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Young Nepalis Tricked into Fighting Putin’s War

Young Nepalis Tricked into Fighting Putin’s War

Nick Hinton is Chairman of the Britain-Nepal NGO Network (BRANNGO) and a former British Gurkha officer

The Russian ‘Special Military Operation’ against Ukraine is shocking in so many ways, but perhaps one of the most egregious is the way in which young men from Nepal have been tempted or tricked into serving with Russian forces. It is difficult to find accurate numbers, but casualty figures give an indication. One report in the Guardian newspaper said that twelve Nepalis have been killed, but added that there could be as many as nineteen. A later report in the Kathmandu Post gave a figure of twenty-one dead and over one hundred injured. These numbers suggest that hundreds of young Nepalis have been enlisted.  

Press reports say many Nepalis in Russian uniform volunteered to be ‘military helpers’ or security guards, but found themselves in the front line. Others had no intention of doing such jobs and were simply press-ganged. Several reported that they boarded planes to the Middle East but were then tricked into flying to Russia and forced to sign up. Others went to Russia as tourists but were shanghaied into military jobs. All were coerced into signing contracts, in Russian, committing them to a year in the Russian armed forces with no possibility of escape except by desertion, making them liable to severe punishment if caught. Whether forced labour or misled volunteers, those enlisted also find themselves in debt to the middle-men who make the arrangements, typically to the tune of US$9,000 – 10,000, adding another layer of stress to an already potentially lethal obligation.

Some moves have been made to end this traffic. On 5 January 2024, the Government of Nepal banned its citizens from travelling to Russia or Ukraine for employment, which they can enforce by refusing to issue work permits. On 19 March 2024, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Narayan Kaji Shrestha announced that following a discussion with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, they had agreed ‘in principle’ that contracts for Nepali citizens serving in the Russian Army would be terminated, compensation would be paid to the families of those killed and their bodies repatriated. However, no date has been set for implementing these arrangements. In any case, they are unlikely to be that effective. A press report in January said that Rupak Karki, one of two Nepalis buried at a military gravesite in the Ivanovo region of Russia, had travelled to Russia on a student visa. A soldier captured by the Ukrainians, Bibek Khatri, said in a video that he had enlisted in the Russian Army because his family needed money and he had wanted to return home ‘a successful man’. There are many such stories, showing ingenuity in evading officialdom and a determination, often desperation, to obtain financial reward. Moreover, the Russians have little incentive to fulfil their side of the deal.  

The issue of Nepalis in the Russian Army is a subset of wider concerns to do with migrant workers. The United Nations International Labor Organisation has protocols in place to protect migrant workers’ rights but ensuring compliance is problematic, particularly if the government in question is uncooperative. The appalling treatment of Nepalese and other workers in the Middle East has been well-documented in the press. A 2019 Nepalese Government estimate suggested that at least 7,467 migrant workers had died abroad in the previous ten years but this figure excluded workers who migrated through unauthorised channels and those working as casual labourers in India, so it is almost certainly an underestimate. 

Resolving both the wider and the specific issues means looking at demand and supply. Demands for labour from the global market economy are not going to diminish. In the case of the Russian Army demand is particularly intractable.  Russian war-fighting doctrine relies on a system of echelons that creates a much greater requirement for expendable manpower than in western armies. Russia has conscription but this does not provide enough young men, partly because it is unpopular and so for political reasons they try to minimise the quotas. To fill the gaps the Russians offer good pay and Russian citizenship to Indians, Nepalis, Cubans, Serbians and men from African countries, all known to be serving in the fight against Ukraine. Using foreigners also has the political advantage for President Putin of reducing Russian casualties.  

On the supply side, the lack of opportunities for Nepalis in their own country is a deep-seated and complex problem. There is a historical aspect. Prior to the unification of Nepal in the mid-18th century the country consisted of many small states. There are few socio-economic studies of the period, but it is clear from accounts of the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16 that flexible allegiances and porous, ill-defined borders meant that many Nepalis were promiscuous in seeking work.  Even one of the most famous national heroes of that era, Balbhadra Kunwar, after making his name defending his country, obtained employment with the Sikh Army, together with many of his countrymen.  

The British have of course recruited Nepalese Gurkha soldiers for more than 200 years, but it is important to recognise the difference between this and what is happening in Russia. British (and Indian Army) Gurkhas are employed on the basis of government-to-government agreements. They recruit from specific clans known for their martial prowess. They are very well trained. Above all, the relationship is a very long-standing one where mutual respect, loyalty and partnership are deeply established. None of this is true of Nepalis recruited into the Russian Army. 

The underlying motivation for Nepalis seeking employment in other countries has always been economic. The past reliance of the Nepalese economy on the hard grind of unrewarding subsistence agriculture created one set of imperatives. Today diversification into areas such as tourism, information technology and services has created different types of work in the country, but lack of a well-established commercial and industrial base and the resulting small scale of enterprises make for unstable patterns of employment. The consequent informal nature of most jobs on offer entails risk, is largely devoid of labour safeguards and also underuses the skillsets of increasingly well-educated Nepalis. Better education and improved communications have also raised expectations not only about pay but also the extent to which employment should provide some level of self-fulfilment. Gender inequalities in the labour market caused by cultural norms are another factor. The general weakness of the Nepalese economy means that poverty is endemic, adding a ‘push’ factor on young people to help their families to the ‘pull’ of more lucrative and fulfilling employment. Rural depopulation means an over-supply of candidates for jobs that are available in towns and cities. 

Resolving these issues is easy to identify in theory but very difficult to implement in practice: more extensive diversification of the economy; investment in infrastructure, particularly transport and communications; improvements in vocational and technical education; creating a supportive environment for business through better access to finance, business development services, and simplified regulations; promoting foreign direct investment; improving governance and reducing corruption; strengthening rural development; and enhancing trade and regional integration. Designing and implementing such a multi-dimensional plan is a political problem, but the current febrile nature of Nepalese politics means it is not up to the task. Stable and consistent government is nonetheless the fundamental pre-requisite for putting the economy on the right track, which in turn will create attractive opportunities for Nepalis to work in their own country rather than seek employment overseas.

There is of course a circular argument implicit in dealing with the supply side of the migrant worker equation: unless you create opportunities in the Nepalese economy people will leave; but you can’t create those opportunities unless people stay. How to break out of that loop is part of the problem facing the country’s leadership. It is encouraging that the Nepalese Government has approached the Russians asking for the release of their citizens from the Russian Army, compensation for the families of those who have died and repatriation of their bodies, but it remains to be seen whether this will lead to any meaningful action. Dealing with the wider issues that lead Nepalis to take such risks is far more complex and problematic, but until they are addressed young men and women will continue to die in foreign lands, trying to do the best for themselves and their families.  

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

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