An Ukrainian soldier of the 30th Mechanized Brigade uses a periscope to surveil the surroundings of their defensive position. (30th Mechanized Brigade)

Reports: Russia Steps Up Mercenary Recruiting For Donbass Deployments

Recruiters for Russian private military companies have reportedly stepped up their recruitment activities since late November 2021, looking for Russian mercenaries willing to bolster the ranks of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east as a buildup of Russian troops and weaponry on the Russian-Ukrainian border drags on.

“Egor” (not his real name), a former Russian soldier who has previously worked as a mercenary in Syria, told online newspaper Meduza that he had been first contacted in autumn 2021 by someone recruiting for a “new project”. When he met the recruiter in early December, the recruiter was evasive about where hires would be deployed, merely saying that they would be preparing for deployment at a training facility in Vesyoly, a rural town near Rostov-on-Don.

According to Egor, the mention of the Vesyoly base was a red flag for him, as it had been used in 2014 to mobilize Russian mercenaries who were subsequently deployed to Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, helping Russian-backed separatists to carve out the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and withstand Kyiv’s attempts to retake them alongside regular Russian troops. Another source that spoke to Meduza confirmed Egor’s description of the base, which has also been claimed to be the first training base used by the organization now commonly referred to as the Wagner Group.

Based on conversations with other mercenaries, Egor reckons that the ongoing recruitment campaign is the most active one since 2014. Other sources that spoke to Meduza said that recruiters in Moscow were seeking 120 Russian combat veterans prepared to spend three months in Donetsk, however, they described the offered salaries as being implausibly high, in addition to evasiveness on the nature and purpose of the deployment.

None of Meduza’s sources were certain of why the recruitment campaign was taking place, with almost all saying that there was a lack of interest among mercenaries in fighting a conventional military like the Ukrainian Armed Forces, saying that those who accepted likely had little experience. Similarly, none of them believed that Moscow was currently interested in waging an all-out war in Ukraine.

Four mercenaries have also spoken to Reuters, confirming Meduza’s reporting on the recruitment of mercenaries with prior military experience. One of Reuters’ sources claims to already be in eastern Ukraine after accepting the offer, saying that they were told that the deployment was for defensive purposes.

While the Russian defense ministry did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed to Reuters that it was the first time Moscow had heard of such recruitment efforts, going on to deny that there were ever Russian regular forces or military advisers in eastern Ukraine, and that there were no Russian plans to send any in. Spokespersons for the DPR and LPR similarly denied that they were recruiting. Ukrainian military intelligence declined comment to Reuters, while the State Security Service of Ukraine did not respond to a request to comment.