The Russian Trap: The Unfortunate Story of Nepalis Suffering in the Russia-Ukraine War

On November 28, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nepal received a message from its mission in Moscow stating that three Nepalis, who were illegally recruited by the Russian Army, were killed on the frontline of the Russia-Ukraine war. The message reads that they were killed on November 15 in the red zone of the war. From that period of time until March 24, at least 32 Nepalis lost their lives in that war.

The Russia-Ukraine war started on February 24, 2022, after Putin invaded Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy’s Ukraine. To fight against the Ukrainians, Russia started to recruit people from other countries into their army. Illegal recruitment of people from other countries includes Nepal, a country with low income, unemployment, and a rising poverty rate.

Before the Himalayan nations received the death message of its citizens in Kathmandu, the capital city, there were viral videos on social media showing Nepali youths training with Russian soldiers. General people and journalists also informed the government of Nepal about Nepali recruitment in the Russian Army. But the foreign ministry, including the Nepali mission in Moscow, ignored the message. Later, when Nepali people started to die in the war, they were too late to react.

According to the Nepal government source, more than 500 people are still missing. The government of Nepal has been continuously engaging with the Russians. Unfortunately, Russia has been ignoring Nepal’s concerns regarding its citizens.

The last high-level engagement between Nepal and Russia happened on March 7, where the foreign ministers of both countries held a telephone conversation on this agenda.

During the phone call, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Narayan Kaji Shrestha proposed a few agendas of Nepal with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

During the call, from the government of Nepal’s side, DPM Shrestha reiterated its displeasure with Russia for illegally recruiting Nepalis into the Russian army. He expressed Nepal’s objection to Lavrov, who was talking from Moscow.

The dialogue was the second high-level discussion between the Nepali and Russian officials regarding the illegal recruitment of Nepalis into the Russian army. Earlier, during the 19th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in the first week of January, the then Foreign Minister NP Saud expressed dissatisfaction on behalf of Nepal in the meeting with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Verhinin Sergey Vasilievich. DPM Shrestha mainly raised six topics in his conversation with Lavrov. Shrestha requested to send the bodies of Nepalis who joined the Russian army and died in the war with Ukraine to Nepal, to provide compensation to the families of the Nepalese who died in the war, to send back all those who were injured in the war and enlisted in the Russian army, not to recruit Nepalis in the Russian army, to inform the Nepalese government of the number of Nepalis who were recruited in the Russian army, and requested to inform those Nepalis who were captured by the Ukrainian army, which was fighting from Putin’s side.

Shrestha also informed the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov about Nepal’s traditional policy of not joining the army of other countries except for some countries. Nepal has a legal binding of soldier recruitment with two countries – India and the UK – from the tripartite 1947 treaty.

“I mentioned in the dialogue that Nepal and Russia are old friends and our relationship has been going on for a long time, and I also asked them to cancel the contract and send them back to Nepal,” Shrestha told the media.

In response, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned that Russia would compensate the families of Nepalese who died, but he did not give any answer to the remaining five demands requested by Nepal. “Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov did not respond to other issues. He only mentioned that the relevant officials of the two countries will work in contact,” said a foreign official who was present during the telephone conversation.

Earlier, Nepal had brought forward this issue in the meeting with then Foreign Minister Saud and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vasilievich in Uganda. Even then, Russia did not open its mouth on any issue other than compensating the families of the deceased. Instead, Russia only ‘noted’ Nepal’s request.

On December 4, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a diplomatic note was sent to Russia saying that ‘Nepali citizens should not be recruited into the Russian army and if they are, they should be returned to Nepal immediately.’ According to the ministry, there has been no response to the diplomatic note so far. Nepal has sent three diplomatic notes to Russia but they are yet to reply to those letters.

The then foreign minister Saud drew the attention of the Nepalese government to the Russian ambassador to Nepal in Kathmandu, Aleksei Novikov, in the third week of November and the first week of December.

Recently, on March 20, interestingly, Russian Ambassador Novikov, during the meeting with Finance Minister Barsaman Pun, stated that the Nepali are not willing to return to their country.

