The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

There is an alarming trend of foreign nationals traveling to Russia to fight as mercenaries.

From antiquity’s Carthaginians to the British Empire, the annals of history teem with powers that have leveraged mercenary forces to clinch victory in war. Thus, it seems a historical echo that former Sri Lankan servicemen now find themselves drawn, paradoxically, into the role of mercenaries for Russia, despite Sri Lanka’s lack of historical engagement in extensive conventional warfare, notwithstanding its effective counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil separatism, marked by a resolute asymmetry.

The predicament confronting Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense is as complex as it is unsettling, marked by a spectrum of loyalties as its former soldiers join both Ukrainian and Russian factions. One grapples with the grim scenario where Sri Lankan brethren might fall into a fratricidal twist upon the war’s chessboard. A grim testament to this emerged three months past when ex-Commando Captain Ranish Hewage was slain in Ukraine, followed last week by the death of another Sri Lankan soldier on the Russian front, a revelation that has shaken the defense establishment in Colombo and exposed a gap in oversight over the diaspora of its former military.

Against the backdrop of a crippling economic crisis, Sri Lanka is fragmented, with its younger population, particularly the lower echelons, propelled outward in search of prosperity. The contrast is stark for the veterans of the security forces, as economic hardship presses them into the mire of global conflicts, risking their lives on foreign soil, driven by the hope of providing for their families back home.

Reports from the State Intelligence Service (SIS) to the defense secretary paint a troubling picture: a contingent of Sri Lankan nationals finds themselves embroiled on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict. The allure of military engagement, as depicted in social media and the chance at Russian citizenship, has lured many. The case of Nipuna Silva, who died while enlisted with Russian forces after paying an exorbitant fee to a local agency to get a job in Russia, epitomizes the tragic consequences of this trend.

Domestically, Sri Lanka’s legal system stands mutely by as it confronts the quandary of its former military personnel’s exodus into mercenary roles. The draft anti-terrorism legislation within the nation inadequately addresses the plight of these soldiers-turned-mercenaries. Internationally, the status of mercenaries falls under the scope of international law, which classifies mercenaries not as combatants but as individuals potentially liable for war crimes — a sobering prospect starkly at odds with the hopeful visions of many Sri Lankan soldiers.

The geopolitical landscape was notably altered when, in March of 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin extended an invitation to foreign nationals to swell the ranks of the Russian military, resulting in a significant influx of South Asians, driven not by ideology but by financial necessity. Within Sri Lanka, the pro-Russian sentiment fostered by the Russian backing of the Rajapaksa administration’s 2009 military endeavors has inclined many to overlook the moral intricacies of their service in foreign conflicts.

The gravitation of these ex-service members to the opposing forces in Ukraine engenders complex dilemmas for Sri Lanka’s administrative apparatus, particularly as Russia faces international scrutiny over alleged war crimes including using rape as a weapon, mass killings, and the torture of civilians. The participation of Sri Lankan veterans in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict introduces a new layer of complexity to these accusations, underscoring the imperative for Sri Lanka to address its outsized military structure.

The World Bank’s 2019 report underscores this urgency, highlighting a defense apparatus disproportionately large for a nation grappling with debt. The state must enact a calibrated reduction of its military forces while also devising robust strategies to reintegrate its retired servicemen into civilian life, thus potentially averting the trajectory of these individuals toward the uncertain fate of mercenary work.

Punsara Amarasinghe holds a PhD in International Law from Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy. He also holds a Master of Laws from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed his undergraduate studies in law at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Previously, Punsara worked as a research assistant at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2018 for a project on Russian legal realism. He also held two visiting research fellowships at the University of Wisconsin Madison and at Paris's esteemed Sciences PO. For a brief period, he worked at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.