Why are Russian universities pushing African students to fight in Ukraine?

While students are exempt from Russia’s mobilisation, African students’ financial precarity leaves them open to pressure, says Ararat Osipian

十二月 12, 2022
The Ukraine war
Source: iStock

Should African students from Russian universities go to war in Ukraine? This question may sound rhetorical or hypothetical, if not surreal. But recently it was reported that a Zambian student, funded by his government to study at the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI in Moscow, was killed in battle in Ukraine.

The student had been recruited not from the university but from jail, where he was in the third year of a 10-year prison sentence for unspecified crimes; Russian private military companies routinely recruit combatants from the country’s notorious prisons and penal colonies. But the Zambian is not the only international student fighting in Ukraine. Next came allegations that Russian officials at the Southern Federal University actively recruit African students for the war in Ukraine. The university, located less than 200km from Mariupol, has reportedly enrolled around 2,500 international students from developing countries, a large potential base for recruitment.

Originally, students were included in Russia’s partial mobilisation announced in September. Just two weeks later, Putin signed a decree that granted deferments to students in state-accredited universities – but not before some students had already been drafted. That was true in the Belgorod region, just over the border from Kharkiv, but also in the Siberian region of Buryatiya. There, students at Buryat State University in Ulan-Ude were reportedly taken by the military and the police right from their classes. Two students were mobilised in Dagestan as well, before being returned home.

Even if Russian students are immune from mobilisation – at least for now – Russian universities remain very much part of the war effort. In 2019, military training centres opened in around 100 Russian universities. And since they lack autonomy, Russian universities have no choice but to put their weight behind government propaganda. They host lectures with pro-war content and force students to attend them, while banning professors from expressing anti-war sentiment. Students not willing to participate face repercussions. In Grozny, Chechnya, 17 students were expelled for refusing to take part in a September rally in support of the Russian invasion, for instance.

Russian universities use the threat of mobilisation as a tool to suppress any dissent among students because those dismissed face the draft. By expelling any protesting, anti-war, pro-democracy or otherwise inconvenient students, Russian universities facilitate mobilisation and fuel the war in Ukraine.

The indoctrination of students at Russian universities has long been the norm, including of international students. In August 2014, for instance, while the battle for Ukraine’s Donbas was in full swing, hundreds of Russian and international students were left well alone by the police as they participated in a protest in front of the US Embassy in Moscow against the killing of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

No one mentioned the 2004 death – in Rostov-on-Don – of a female student from Cameroon after she was detained by Russian police on a deportation order. The police claimed at the time that she had suffered an epileptic fit, but the dozens of students, including international students, who protested against her death alleged that she had been beaten.

Now international students are also being exposed by Russia to the perils of Ukrainian rifles. But their own governments are not doing enough to protect them, either. In 2014, for instance, Nigerian students studying in Russia under the Federal Ministry of Education’s bilateral education programme staged a protest at the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow against eight-month arrears in paying their stipends. In another incident, students sent to Russia from a different Nigerian state protested the non-payment of their stipends for 14 months. Moreover, even when they are paid, the stipends are well below the average cost of living in large Russian cities, such as Rostov-on-Don.

In 2014, the students warned that “if something is not urgently done to help our situation, Nigerians should expect to see screaming headlines like ‘Russian government deports Nigerian scholarship students for begging for alms on the streets of Russia’; ‘Russia set to deport Nigerian scholarship students for working without work permits’; ‘Nigerian students starve to death in Russia’; ‘Female Nigerian students prostitute for food in Russia’”. Apparently, there is now a foreign mercenary option, in addition to begging, deportation or prostitution, available to Nigerian students in Russia.

Administrators at the Southern Federal University reportedly promised African students payments of $3,000 (£2,2446) to $5,000 per month to go to war in Ukraine, as well as an expedited path to Russian citizenship. And they allegedly warned the students that the Russian government could hike their tuition fees if they did not accept the offer.

On 9 June, Ukraine’s president imposed sanctions on 236 Russian universities and 261 university rectors in response to their letter in support of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Now some Russian universities are asking impoverished African students to go to war in Ukraine. Is this payback?

Ararat L. Osipian is a fellow of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is also founding fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium at the New School, New York.



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