Vladimir Putin has given the green light for up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East to aid his attack on Ukraine.
The Russian leader is doubling down on the invasion as Western leaders say his forces are losing momentum and are suffering from low morale.
His move, made just over two weeks since troops crossed the Ukrainian border, allows Moscow to deploy battle-hardened mercenaries from places such as Syria.
This means numbers will be boosted without risking any additional Russian casualties.
Syria’s military has started recruiting troops from its own ranks to join the fight in Ukraine.
Dictator Bashar Al-Assad has been a key ally of Putin, whose military has helped prop his regime.
Volunteers are being offered up to $3,000 a month – 50 times what a Syrian soldier makes.
At a meeting of Russia’s Security Council, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East who were ready to come to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the breakaway Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
‘If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbass, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone,’ Putin said from the Kremlin.
Shoigu also proposed that Western-made Javelin and Stinger missiles that were captured by the Russian army in Ukraine should be handed over to Donbass forces, along other weaponry.
‘As to the delivery of arms, especially Western-made ones which have fallen into the hands of the Russian army – of course I support the possibility of giving these to the military units of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics,’ Putin said.
‘Please do this,’ he told Shoigu in an exchange that was shown on Russian state television.
Putin says the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is essential to ensure Russia’s security after the United States expanded NATO and supported pro-Western leaders in Kyiv.
Ukraine says it is fighting for its existence while the United States, and its European and Asian allies have condemned the Russian invasion.
Shoigu said the operation was all going to plan before requesting Putin’s approval for the use of fighters from the Middle East.
US intelligence chiefs told lawmakers on Thursday that Russia had been surprised by the strength of Ukrainian resistance.
This, they say, had deprived the Kremlin of a quick victory it thought would have prevented the United States and NATO from providing meaningful military aid.
Explaining how this is causing concern in Beijing, CIA Director William Burns said: ‘I do believe that the Chinese leadership, President Xi (Jinping) in particular, is unsettled.
‘By what he’s seen, partly because his own intelligence doesn’t appear to have told him what was going to happen.’
Shoigu said Western arms were flowing into Ukraine in an ‘absolutely uncontrolled’ way.
He said the Russian military planned to strengthen its Western border after what he said was a build up of military units nearby.
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