Vladimir Putin has approved for up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East to be deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels fighting in Ukraine, doubling down on an invasion that the west says has been losing momentum.
The move, just over two weeks after Putin ordered the invasion, allows Russia to deploy battle-hardened mercenaries from conflicts such as Syria without risking additional Russian military casualties.
At a meeting of Russia’s security council, the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East who were ready to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the breakaway Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, reports The Guardian UK.
Putin said: “If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbas, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone.”
Shoigu also proposed that western-made Javelin and Stinger missiles that were captured by the Russian army in Ukraine should be handed over to Donbas forces, along with other weaponry such as portable air-defence systems and anti-tank rocket complexes.
“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 Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics,” Putin said.
“Please do this,” he told Shoigu. The exchange was shown on Russian state television.
Putin has said the “special military operation” in Ukraine is essential to ensure Russia’s security. Ukraine says it is fighting for its existence, while the US, and its European and Asian allies have condemned the invasion. China has called for calm.
Shoigu said the operation was going to plan, and requested Putin’s approval for the use of fighters from the Middle East.
US intelligence officials told lawmakers on Thursday that Russia had been surprised by the strength of Ukrainian resistance, which had deprived the Kremlin of a quick victory it thought would have prevented the US and Nato from providing meaningful military aid.
This was causing concern in Beijing, said the CIA director, William Burns. “I do believe that the Chinese leadership, President Xi [Jinping] in particular, is unsettled,” he said. “By what he’s seen, partly because his own intelligence doesn’t appear to have told him what was going to happen.“
Shoigu said western arms were flowing into Ukraine in an “absolutely uncontrolled” way and that the Russian military planned to strengthen its western border after what he said was a buildup of western military units there.
“The general staff is working on, and has almost finished, a plan to strengthen our western borders, including, naturally, with new modern complexes,” Shoigu said.
Putin said the question of how to react to moves by Nato countries needed a separate discussion.
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