32 Nepalis who were illegally recruited into the Russian army have lost their lives. Five Nepalis were captured by the Ukrainian army as war prisoners. The government of Nepal is constantly asking for the rescue of Nepalis who have joined the Russian army. But the Russian ambassador’s statement was quite different from what Nepal wanted to hear.

Nepalis who have been recruited into the Russian army are trying to return home through social media videos or other contacts. Also, 260 people have applied for their family members in Nepal to bring their family members. Russian Ambassador Novikov said that all Nepalis are not willing to return to their country. Ambassador Novikov stated that the Nepalese government is not guilty of recruiting Nepalis into the army and mentioned that the Nepalis reached Russia via India and Dubai and joined the army there.

Finance Minister of Nepal, Barsaman Pun, and Russian Ambassador to Nepal, Aleksei Novikov, meet in Kathmandu. Photo by Pradeep Raj Onta/RSS

After the meeting between Finance Minister Pun and Ambassador Novikov, the statement issued by the Finance Minister’s Secretariat said, ‘Even if Russia wants to send Nepalis back, the ambassador claims that he has received news that not all Nepalis are willing to return to their country.’

Novikov informed Minister Pun that preparations are being made to release the Nepali hostages held by the Ukrainian army through the exchange of prisoners of war. “We are ready to free Nepalis from Ukraine, even if they are exchanged with the members of the Ukrainian army under the control of our army,” said Novikov.

On March 15, Ukraine urged Global South countries to do more to prevent their citizens from being recruited to fight for Russia in its war on Ukraine, presenting to the public what it said were eight prisoners of war from such countries.

Those people included five men from Nepal, and one each from Cuba, Somalia, and Sierra Leone, according to Petro Yatsenko, a representative at the Ukrainian government’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

So, Nepal has been struck by the Russia-Ukraine war as well as their activities too. There are rising concerns in Kathmandu that the government of Nepal should request its neighbors – India and China – to deal with Russia.

On the other hand, the regular ignorance of the Russian government makes victims of families whose families’ members are working in the Russian Army protest near the Russian Embassy in Kathmandu. Amid tight security, they protested and also handed over their demands to Russian officials at the embassy.

Kirtu Bhandari, who is leading a campaign on behalf of the families of the Nepali nationals serving in the Russian Army, stated that, according to their information, as many as 116 Nepalis are injured, 274 have gone missing, and over 620 have joined the Russian Army. She also stated that the actual number of Nepalis serving in the Russian Army could be higher.

The prominent foreign policy expert in Kathmandu, Chandra Dev Bhatta, said Nepal should take another tack to bring its citizens back safely from Russia. He said if the government of Nepal takes help from its neighbors who have been enjoying cordial relations with Moscow, it could help Nepal. “New Delhi and Beijing enjoy cordial relations with Putin’s Moscow. So, Nepal can use its neighbors to save the lives of its people who are stuck in the war zone of the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” he commented.

To control people of Nepal from moving to Moscow, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nepal issued a statement on December 20, stating that except for those involved in government work, Russian government scholarships, and professional business, ordinary citizens can travel to Russia only with a No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued by the Ministry’s Consular Services Department. By extending that arrangement, if traveling to Russia from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain, the general public has been told to travel with NOC issued by the embassies and consulates in the respective countries.

The government’s effort was thwarted by brokers who sent Nepali youth with false stories about jobs in Russia and the Russian government’s illegal recruitment of Nepali people into their army without Nepal’s consent. More information about the Nepali people stuck in the war is yet to come out.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was limited contact between Nepal and Russia. During the Cold War, people from Nepal regularly visited Russia for further study on government scholarships and other engagement programs, including political relationships with the Communist parties. But after three decades, Nepal and Russia once again came into the limelight with Russian illegal recruitment in their army.

It is true that Nepali people who don’t have any relations with this dangerous war lost their lives. This is an unfortunate incident for the Nepali state and people. It looks like Nepal fell into the Russian trap.