Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday gave the OK to a purported 16,000 Middle East volunteers wanting to join Russia’s invasion of 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, according to Reuters

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly said at a recent meeting of Russia’s Security Council that 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East are ready to come to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Putin made the announcement with the invasion now in its third week, which Western military experts and others say is much longer than the Russian leader expected in his campaign to perhaps take over Ukraine, force a surrender or a cease-fire agreement or some other favorable outcome. 

Putin’s decision to allow foreign fighters will allow him to deploy battle-hardened mercenaries from conflicts such as Syria without risking additional Russian military casualties, also according to Reuters.

The decision also comes as Russia, which borders eastern Ukraine, is now attacking the country’s western region, where many residents have fled to escape the deadly fighting. 

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