Families say Indian men were duped into fighting for Russia. They want Modi to push for their return

When India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the leaders will discuss the tens of billions of dollars in trade between the two countries. But India's leader is also expected to appeal to Putin to release dozens of Indian citizens who officials believe were duped into fighting in Ukraine.

India, which is a major buyer of Russia's energy and weaponry, says Russia's military is forcing some of its citizens who travelled to Moscow on the promise of higher-paying jobs to fight against their will.

At least four of them have been killed.

"There are a lot of Indians who are joining the Russian army without knowing it," said Mohammed Imran, whose 30-year-old brother, Mohammed Asfan, went to Moscow thinking he would be working in security, but ended up being killed in Ukraine in January.

"I ask Prime Minister Modi … to get back our guys."

Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Western officials estimate that hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or injured.

But as the battlefield losses mount, intelligence agencies in the United States and United Kingdom estimate that Moscow has been able to recruit around 30,000 soldiers, in part by enticing men to sign military contracts.

In recent months, the governments of India,Nepal and Sri Lanka have raised the alarm about their citizens being sent to fight in Ukraine, often after being promised other jobs which would lead the way to permanent residency, a Russian passport and other future opportunities for their families.

The family of Mohammed Asfan, 30, say he was giving two weeks of training before being sent to the frontline in Ukraine.
Afsan's family say he was giving two weeks of training before being sent to the front line in Ukraine. (Submitted by Mohammed Imran)

From Hyderabad to Moscow

In Asfan's case, the father of two was working as a clothing store manager in Hyderabad in India, but was looking for opportunities that would help him emigrate, along with his baby, toddler and wife.

After seeing an ad on YouTube by a recruiter who appeared be Indian but had connections in Dubai and Russia, Asfan paid the equivalent of approximately $5,700 to secure what he thought would be a job based in Moscow, providing security to the Russian military.

His brother told CBC News that Asfan was assured he would not be sent into Ukraine, but on arrival, he was forced to sign documents in Russian.

He said three days later, his brother and other Indian nationals were taken to a military training centre 500 kilometres away.

"How can people who have never seen a gun … get 15 days training," Imran said from his home in Hyderabad, a city in India's south central region.

Asfan arrived in Moscow Nov. 12. The last time his brother heard from him was on Dec. 31.

"We sent letters and everywhere we tried our best to find him. But unfortunately, we got his dead body."

At the end of January, Imran got a call from another foreign soldier telling him that Asfan had been injured and they couldn't move him.

Imran started a frantic plea calling various levels of India's government and the country's embassy in Moscow.

They confirmed his death on March 6. Ten days later, his body arrived back in India where his family gave him a Muslim burial.

"We know this tragedy happened and we lost our brother because he was misguided by agents, " Imran said.

The body of Mohammed Asfan was returned to India on March 16, about four months after he travelled to Moscow for what he thought was a security job.
Asfan's body was returned to India on March 16, about four months after he travelled to Moscow for what he thought was a security job. (Submitted by Mohammed Imran)

Asfan is among at least four Indian citizens killed while serving with Russia's military in Ukraine, including two whose deaths were confirmed by India's foreign ministry in May.

The recruiter Afsan connected with is Faisal Khan, who went by the online name "Baba Vlogs". When CBC News contacted him on Monday, it appeared his cell phone was shut off.

However, when BBC News reached him in the spring, he said that he told the men they would be getting jobs as a "helper" in the Russian military. He says he was told the men would get training but would not be sent to fight.

Human trafficking investigations

Earlier this year, videos circulated on social media of Indian men dressed in military fatigues claiming that they had been tricked into fighting in Russia.

In May, India's police arrested four people linked to what officials described as a human trafficking network that was operating across several Indian states.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation said that 35 men had been lured into Russia with the promise of jobs or spots in universities, but had been forced to sign a military contract after arriving.

Recruiters have also targeted men from other South Asian countries.

Earlier this year, Nepali officials said that at least 10 of its citizens were killed while serving in the Russian army, and that as many as 100 others were considered missing.

Nepal detained a group of men that it accused of illegally recruiting men for Russia's army, and it stopped issuing the permits that allow its citizens to work in Russia until further notice.

And in May, Sri Lanka sent a delegation to Russia to look into the cases of hundreds of its citizens who were reportedly fighting in Ukraine.

India has been pressing for its citizens to be returned for months. Modi's visit — his first to the country since 2019 — will put further pressure on Moscow.

"It is obviously a thorn in the bilateral relationship to have this point of contention over these Indian nationals who have died on the battlefield," said Chietigj Bajpaee, a senior research fellow for South Asia in the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, December 6, 2021.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Dec. 6, 2021. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

India's neutral position

Bajpaee says that India has neither condemned nor condoned Russia's invasion of war, and that the Indian government has maintained a "largely neutral position."

Modi met with Ukraine's President Volodyrmyr Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the G7 summit last month in Italy. While India participated in a peace summit held in Switzerland, the country didn't endorse the joint communique issued afterward.

Bajpaee describes India's position as nuanced or pragmatic.

"India doesn't yet see Russia as a lost cause in the same way that the West does, " he said, speaking to CBC News from London.

After Western countries sanctioned Russia and imposed a price cap on its oil exports, India became an even larger customer, buying more tanker shipments of Russian oil.

India remains the larger importer of Russian weaponry, even though in recent years it has stepped up its own domestic production and signed contracts with Western nations.

Back in Hyderabad, Imran said he doesn't blame Russia for his brother's death, but rather a recruiter who has not yet been arrested by authorities.

He says the family has been promised compensation by Russia, which would include annual payments to Asfan's two children, but Imran says he would need to travel to Moscow to fill out the paperwork.

At the moment, he is trying to raise awareness about his brother's case and has a request for Modi.

"It's time to show our power, and show our dignity, " he said

"We have to save our children … our national citizens who are stuck in Russia."