Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 215

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved decisively to align his country with the U.S.-led antiterrorist drive. Putin’s rhetorical support for the U.S. effort has been strong, and in more practical terms he has also expanded intelligence sharing with the United States, opened Russia’s airspace to humanitarian overflights by aircraft of the antiterror coalition and offered Russian assistance in potential search-and-rescue missions on the territory of Afghanistan. Perhaps most important, the Kremlin appears to have overridden the objections of military leaders and offered full support for the establishment of a U.S. military presence in the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, though they have long been seen by Moscow as falling within its sphere of influence.

One area in which Russian officials have repeatedly made clear their unwillingness to aid the antiterror campaign, however, is in the dispatch of Russian troops–as peacekeepers or otherwise–to the country where the Soviet Union suffered an ignominious defeat in the 1980s. And though such sources as the Jerusalem-based DEBKA website have suggested that Moscow may be filtering commandos into Afghanistan surreptitiously, or, more recently, dispatching them to Kabul to help make the city secure for a team of Russian government representatives, official statements have continued to assert that Russian military personnel will not be sent to fight in Afghanistan (, October 5, November 17, 20). Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has emerged as the government’s pointman in this area. In a lengthy interview published on November 18, for example, he was quoted as saying that “no Russian military contingents have been sent to Afghanistan, and there are no preparations to do so.” The group of Russian representatives being dispatched to Kabul, he added, will have only a small group of military personnel with them for their physical protection (, November 18).

But if official Moscow is making clear its public disinclination to send Russian troops to Afghanistan, the media rumor mill has nevertheless contained a number of reports of late suggesting that veterans of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan are being surreptitiously recruited as mercenaries to aid the current U.S. war effort there. The reports have not been entirely consistent in their descriptions of the alleged recruitment effort, but several have claimed that the U.S. government is working through the embassy of Uzbekistan in Moscow to locate Russian veterans with experience in Afghanistan. According to these reports, the potential Russian recruits are being offered between US$5,000 and US$7,000 per month for their services. According to one account, they are also being enticed with insurance policies worth US$100,000. Russian servicemen with experience in reconnaissance missions and combat in the mountains are said to be in particular demand.

The reports have been given the appearance of some credibility by the fact that some leading newspapers have covered the story. In addition, an established Russian veterans organization–the Union of Afghan Veterans–and a leading Russian lawmaker–Duma Defense Committee Chairman (and retired general) Andrei Nikolaev–have expressed concerns over the issue. According to one report, some passions were stirred in the city of Nizhny Novgorod when rumors surfaced alleging that the local Union of Afghan Veterans had recruited some Russian mercenaries and sent them on to Afghanistan. And the chairman of the local union, one Vadim Gladkov, was quoted earlier this month as saying that several dozen Russians have already been signed up and sent to the conflict area. Duma Defense Committee Chairman Nikolaev, meanwhile, has reportedly sent inquiries to both the prime minister’s and the general prosecutor’s office for additional information about the reports of recruitment–and for details regarding the government’s official stance on the matter. Among other things, Nikolaev is reporting trying to clarify whether a Russian citizen might be permitted to serve in uniform in Afghanistan under the flag of a Central Asian CIS country.

That last inquiry is relevant because mercenary service is illegal under Russian law. As the aforementioned Gladkov also pointed out to Russian reporters, because Russia has not offered its support to the United States in this area, Russian “volunteers can only sign contracts if the state recruits them via military registration and enlistment officers. According to the criminal code mercenaries may be jailed for seven years.”

Russian and U.S. officials, meanwhile, have categorically denied that the U.S. government is recruiting any mercenaries. During a press conference in Moscow at the beginning of this week, for example, U.S. ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow made exactly that point. He also criticized announcements of the alleged recruitment drive that had appeared on a St. Petersburg-based web site, describing them as fake and saying that they have no connection to the U.S. government. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov likewise denounced the rumors, asserting that not a single fact has been uncovered in Russia relative to the existence of the alleged recruitment centers. “References to anonymous American embassy sites on the Internet are groundless,” he added.

Given the typical vigor of the Russian rumor mill on a host of topics, such official denials are unlikely to fully dispel notions that America is trying to recruit experienced Russian veterans for the current war in Afghanistan. At the same time, moreover, there have also been suggestions that Russia’s Islamic population may be the target of recruitment efforts by the other side in the current Afghan conflict–the hard-pressed leaders of the Taliban. According to one Russian report, for example, hundreds of men prepared to fight for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden have surfaced in predominantly Muslim Tatarstan. Those actually trying to make it to Afghanistan have reportedly been detained by secret service organizations operating at the Central Asian state borders (Tribuna, November 10; Trud, Argumenty I Fakty, November 14; Izvestia, Vremya MN, November 16;, November 18; RIA Novosti, Interfax, November 19).