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Wagnerites Turn International Students into Cannon Fodder

The Russian government and state-affiliated private mercenary companies are forcing international students to fight in Ukraine.

The Jordan Center stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

Ararat Osipian is a founding fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium at the New School in New York and a fellow of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Above: A screenshot from a video in which Margulan Bekenov, a student from Kazakhstan who disappeared while studying in Russia, states that he was not kidnapped and joined the Wagner Group PMC of his own free will.

The paramilitary group known as the Wagner Private Military Company, led by businessman and onetime Putin crony Evgeny Prigozhin, has played a significant role in Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. It has been instrumental in the attempted storming of key strongholds in Donbas, including Popasna, Svitlodarsk, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk. According to some estimates, approximately 50,000 Wagnerites were deployed to Ukraine by January 2023. Of this number, 40,000 were criminals convicted for murder, rape, armed robbery, and other serious crimes who were promised $3,500 per month and freedom after six months in eastern Ukraine.

As Wagnerites risk encirclement in Bakhmut, and as extremely high casualties continue to deplete their ranks, Prigozhin’s carrots are giving way to sticks. In February 2023, the Wagner leader stated that he would no longer recruit from the Russian prison inmate population. Since then, the mercenary group has focused on other possible recruits, including international students drafted against their will. In late April, Margulan Bekenov, a 23-year-old student from Kazakhstan studying at Tomsk State University in Russia, was abducted and sent to fight in Donbas. A few days before his deployment, his mother managed to meet him at a secretive mercenary base near Krasnodar by bribing an insider. Bekenov never signed a contract with the mercenaries, nor was he ever interested in military service, for which he had been previously deemed unfit in Kazakhstan. Russian media outlets responded to allegations of Bekenov’s abduction with “evidence” that he had volunteered to be a mercenary. A video of the student denying having been abducted was widely shared on social media, but its authenticity is highly suspect.

Bekenov’s case illustrates a disturbing new trend within Russian military recruitment: the systematic targeting of international students. In addition to students from Central Asia, Russia has compelled students from Africa to serve in Ukraine, forcing them into complicity with its illegal war. State and university officials are actively pressing African students into military service, promising payouts of $3,000 to $5,000 per month and a quick path to Russian citizenship. Where enticements don’t work, they turn to threats of tuition increases and deportation. Sometimes criminal charges precede this form of “recruitment,” as was the case with a 23-year-old Zambian student, Lemekhani Nyirenda. Nyirenda, sent by his government to study at the National Research Nuclear University in Moscow, was imprisoned in 2020 for a drug offense. In 2022, having served two years of a nine-year sentence, he ended up on the frontlines in Ukraine, where he was killed in September—though Russian authorities only informed his family three months later. Nyirenda’s parents had long insisted that their son had been wrongfully convicted: he was working as a courier when Russian police stopped him and found drugs in a package he was delivering. Of course, his incarceration on drug charges cannot explain his death on the battlefield in Ukraine.

The available evidence strongly suggests that the Russian government and state-affiliated private mercenary companies are forcing international students to fight in Ukraine. How should the international community respond? As demonstrated by the case of Bekenov, the abducted Kazakh national, the home countries of these “new recruits” are not doing enough to protect them. Bekenov’s family reached out to state officials in Russia and Kazakhstan, demanding his immediate release, but remain dissatisfied with the state authorities’ weak response to their case. As of this writing, Bekenov remains in Wagner’s custody, and his mother has ceased communicating with the press out of fear of reprisals.

In 2022, Russia declared a partial mobilization of 300,000 men meant to compensate for heavy losses in Ukraine. In response, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan explicitly banned their citizens from taking part in this war. If and when they return, mercenaries from these countries will face criminal responsibility and heavy sentences of up to 10 years in prison or labor camps. The outrage surrounding mercenaries being used in the Russian war on Ukraine, including abducted international students, is likely to increase.

Members of the Kyrgyz parliament have raised concerns over Russia’s recruitment of Kyrgyz citizens—including those serving prison sentences in Russia—for the war in Ukraine. During a February parliamentary session, MP Meikinbek Abdaliyev stated that Kyrgyzstan has nothing to do with Russia’s war and called on his colleagues to instruct the appropriate state agencies to investigate unlawful military recruitment. “Recently the body [of Ayan Alisherov] was returned from Luhansk,” Meikinbek noted. “How did our citizen, who was in a Russian prison, end up in a war between Ukraine and Russia? Where was his body shipped from? [...] Did he go there voluntarily or he was forced? This is unacceptable.”

In spite of statements like this one, political leaders from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan joined the Russian President for the annual May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow. In doing so, they sent the wrong message to potential recruits from their countries. In addition to its many other impacts, Russian military aggression in Ukraine threatens the free flow of students, scholars, and ideas across countries and continents. The global community must acknowledge that Russia is no longer safe for international students. Wagnerites and their ilk are turning them into cannon fodder on battlefields in Ukraine.

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