India says its citizens were ‘duped’ to serve in the Russian army. Now it wants them back

Politics

Ukrainian soldiers drive a tank during a military training at an undetermined location.

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India is seeking the release of its nationals who have been “duped” into serving in the Russian army, a spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said Friday, in a rare rift from Moscow.

“Several Indian nationals have been duped to work with the Russian army. We have strongly taken up the matter with the Russian government for early discharge of such internationals,” said spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal. “A case of human trafficking has been registered against several agents.”

He appealed to Indian nationals to “not be swayed by offers made by agents for support jobs with the Russian army. This is fraught with danger and risk to life,” stressing that New Delhi remains “committed to early release of our nationals serving as support staff with the Russian army and the eventual return home.”

Late on Thursday, the Central Bureau of Investigation of India said it had raided several “major human trafficking networks” that were “targeting gullible youths” with offers of lucrative jobs abroad. The CBI identified at least “35 instances” of Indian citizens being sent abroad as a result of these operations.

“These traffickers have been operating as an organized network and were luring Indian nationals through social media channels like Youtube etc and also through their local contacts/agents for highly paid jobs in Russia,” the CBI said in a statement.

Following their recruitment, Indian nationals were “trained in combat roles and deployed at front bases in Russia-Ukraine War Zone against their wishes, thus, putting their lives in grave dangers.”

“It has been ascertained that some of these victims also got grievously injured in the war zone,” the agency said.

It comes amid a domestic labour crisis that has incentivized Indian nationals to seek jobs abroad.

India’s unemployment rate climbed to 8% in February from 6.8% in January, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an independent think tank, as the country’s economic expansion sharply outpaces job creation.

War of attrition

Moscow and Kyiv have been locked in a more than two-year war of attrition on Ukrainian territory, with Russia introducing strict drafting laws and increasing its maximum age of conscription. Volunteer foreign fighters have joined both sides of the conflict.

Indian and international news outlets have carried reports of Indian citizens being stranded fighting for the Russian army. Reuters on Thursday said Mohammed Asfan from India’s Hyderabad city died while fighting in the Ukraine war, after travelling to Russia to work as an army “helper.”

“We have learnt about the tragic death of an Indian national Shri Mohammed Asfan. We are in touch with the family and Russian authorities. Mission will make efforts to send his mortal remains to India,” the Indian embassy to Russia said on March 6 on social media. It did not state whether Asfan had died while fighting for Russia or on Ukrainian territory.

CNBC has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.

A rare rift

The request for the release of India nationals fighting for Russia pits New Delhi at rare odds against Moscow.

Defying the U.S., India has adopted a staunchly neutral position following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abstaining from voting on successive resolutions put to the U.N. Security Council, U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Human Rights Council that denounced Moscow.

India has also offered a rare outlet for Russian seaborne crude volumes, bereft of EU and G7 buyers since sanctions prohibiting its purchase were enforced in late 2022.

The two countries also share close ties as partners in the BRICS economic coalition of emerging markets.

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