On October 11, in an interview with Russia’s Rossiya 1TV channel, President Vladimir Putin reassured his audience that he did not intend to send Russian ground troops to Syria. The interviewer asked Putin about it twice, and twice the Russian president denied such plans. “Are you considering the possibility of using the Russian armed forces in the ground operation in Syria?” he was asked. “No, it is out of the question,” he answered. “Whatever happens?” “No. We do not intend to do that and our Syrian friends know about that,” he answered (Vesti.ru, October 11).
Since the Russian government started conducting air strikes in Syria on September 30, many Russians have wondered about Syria turning into the “second Afghanistan.” The Soviet government invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but was forced to leave the country after a brutal ten-year military campaign. The war in Afghanistan not only destroyed the myth of the omnipotent Soviet army, but also contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Syria, Moscow’s plan appears to be to use Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese forces on the ground to turn the tide in the Syrian war. On October 15, the ground forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched an offensive on the key city of Aleppo. However, despite claims of success from Syrian officials, the actual results have been fairly modest (Gazeta.ru, October 16).
Few people take Putin’s reassurances about not sending ground troops to Syria seriously. Putin famously promised numerous times not to snatch Crimea from Ukraine but did exactly that in early 2014. He also promised not to interfere in eastern Ukraine, but he went on to do that as well. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes program, in September, Putin said “Russia will not participate in any military operations on the territory of Syria or in other countries; in any case, we do not plan to do it as of now.” At the same time, Putin defended Russia’s right to “help” Bashar al-Assad’s government (BBC–Russian service, September 28). Two days later, Russia began conducting airstrikes in Syria. Given that there is little correlation between what Putin says and does, it is not surprising that his opponents regard his words as empty, while his supporters regard them as a legitimate tactical ploy to overpower his adversaries.
Some evidence suggests Putin’s promise not to send troops to Syria may be one such ploy. Russian social media sites have become rife with pages on which volunteers can sign up to fight in the Syrian war: the VKontakte social media platform alone has over 1,000 pages requesting volunteers for Syria (Lenta.ru, October 14).
A military recruiter for the mercenaries’ website Dobrovolec.org, calling himself Vadim, told Lenta.ru that they receive 30 to 50 applications a day, but only about one out of these turns out to be “real.” The primary criterion for selecting volunteers to fight in Syria is previous combat experience. People who have fought either in Chechnya or eastern Ukraine on the Russian side have a good chance to be selected and are briefly trained at a camp at an undisclosed location in southern Russia. According to Vadim, hundreds of Russians are already fighting in Syria, and his organization alone has trained and supplied dozens of volunteers. Vadim asserted that the Russians in Syria only deal with “high tech” arms and take part in “selective special operations” (“tochechnye spetsoperatsii”), not the daily fighting. Vadim said his organization has temporarily stopped signing up volunteers because all the available positions have been filled (Lenta.ru, October 14).
The organization’s website, indeed, says that the recruitment for Syria has been suspended, but still has a large and detailed section on recruitment for fighting in eastern Ukraine. The candidate should be at least 23 years old, preferably have previous combat experience, be free of alcohol and drug addiction, healthy, and prepared to spend at least one month in eastern Ukraine. The website claims that since mercenaries are outlawed, only volunteers prepared to fight for “ideological” reasons can apply (Dobrovolec.org, accessed October 19). Would-be Russian volunteers to Syria, however, regard the war in the Middle East as a way to improve their material situation. Many of the volunteers also appear to come from the ranks of Russians who fought in eastern Ukraine, where a truce has been declared and has held for the past weeks (Onkavkaz.com, October 15).
According to the Fontanka.ru website, the recruitment process takes place in the village of Molkino in Krasnodar region. The recruiters promise to pay about $1,300 a month during the training period, up to $2,000 while in Syria and up to $4,000 during “intensive fighting” there. Some sources allege that Russians contracted by private Russian firms already took part in the fighting in Syria back in 2013, but were withdrawn due to heavy losses (Fontanka.ru, October 16). Molkino is a small remote village on the administrative border between Krasnodar region and Adygea that hosts the special forces of Russia’s military intelligence body, the GRU (Voinskayachast.ru, accessed October 19). If the recruits are indeed trained in Molkino, the Russian government is likely behind the recruitment process.
Even if the Russian government has decided to rely on volunteers in the Syrian conflict, it is unlikely to win the war just with volunteers. In the war in eastern Ukraine, volunteers were primarily used for propaganda and to cover up the participation of regular Russian military forces in the war against Kyiv. Volunteers may end up playing the same role in Syria.