For a few dollars more: Sri Lankan fighters in the Russian-Ukrainian war are symptoms of a deeper crisis

A report submitted by the State Intelligence Service ( SIS) of Sri Lanka to the country’s defence secretary indicates there are hundreds of Sri Lankan nationals serving on both Russian and Ukrainian fronts.

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe Apr 05, 2024
Sri Lanka's soldiers (Photo: Twitter)

The history of the mercenaries is as old as the history of the war itself. From Carthaginians to the British, many nations relied on mercenary soldiers to make the decisive outcomes on the war front. It may appear bizarre to imagine the impetus behind Sri Lankan ex-servicemen becoming mercenaries in a distant continent as the South Asian country’s military lacks continental military experience in large-scale warfare regardless of their previous success in defeating separatist Tamil terrorism and their asymmetrical war tactics. 

 The situation that encompasses the Ministry of Defense and the relevant authorities in Sri Lanka is perplexing as the soldiers who left the island have joined both Ukrainian and Russian forces. It could see a bizarre situation in which one Sri Lankan soldier might get killed by another Sri Lankan on the war front. Three months ago, Sri Lankan national, ex-Commando named Captain Ranish Hewage died in Ukraine while serving in the Ukrainian army. Last week security authorities in Colombo were disoriented by the death of another Sri Lankan ex-soldier in the Russian war front that exposed vulnerabilities of the Sri Lanka security apparatus in not knowing about the whereabouts of its ex-servicemen.  

On the face of it, Sri Lanka remains deeply troubled by its economic crisis as it has created tremendous socio-economic discontent. Growing disparities in Sri Lankan society are forcing its youth to leave the country in large numbers in pursuit of material prosperity. The professionals consisting of a relatively lower percentage of society look for green pastures in the West as the skills they acquired provide many possible paths. But the situation remains bleak with the ex-soldiers from the Sri Lankan security forces. As the economic woes continue, the harsh realities of civilian life loom before the Sri Lankan ex-soldiers who seem to aspire to risk their lives in an unknown geo-cultural territory for the betterment of their dependents in Sri Lanka.

A report submitted by the State Intelligence Service ( SIS) of Sri Lanka to the country’s defence secretary indicates there are hundreds of Sri Lankan nationals serving on both Russian and Ukrainian fronts. The investigation further revealed that many of them joined the Russian troops after getting inspired by seeing TikTok videos of the Russian army and the prospects of obtaining Russian citizenship. According to family members of Nipuna Silva, a Sri Lankan soldier who died recently while serving the Russian army, Silva paid $ 4000,00 to a local agency to get his military job in Russia, which tragically claimed his young life.

Promising salary packages

Sri Lanka faces a quandary in this crisis as the country’s national legal framework remains silent about the large exodus of ex-servicemen. The proposed anti-terrorism bill in Sri Lanka contains certain provisions restricting Sri Lankan nationals from joining international terrorist groups. However, the proposed bill is conspicuously weak in confronting the issue related to the ex-soldiers. 

On the other hand, the state practice of Sri Lanka is ambiguous on the issue of mercenaries. Internationally, it falls within the realm of customary international law and the Geneva Additional Protocol 1 defines the nature of a mercenary soldier. As per Article 47 of the additional protocol 1, the mercenaries do not enjoy the status of combatants and prisoners of war. Also, in conformity with the Geneva Conventions, mercenaries can be held criminally responsible if they commit war crimes. It is a stark contrast to the sanguine expectations of the Sri Lankan soldiers as they are not aware of the grave dangers that await them. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Sri Lankan media have made enough efforts to prevent Sri Lankan ex-servicemen from rushing headlong into disaster.

Since Putin’s decision to allow foreign fighters to join Russian forces in March 2022, a larger number of South Asian fighters are said to have reached Russia by showing a willingness to fight for Moscow as mercenaries. Notwithstanding Moscow’s expectation of Syria as a potential manpower provider, men from South Asia became a formidable asset on the war front. Besides the promising salary packages offered by the Russian army, the public perception in the Sri Lankan society is more favorable to Moscow. Most of the members of the Sri Lankan armed forces share positive views on the Russian military as Moscow was one of the few countries that openly supported the military efforts of the Rajapaksa government in 2009 to crush Tamil terrorism. The means and methods of warfare adopted by Russians in its Ukrainian invasion seemed to have had little or no effect on Sri Lankan ex-servicemen to make their value judgments. 

Soldiers on the loose

Unlike previous conflicts like the Spanish Civil War when folks around the world joined the war to defeat fascism, those joining either Ukraine or Russia took their steps driven purely by financial needs. The influx of Sri Lankan ex-servicemen to both the Russian and Ukrainian war fronts can open a series of new problems for the Sri Lankan state apparatus. In particular, the war crime charges against Sri Lankan government soldiers continue to echo in the many international forums such as the Geneva UN Human Rights Council and the involvement of Sri Lankan ex-servicemen in the Russia-Ukrainian war puts more ammunition into the allegations. Referring to the Sri Lankan mercenaries in the Russian army,  the Tamil Guardian speculated that Sri Lankan ex-servicemen would freely commit war crimes in an international armed conflict.  

The problem of ex-servicemen becoming mercenaries lies in the unreformed military structure of the Sri Lankan defence forces. According to the World Bank reports in 2019, the sheer size of Sri Lankan defence forces stood up to 317,000, twice the size of the UK regular forces. The continuity of a large army for a debt-ridden country is inimical to its real interests. Therefore, the Sri Lankan government should find a way to reduce the unusually large size of its security forces, and simultaneously take steps to mobilize the large number of retired and able soldiers for civil tasks.

(The author is a post-doctoral researcher affiliated with the Institute of Law, Politics and Development at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy. Views are personal. He can be contacted at )

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