Has Russia re-deployed troops from other Operating Areas, received support from Private Military Companies operating abroad, or accepted foreign fighters from abroad?

There have been a number of Open Source (OS) reporting streams that suggest Russia has received fighters from abroad, and these roughly correspond to three categories of individuals: Russian Forces deployed abroad; Private Military Company (PMC) personnel; and foreign fighters. Prevail has sought technical[1] corroboration of these reporting streams.

Balkans insight has provided significant reporting regarding the presence of foreign fighters for both sides. Source: Balkan Insight

The corroboration sought by Prevail has found limited evidence that Russia has employed troops from other Operating Areas in Ukraine. There is evidence of movement which could be re-deployment but the level of detail is such that it is impossible to positively identify it. The graphic explains where movement to Ukraine from overseas is identified, and the level of detail associated with this.

Some travel from overseas to Ukraine has been identified by Prevail and corroborated the wider OS reporting.

In the Middle East Prevail has identified several incidents of travel between originating States and Ukraine. However, for the most part, the dates of travel are not consistent with the expected re-deployment. There is also no indication of association to military sites, links to currently deployed Russian formations or the use of previously identified travel routes. This low level of corroboration does not equate to false reporting, it simply does not confirm it or add further detail. In Mali and Libya, the level of detail within the data is better. Compared to Libya, Mali has a lower rate of data returns. Russia has significantly increased its investment in Mali, with PMCs taking an increased number of training and operating roles in the country since December 2021. The travel identified by Prevail originates in areas held by the UN peacekeeping force and not where Russian PMC’s reportedly operate. It is difficult to make high confidence assessments from this data but one potential explanation is that rather than Russian PMC operatives, this travel is associated with other security contractors re-deploying to assist the Ukrainian people. Libya by contrast has been the start point for a number of travel events ending in Ukraine. Some have passed through Moscow or other large Russian cities. The endpoints included, in the former North and North-eastern axes: Voronizh, Sumy, Kharkiv and Poltava; on the Eastern axis: Pavlohrad, Dnipro and Zaporiznzhia; and on the Southern axis Mariupol is identified as a potential area of redeployment. This detail would be considered consistent with a re-deployment but it is not yet possible to refine this to one of the associated groups of troops.

Many news outlets are tying atrocities to Private Military Companies such as Wagner Group, action has been taken against Wagner Group, the EU have specifically targeted Wagner chief and financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin with sanctions. Sources: The Independent and Official Journal of the European Union

Social media posts have detailed suspicions of Foreign Fighters supporting Russian elements in Ukraine. Source: @DefenceU and BBC

To conclude there is a significant body of reporting regarding the use of foreign fighters in Ukraine. It should be noted that a large portion of this also refers to foreign support to Ukraine rather than Russia – this Policy Brief by the Counter Extremism Project provides insight on the Ukrainian support: Update 1_CEP Policy Brief_Foreign Fighters in the 2022 Russia-Ukraine War_April 2022.pdf (counterextremism.com). The reporting received regarding Russia often remains unconfirmed with limited proof of such activity other than that of Wagner Group. Technical searches conducted by Prevail can also only partially support this activity. However, it is currently assessed as highly likely the Russian PMCs have redistributed foreign assets and likely that some foreign fighters have joined the Russian assault but only in small numbers.

This graphic identifies the number of social media posts regarding foreign fighters in Ukraine concerned in risk indicator activity such as attacks (Red) compared to posts regarding foreign fighters without the associated risk (Grey). It is important to note that this reflects both Ukraine and Russia supporting fighters.

[1] Prevail has access to a number of databases, which will remain confidential, that can highlight the movement of anonymous individuals and equipment both nationally and internationally.