Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed allowing volunteers, including from abroad, to help pro-Moscow separatists fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, more than two weeks after he sent thousands of Russian troops into the neighbouring country.
“As you see, there are people who want to come on a voluntary basis, especially not for money, and help the people who live in the Donbas – well, you have to meet them halfway and help them move into the combat zone,” Putin told a meeting of the National Security Council on Friday.
According to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, more than 16,000 people – mostly from the Middle East – have appealed to join the fighting.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal had quoted unnamed United States officials as saying that Russia was recruiting Syrian fighters experienced in urban combat. Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify the reported information.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence on Wednesday acknowledged that some conscripts were taking part in the conflict after Putin denied this on various occasions saying only professional soldiers and officers had been sent in.
Separately on Friday, Shoigu also proposed during the council’s session that Western-made Javelin and Stinger missiles captured by the Russian army in Ukraine should be handed over to the separatist forces of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
“As to the delivery of arms, especially Western-made ones which have fallen into the hands of the Russian army – of course I support the possibility of giving these to the military units of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics,” Putin said.
“Please do this,” he told Shoigu.
The comments came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on February 27 called on people from across the world to help defend his country. “Anyone who wants to join the defence of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals,” he said at the time, describing Moscow’s invasion as an affront against “democracy” and “basic human rights”.
Putin on Friday deplored the deployment of “mercenaries from all over the world” in Ukraine, saying: “The Western sponsors of Ukraine, the Ukrainian regime, they don’t hide it, they do it openly, disregarding all norms of international law.”
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 soon after Putin recognised the breakaway territories as independent states, in an action condemned internationally as illegal.
Russia says its “special military operations” in Ukraine was a forced response to what it calls genocide by Ukraine against Russian speakers in the east of the country – a pretext rejected by Kyiv and the West as baseless war propaganda.
Shoigu said the Russian military planned to strengthen its Western border after what he said was an increase in Western military units on Russia’s border.
Putin also ordered that Shoigu prepare a separate report on strengthening Russia’s western borders “in connection to the actions that NATO countries are taking in this direction”.