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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday approved recruiting foreign “volunteers” to reinforce the Russian military’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

“If you see that there are people who want to come voluntarily, especially free of charge, and help people living in the Donbas, you need to meet them halfway and help them move to the war zone,” Putin told his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, during a televised Russian Security Council meeting Friday.

Donbas is a region of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have declared independent “republics” and where Putin has baselessly accused Ukraine of committing a genocide against Russian speakers.

Shoigu said that Moscow has received “a colossal number of applications” from across the world to join what it is calling a “Ukrainian liberation movement.” The defense minister said the Kremlin got more than 16,000 applications, of which most came from the Middle East.

There have been numerous reports that Russia has been trying to recruit Syrians for its assault on Ukraine, and a senior U.S. defense official said this week that it is “noteworthy that [Putin] believes he needs to rely on foreign fighters.”

During the same meeting on Friday, Putin criticized Ukraine for trying to enlist foreigners to counter Russian aggression.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has created a unit called the “International Legion” to enlist foreign volunteers to aid the Ukrainian army. It estimated that more than 20,000 volunteers and veterans from 52 countries have expressed a desire to join.

“As for the gathering of mercenaries from all over the world and sending them to Ukraine, we see the Western sponsors of Ukraine and the regime do not hide it. They do it openly, dismissing all norms of international law,” Putin said.

Earlier this week, Britain said the Kremlin, despite its denials, had deployed conscript troops to Ukraine.

Russia would likely also be forced to draw on personnel from across its armed forces and “other sources” to replace losses, “as casualties mount,” a briefing said.

Up to 4,000 Russian troops may have died since Putin launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, a senior U.S. military officer said Tuesday.

The British Defense Ministry also said this week “experienced mercenaries” from Russian private military companies were also “likely deploying to fight in Ukraine.”

However, the British army was also forced to issue a statement this week acknowledging that it was aware of a “small number” of individual soldiers from the U.K. who had “disobeyed orders and gone absent without leave, and may have traveled to Ukraine in a personal capacity.”

A British army spokesman told The Washington Post by email: “We are actively and strongly encouraging them to return to the UK.”

Despite warnings from the Biden administration, a wave of U.S. military veterans have also inserted themselves into the war. Some want to take on the Russians directly, while others are seeking to offer military support, first-aid training and humanitarian supplies.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has suggested it would be wiser to donate to agencies responding to the humanitarian crisis.

“We urge them not to go. And if any are still there, we urge them to leave,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, thousands of Russians have been leaving for countries in Europe this week, with many describing themselves as angry or ashamed about the Ukraine invasion. Others have been concerned by the impact of U.S. and European Union economic sanctions.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov had harsh words Friday for Russians who have criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“A real Russian is not ashamed that he is Russian — and if he is ashamed, then he is not Russian and is not with us,” Peskov said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

In Washington, some Russians have also joined antiwar protests in front of the Russian Embassy.

The war has divided opinion in Russia. While one recent survey suggested that a majority of Russians back the war, human rights groups say thousands have also been arrested for attending antiwar protests.

Shortly after the invasion began, Peskov’s daughter also posted a black banner on social media with the words, “No to war.” It was swiftly deleted.

The Washington Post’s Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual news conference in Moscow in December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual news conference in Moscow in December. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

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