ABUJA, Nigeria—Russian officials at the Southern Federal University (SFedU) in the city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine, have been pressuring African students at the institution to join Vladimir Putin’s forces in fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, three students at SFedU told The Daily Beast.
In the last three months, according to the students, officials at SFedU have tried to persuade them into accepting an offer from either the Russian army or the notorious Wagner Group, claiming both are willing to pay up to $3,000 and $5,000 respectively to foreigners willing to go to war in Ukraine. The students said some school officials have warned them that the Russian government may deny them certain privileges, including increasing tuition and canceling scholarships for some international students should they fail to take the offer.
“There are three of them (officials at the school) who’ve been meeting us at our hostel and trying so hard to convince us to fight for Russia,” a student from Nigeria told The Daily Beast. “They said we can fight in Ukraine for a short time, make so much money and then return to Russia to continue our education. They have met so many African students and told them that.”
The officials, the Nigerian student said, are familiar faces on campus as they are often seen in offices in the university “wearing staff ID cards and having conversations with other colleagues.”
“They have reminded us a couple of times that there are some Africans already fighting in Ukraine and earning good money,” said the Nigerian student who—like other Africans approached by Russian officials—The Daily Beast is choosing not to identify to protect him from possible retribution. “They want us to believe that fighting in Ukraine will benefit us financially.”
It is not only SFedU officials that have been attempting to persuade African students to go to war, according to another Nigerian student at the institution who said personnel from the Russian security formations in Rostov-on-Don have already tried to talk African students into fighting in Ukraine.
“If it’s not the police walking up to [African] students in a park, it’s soldiers approaching us on the streets to convince us to fight in Ukraine,” the second student from Nigeria told The Daily Beast. “It was surprising to hear security officials tell us that we can choose between joining the Russian military or a private military company.”
About 2,500 international students are enrolled in SFedU, the largest scientific and educational center in the south of Russia, with two university campuses located in Rostov-on-Don and in Taganrog. Many of these students come from Africa, where some governments partner with the Russian Federation to send students to Russia on scholarships.
The Nigerian students who spoke to The Daily Beast said they do not have any intention of fighting in Ukraine but say they know a couple of other cash-trapped students who say they are considering the offer, as many African students continue to struggle financially following the inability of their governments to pay their monthly scholarship stipends. (The Russian government, in partnership with respective African governments grants scholarships to close to hundreds of students on a yearly basis, but it pays only the tuition fee, while governments in Africa are responsible for stipends and airfares to Russia and back home at the end of their studies.)
“Many African students are suffering and can’t even feed themselves because their governments have failed to pay them their monthly stipends,” a third Nigerian student in Russia told The Daily Beast. “Some of my African friends [in SFedU] are saying they’ll likely go to war in Ukraine if things don’t improve quickly.”
Rostov-on-Don has become a key city for the recruitment of fighters for the war in Ukraine. In early March, just days after Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine, the Wagner Group established a base in the city from which they are recruiting mercenaries to fight in Ukraine’s Donbas region, according to a Facebook post by the Ukrainian military which said Rostov-on-Don had become the capital of the private military company.
“The pressure is so much.”
In September, the same month the pressure campaign on the African students allegedly started, the Russian army began using mobile recruiting trucks to attract volunteers in Rostov-on-Don, offering about 160,000 roubles (about $2,700) a month—almost three times the national average wage—as an incentive. On those trucks, soldiers in camouflage and black masks, who were targeting Russians and foreigners aged 18 to 60 with at least a high school education, allegedly showed their guns to interested passersby and handed out color brochures titled “Military service on a contract—the choice of a real man.”
“I had a chat with one of the soldiers who told me to convince other African students to fight for Russia in Ukraine,” a Senegalese student in Rostov-on-Don told The Daily Beast. “He [the soldier] said Africans who agree to fight in Ukraine will be hugely rewarded by the Russian government after a period of time.”
A decree signed in September by Russian President Vladimir Putin now makes it easier for foreigners to obtain Russian citizenship if they join the army. Under the decree, foreigners “who signed contracts to serve in the Russian Armed Forces for at least one year and take part in military operations for at least six months,” will be eligible for simplified application procedures. The development seems to encourage Russian officials in Rostov-on-Don to target African students for military recruitment.
African students who initially left their countries for studies in Rostov-on-Don are already fighting for Russia in Ukraine. In June, The Guardian reported that a 27-year-old Congolese student, who arrived at Rostov two years ago, later moved to Luhansk in Ukraine’s Donbass region together with two friends and fellow students from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to join the local militia and take up arms against Ukraine.
Just this week, Zambia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that a 23-year-old Zambian student who was studying nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI) before his imprisonment over a year had been killed in Ukraine on Sept. 22 while fighting on the Russian side.
Allegations that some SFedU officials are pressuring African students in the institution to join Russia’s war in Ukraine may not come as a surprise to many after the school’s hierarchy backed the invasion months ago.
In March, Marina Alexandrovna Borovskaya, the university’s president, signed a letter by the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an action that led to her suspension from the European University Association (EUA) for being “diametrically opposed to the European values that they committed to when joining EUA.”
Neither Borovskaya nor Inna Shevchenko, the rector of SFedU, responded to emails sent to them by The Daily Beast for comments on the allegations made by African students. An email sent to Concord Management, a company majority-owned by Prigozhin, also went unanswered.
In Rostov-on-Don, the campaign to get African students to fight in Ukraine continues.
“Everywhere we [African students] go, people are trying to convince us to fight in Ukraine,” said the Senegalese student who has vowed never to join the war. “The pressure is so much.”