Russia's Ministry of Defense has claimed that a January 17 missile strike on Kharkiv destroyed a “temporary deployment center for foreign militants.” Without offering evidence, the Russian MoD asserted that the strike had killed more than 60 “mercenaries,” and that the majority of these were French nationals. However, the French Foreign Ministry denied the participation of French mercenaries in the war and has not confirmed that any of its citizens were killed in the recent Kharkiv attack.
Ukrainian authorities stated that the missile had damaged only civilian targets, including a private clinic and residential buildings. Local police in Kharkiv placed the death toll at one dead and 17 injured. Oleh Synyehubov, the head of the Kharkiv Regional Military and Civilian Administration, noted that the affected district had no military facilities.
On Jan. 19, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the French ambassador and informed him that “the responsibility for the demise of his compatriots lies with the officials in Paris, who facilitate the work of nationwide mechanisms for the recruitment of mercenaries to participate in the hostilities on the side of the Kyiv regime.”
In response, the French Foreign Ministry called this statement “yet another clumsy Russian manipulation,” adding that, “France has no ‘mercenaries’ in Ukraine or elsewhere – unlike some other states.”
Although there is no way to confirm or refute the Russian claims with one hundred percent certainty, all of the available evidence suggests that the January 17 strike did not, in fact, kill “more than 60 militants,” let alone dozens of French ones. In the days immediately following the missile attack, no information about French nationals killed in Ukraine, nor about “French mercenaries” fighting on the Ukrainian side in the war, appeared in the French mainstream information space. .. Given the fact that French media is not subject to censorship, this absence is reason enough for suspicion regarding the Russian claims.
Although Russian pro-Kremlin blogger Colonel Cassad wrote that “the French media have indirectly confirmed yesterday's successful hit on the French mercenaries’ quarters in Kharkiv,” he failed to cite even a single media source.
This is not to say that there are no foreign citizens — even French ones — fighting on Kyiv’s side. The Armed Forces of Ukraine can and do enlist foreign nationals on a contractual basis, including in the International Legion of Foreign Defense of Ukraine. However, there are no units at the front consisting entirely of foreigners, so locating a large number of them in a single building in Kharkiv appears to be extremely unlikely. It is unclear where the Russian Defense Ministry obtained its stated death toll for the Kharkiv strike, as it diverges significantly from Ukraine's official reports compiled at the actual site of the attack.
On Jan. 18, The Times released a piece about a French volunteer in Ukraine. Previously a fighter of the French Foreign Legion, the article’s protagonist stated that a number of his former comrades-in-arms were fighting on the Ukrainian side of the current conflict, while others were fighting on the Russian side. However, this does not mean that such combatants, whether they are fighting on behalf of Kyiv or on behalf of Moscow, are “French mercenaries.” The French Foreign Legion enlists only foreign nationals, who are granted French citizenship once their service is completed (although the volunteer in the Times story claimed that he had managed to enlist into the legion by deceit, posing as Swiss). It is also notable that several hundred Ukrainian nationals who were serving in the French Foreign Legion as of February 24, 2022, subsequently returned home to defend their homeland before they would have become eligible to receive French passports.
The Russian Armed Forces also enlists foreign nationals in its ranks, but interestingly, pro-Kremlin media never refer to them as “mercenaries.” In November 2022, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing foreign nationals to serve in the Russian Armed Forces. Taking stock of the year 2023, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported “a seven-fold increase in the number of foreign volunteers,” though he did not specify where this information had come from. Shoigu added that “the Armed Forces of Ukraine have faced a reverse trend, with the number of foreign fighters shrinking six-fold.” The statistics he cited do not support his own ministry’s claims about a base of French mercenaries in Kharkiv.
Writing about foreign mercenaries in the Russian Armed Forces, the pro-Kremlin propagandist publication Vzglyad remarked: “At the moment, we have a considerable number of foreign volunteers from Serbia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, France, and Armenia in the special military operation zone. A lot of volunteers are coming from Latin America.”
The publication even named one such French volunteer: machine gunner Gabriel Dorochine, a Lyon native whom Vzglyad also refers to as the descendant of two great emperors, Nicholas I of Russia and Napoleon I.
The publicized presence of French volunteers in the Russian army makes Moscow’s grievances about “foreign mercenaries” fighting on the Ukrainian side appear all the more incomprehensible. As one American military volunteer currently serving in Ukraine told The Insider, “Russia considers foreign, purely humanitarian, volunteers to be 'mercenaries.' What one chooses to believe will tell me a lot of what I need to know about them.”