Ukraine war: Indians ‘duped’ by agents into fighting for Russia
Ukraine war: Indians ‘duped’ by agents into fighting for Russia

At least a dozen Indians have been duped by agents into fighting for Russian forces in the country’s war with Ukraine with reports saying one of them was killed in a missile strike.

Hemal Ashwinbhai from Gujarat state died in a missile attack last week, The Hindu newspaper reported over the weekend.

Hemal’s father had told the BBC on 23 February that he spoke to his son three days ago. He said that he was posted 20-22km (12-13 miles) inside Ukraine’s border and called him every few days when he got access to the mobile network.

The distraught families of the remaining men have now appealed to the federal government to get them back home.

The duped men, aged between 22 and 31 and hired as “helpers in the military establishment in Russia,” were allegedly sent to the battlefield under the pretext of “training,” according to their families.

Indian sources in Russia suggest dozens of Indians have joined the Russian army. However, a Russian defence ministry source informed The Hindu that the actual number recruited in the past year is approximately 100. The BBC has reached out to the Russian Embassy in Delhi, but there has been no response yet.

India’s foreign ministry has acknowledged “that some Indian nationals have enlisted for support roles with the Russian army”.

A man from Uttar Pradesh says he was recruited through a social media platform

“Each and every such case brought to the attention of the Indian Embassy in Moscow has been strongly taken up with the Russian authorities and those brought to the attention of the ministry have been taken up with the Russian Embassy in New Delhi. Several Indians have already been discharged as a result,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also urged “all Indian nationals to exercise due caution and stay away from this conflict”.

Videos of some of the men, explaining how they were tricked by agents and sent to the battlefield have shocked their families, all of whom are poor – their parents and siblings are either tuk-tuk drivers, tea sellers or handcart sellers.

Victims and families allege agents demanded 300,000 rupees ($3,619; £2,857), promising a Russian passport after a few months of army service. Agents reportedly recruit people from India, UAE, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, with fees reaching up to 1.2m rupees.

The BBC spoke to some of their relatives, who say the men were lured by the promise of higher salaries and didn’t know what they were getting into. The identities of the men still in Russia are not being revealed to protect them.

“My 28-year-old son worked in a packaging company in Dubai. He, along with three friends, saw an agent’s video offering jobs in Russia with a promised salary of 90,000 to 100,000 rupees, compared to their current earnings of 35,000 to 40,000 rupees. They paid the agent 300,000 rupees through loans. Please help bring my son back,” his father, who sells tea and eggs on a handcart in the state of Karnataka told BBC Hindi, breaking down on the phone.

One man said the recruiting agent promised him a security position

His story mirrors those of others from the states of Telangana, Gujarat, Kashmir, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, all allegedly deceived. Only one person has successfully escaped Moscow and returned home.

One man from Uttar Pradesh speaking from a safe location in Moscow in a video shot in end-January said that they were “were brought here by BabaVlog [a YouTube channel run by an Indian], and promised a salary of 150,000 rupees [a month]. We were not told that we are being drafted in an army.” The BBC reached out to the channel but didn’t receive a response.

Those allegedly deceived lack war combat experience with one man from Uttar Pradesh, dressed in army fatigues, stating in a video message that he was recruited through a social media platform.

“In Moscow, we signed a contract in Russian and unwittingly became soldiers sent to fight in the war. We’ve been deceived,” says the man, claiming that he and two other Indians have suffered combat injuries, gesturing with his seemingly injured right hand.

“Please get us out of this place. Otherwise, they will send us to the front. There is artillery [fire] and drones falling all over. We have zero experience in fighting a war. The agents have put us in this fix,” he adds.

Speaking over the phone from the Russia-Ukraine border, a man from Kashmir reported being stranded in Mariupol in Ukraine with an Indian companion and nine people from Nepal and Cuba. He said he had injured his foot during training.

“My commander kept saying that use your right hand to shoot, use your left hand to shoot, shoot above, shoot down,” he recalled.

The war in Ukraine has largely been at a stalemate in recent months

“I had never touched a gun. It was extremely cold, and with the gun in my left hand, I ended up shooting my foot.”

The brother of one of the men said he didn’t know whether the Indians were “in the Wagner private army or the Russian army. They’re some 40km [24 miles] from the Ukraine border. They’ve been promised Russian citizenship in three months”.

Only Shaikh Mohammed Tahir from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, managed to avoid training or deployment in the war zone. “I worked in a car battery workshop here,” said the 24-year-old. He returned to India last week.

The issue made headlines after Asaduddin Owaisi, a MP from Hyderabad city, raised it. On 23 January, he wrote to the foreign ministry, seeking government intervention to bring the men back home.

Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, alleged that some 100 Indians have been “recruited in the Russian army as helpers” in the past year.

“Shockingly, some of them been forced to fight alongside Russia’s forces on the Russia-Ukraine border. Some of the workers have also said that their passports and documents had been seized, leaving them stranded and rendering them incapable to return home,” he said.

When the war began in 2022, there were some reports of a few Indians volunteering to join the Ukrainian army. But the presence of Indians on the Russian side in combat roles has been reported for the first time.

The BBC also spoke to an Indian in Russia who served near the Ukraine border and is no longer in the army. He said that his experience was that the Russian army was transparent and shared its contracts online. But he added that people who didn’t know Russia were being deceived by agents.