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Published in Press Stream:
October 5, 2015

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Published in Stream:
October 5, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Admiral, Head of State Duma's Defense Committee Says Russian Volunteers Likely to Fight in Syria
6 years
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Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the State Duma Committee, said it is possible Russian volunteers who fought in the Donbass may be fighting with Syrian government forces, reported, citing Interfax.
"As the well-known [Soviet-era] song has it, 'you can't stop those Komsomol [Young Communist League] volunteers.' And most likely there will appear among the ranks of the Syrian Army a formation made up of Russian volunteers, participants in combat."

Komoyedov was responding to queries about sightings of volunteer Russian fighters who had earlier fought in the Donbass. A well-known commander who fought at the Donetsk Airport whose call sign is "Motorola" (Arseny Pavlov) was said to be in Syria, although separatist press denies this and have cited reports that he was seen in Donetsk. Even so, Kommersant has reported that others seasoned in combat in the Donbass are now in Syria.

According to Komoyedov, Russian volunteers will be drawn to Syria because of the high pay, which is said to be $50 (US) per day.

He also said Russia's Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea could be used to blockade parts of the Syrian coastline or shell Islamist groups, Moscow Times reported, although there was  "currently no need to use naval firepower because the extremists were too far inland."

The Kremlin has said that it does not plan to launch ground troops in Syria, and that assistance to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will be limited to air strikes on the positions of ISIS and similar terrorist groups. The Russian General Staff has said formally that draftees will not be sent to Syria, and the Kremlin says, for now, they do not anticipate using either volunteers or contract soldiers.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced last week he is ready to send his troops to Syria, and says not only Russia's air power but ground forces are needed. He said thousands of Chechen volunteers are ready to take place in a ground operation against ISIS.

Last year, Kadyrov at first denied that there were Chechens fighting in the Donbass, but then later conceded there were volunteers there, and then announced recently that all Chechens fighting in Ukraine were being withdrawn.

Late in September, the Russian business daily Kommersant   interviewed Bondo Dorovskikh, a Russian fighter who took part in battles in Donetsk and Lugansk (see our previous report on Dorovskikh's experience in Donbass, "Life Among the Thugs.")

Dorovskikh said he had already sent 12 Russian volunteers to Syria who had acquired combat experience in the Chechen wars and other "local conflicts." Another small group of fighters was waiting to be sent as well.

Dorovskikh, born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, ran a small oil company in Ivanovo until 2011, then moved to Moscow to run a construction business. He decided to join the "militia" in 2014 but found it frustrating (translation by The Interpreter):

"Rather quickly I found out quite frankly there was nothing to fight for. First we retreated, then we advanced again, then we began to observe the Minsk agreements, then everything went quiet."

He said the local population accused the Russian-backed separatists of unleashing the conflict, so he wound up going home last March.

Although the admission of Dorovskikh could mean other mercenaries are involved, Kommersant said there was not "mass participation" of volunteers and that mainly so far "it's at the level of rumors."

Dorovskikh himself said he believed not as many Russians would want to volunteer in Syria:

"It's too costly, the logistics are difficult, it's not very clear who you should get in touch with in order to join the military formations. It would be ideal to fight on the side of Assad, but the Syrian military bureaucrats have ignored are inquiries."

Georgy Mirsky, chief researcher at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute for World Economy and International Relations confirms this perception: Russians are not going to go in large masses to Syria as they did to Ukraine, he said:

"People went to fight in Ukraine with an idea, that the fascists are killing Russian people there, that this is Russian land, but why would they die for the Middle East? To help some Arabs kill other Arabs?"

He believes there will be no more than a few dozen Russian volunteers.

Kommersant said according to its sources in the Russian General Staff, there are only military specialists training Syrian government forces in how to use armor, and also GRU [military intelligence] and SVR [foreign intelligence] officers attached to the Russian Embassy, including soldiers whose job it is to guard Russian personnel. There are also construction workers who are modernizing the Russian base in Tartus. 

The sources claim there are no Russian soldiers in combat, however the fact that the State Duma's defense committee chair is acknowledging the presence of volunteers and that the pay is high by Russian standards means more are likely to appear.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick