getting the advertised amount, though the pay is significantly higher than what they would get over here,” said Poudel.

Which side are they fighting on?

Most South Asian recruits are fighting on the Russian lines.

However, some Sri Lankans have also fought on Ukraine’s side. After three Sri Lankan men fighting on Ukraine’s side were killed, approximately 20 others who were serving with the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine left the unit, according to Lahiru Hathurusinghe, 25, who is believed to be the only Sri Lankan still attached to the Ukrainian side.

How are South Asians recruited into the war?

South Asians looking for employment or opportunities in Europe have been being recruited through social media including calls for Nepalis, Indians and Sri Lankans to be recruited into the Russian army have been posted on TikTok.

Nepali men told Al Jazeera that when they contacted the TikTok account, they were connected to an agent running a travel agency in Nepal. Hemil Mangukiya, 23, from India’s Surat, found a job as a helper in the Russian army through a YouTube video posted by Dubai-based Faisal Khan.

The travel agencies also exacted hefty fees from the men interested in going to Russia.

A Nepali man recruited in October 2023 was charged $9,000 and in exchange was promised a monthly salary of about $3,000, along with benefits including Russian citizenship for himself and his family.

Sri Lankans were also promised monthly salaries up to $3,000 and the prospect of Russian citizenship.

Nine-year Sri Lankan military veteran, Nipuna Silva* who was already in debt, borrowed $4,000 to pay an agency that got him a job in Russia. He later joined the Russian army.

Mangukiya from Surat paid $3,600 to his recruiting agents and was offered $1,800 for a job as an assistant.


The fact that people have to fight in wars they don’t even believe in just for the sake of money is truly heartbreaking


Wow, this is really eye-opening! I had no idea about the involvement of South Asian fighters in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It’s intriguing to see how economic circumstances are driving people to take such extreme measures.