Nepalis enlist with Russian forces on promises of money, citizenship

Russia's military, in desperate need of personnel for its war in Ukraine, has been recruiting foreign mercenaries with promises of generous wages and a Russian passport. Many of these soldiers-for-hire make the long journey from Nepal, despite their government's efforts to stop them going.

Rima Karki recalls the day she received a photograph in a message from her husband, Pitam, who had recently left their village in Nepal to seek work in Russia. Pitam, 39, appeared to be wearing military fatigues. He was posing with two other South Asian men in similar outfits, and two men who appeared to be Russian soldiers.

Pitam sent his wife a video of himself doing target practice.

To support his 31-year-old wife and two young children, Pitam had enlisted in the Russian army. He would earn a monthly wage of more than $2,000 — a huge sum of money in Nepal. If he went to areas with heavy fighting, he could earn more. Best of all, if he served for a year, he would be eligible for citizenship — and a new and more prosperous life — in Russia.

Since retiring from the Nepali army in 2018, Pitam had struggled to hold down a job. The lucrative offer to join Russian forces and fight in Ukraine was too good to refuse.

Pitam's story has become an increasingly common one over the past two years. While Nepal voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, hundreds of its people have left their economically depressed homeland behind and made their way to Russia with the promise of good money and a new passport. The Nepali government acknowledges at least 200 of its citizens have enlisted in the Russian army since it launched its invasion of Ukraine, and that 12 have died in fighting. Rights campaigners say the numbers are likely much higher.

Rima recalls how she begged Pitam to stay away from the front lines, but that he assured her there was nothing to worry about. He was "in a safe place," he wrote, and could now "send more money home to support the family."

Rima Karki

Just a month after Pitam signed his contract to serve, he was dead. The Nepali government contacted Rima to give her the news. A death certificate, likely prepared by Russian authorities, stated simply: "Died on November 15, 2023." There was no further information.

Another Nepali mercenary who had been with Pitam at the time told Rima that he was caught in a grenade blast on the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Rima says the Russian military has not paid any compensation for Pitam's period of service, or returned his body.

Rima's late husband Pitam

The death of her husband has plunged her into extreme financial hardship, she says. "We were told it would cost 3.5 million Nepali rupees (about $26,000) to repatriate his body, but we didn't have that money," she says. "My husband went to Russia to support us, but I didn't think I would never see him again."

A US intelligence report declassified in December estimated that about 315,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded in Ukraine, equivalent to almost 90 percent of the personnel it had when the conflict began.

The staggering losses would explain the push by Moscow to find sources of manpower abroad, observers say. President Vladimir Putin issued a decree in January offering to fast-track Russian citizenship for foreigners who sign a one-year contract with the Russian army. Their families are also eligible for new passports.

In Nepal, Russia's recruitment drive has given rise to trafficking groups that use elaborate scams to defy a government edict banning citizens from enlisting in foreign armies.

In one recent case, police arrested 18 people on fraud and human trafficking charges for using a study abroad agency as a cover to send people to Russia.

Traffickers arrested by police (December 2023)

The suspects were charging people more than $7,000 for a visa to enter Russia, and would arrange for them to travel via a third country. Agents in Russia would then transport the recruits to military training camps.

Police say the case is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Most of the Nepalis who flew to Russia were from low-income families," says a senior superintendent. "The agents planned to lure them with handsome rewards and send them to the Russian army. We know they are still active in recruiting more Nepali citizens, and we will continue to take strong action against them."

Other Nepalis are leaving jobs in the Middle East, where they work in support of their families, to head to Russia.

In one case, a recruiter told 32-year-old Gangaraj Moktan he could make double what he was earning at his hotel job in Dubai. Moktan was sold. He joined the Russian army in September. Two months later he was dead — killed on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine.

Gangaraj Moktan
Gangaraj's death certificate

Birat Anupam, a Nepali journalist who has reported widely on the issue, says the widespread poverty in his country means it is all but impossible to stem the flow.

Nepali journalist Birat Anupam says high unemployment is behind the matter.

"A man who enlisted in the Russian army five months ago said that there were more than 500 Nepali soldiers in the Russian forces," Anupam says. "No one would go to Russia if they had good employment opportunities in Nepal, but they had no hope of a decent job in their home country. One of the men I spoke with said he'd rather die on the battlefield than die from hunger. If the Nepali government wants to stop Nepalis from joining the Russian forces, they would have to stop migrant workers, which is almost impossible."

The government continues to try.

Nepal's former Foreign Minister Narayan Prakash Saud stresses that Nepal has no intention of taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We have expressed our concerns to the Russian government, and appealed for the return of our citizens killed in war and Nepali soldiers currently serving in the Russian army," Nepal's then-Foreign Minister, Narayan Prakash Saud, said in December. "We are also requesting that Ukraine release Nepali prisoners of war. Nepal is a peaceful country, and we have no intention of taking part in this war."

Nepal is one of many countries where Russia has found a steady supply of personnel. An assessment of media reports and government statements suggests that more than 3,000 people from at least 25 countries and regions have signed up to fight for Russia.

More than 2,000 have come from Syria. The majority of the rest are from Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba, and the Central African Republic. A joint investigation by the BBC and an independent Russian media outlet has suggested that because many of the recruits come from emerging and developing countries, the actual number of casualties is "much higher" than the official reports.

As the death toll from the conflict continues to mount, the flow of recruits is unlikely to slow, and while Russia's invasion is being felt most forcefully in the cities and towns of Ukraine, it is also taking a toll on families in impoverished communities far across the world.