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US Sees No Evidence of Syrian, African Mercenaries in Ukraine

FILE - A pro-Russian separatist from the Chechen "Death" battalion is seen in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Dec. 8, 2014. So far, the U.S. is not seeing any foreign mercenaries supporting Russia's war effort in Ukraine.

Russia’s efforts to recruit foreign mercenaries to bolster Russian forces fighting in Ukraine do not appear to be paying off just yet.

Reports of Russian attempts to pull experienced troops from other conflict zones – Syria, in particular – have been circulating for weeks. But the United States says that so far, the effort is all talk.

“We haven't seen indications that their recruiting efforts have borne fruit and resulted in the actual arrival of a foreign fighters from that part of the world,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday formally approved the deployment of up to 16,000 fighters from the Middle East, and videos purporting to show Syrian forces expressing their willingness to fight have spread on social media.

The Syrian-based news outlet DeirEzzor24 quoted sources on Friday as saying that the commanders of at least one Russian-backed militia have already agreed to send fighters to Ukraine.

It also quoted sources as claiming that the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization whose owner has close ties with Putin, has already gotten more than 4,000 Syrian volunteers.

But the U.S. official said it was unclear to what extent Russia is counting on help from Syrian foreign fighters and to what extent it is a propaganda ploy.

“We don't know if 16,000 is really a target or just a talking point for them,” the official said. “It's hard to say, but we'll keep watching it.”

Videos on social media have also shown militia members in Africa promising to join Wagner mercenaries already in Ukraine.

But U.S. officials say, so far, there is no evidence to suggest African mercenaries are prepared to join the fighting.

“I’ve seen nothing in the information that we have that indicates they're trying to recruit in Africa,” the U.S. official said in response to a question from VOA. “I'm not saying it couldn't happen. Just saying I can't confirm it.”

Ukrainian officials have sought to portray Russia’s call for mercenaries as a sign of weakness.

"Where's the powerful Russian army if they can't get by without Syrians?” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a televised briefing. “If they want us also to kill 16,000 Syrians - let them come.”

Some information in this report came from Reuters.