Last week, the headquarters of a U.S. proxy in Syria—the Syrian Democratic Forces—and their American advisers came under attack by a large Syrian regime force 8 kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line near Deir al-Zour.
In "self-defense," the U.S. launched a large-scale artillery and air assault to repel the attackers. Using F-15s, F-22s, AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, MQ-9 unmanned drones, and artillery, U.S. forces killed an estimated 100 attackers, according to some Russian media reports, and destroyed numerous tanks and artillery pieces. Among the reported fatalities, according to a Pentagon official, were Syrian Arab Army soldiers enlisted in the "ISIS Hunters" unit, as well as Russian mercenaries working for Wagner, a private military company under the command-and-control of the Russian Ministry of Defense that has been tasked with re-taking oilfields from ISIS.
Initially, Moscow denied any connection. "The reasons for the incident were reconnaissance and search activities by Syrian militia not coordinating with the command of the Russian operations group," Interfax cited the Russian defense ministry as saying.
But much like the Kremlin’s denial of Russian army soldiers or special operators being deployed in Ukraine, this narrative is rapidly eroding against a tide of social media and even pro-Kremlin press claims naming the names of the slain mercenaries and giving details of their funerals in St. Petersburg.
If confirmed, this would be the first time that U.S. forces directly engaged and killed Russian combatants in Syria, albeit not the first time that CIA-armed forces have done so, as The Daily Beast has previously reported.
Additionally, the scuttlebutt among Russian adventurers has swirled with information of those killed and wounded in battle. The problem is that many of the claims being made offer wildly different casualty figures.
Curiously, the story of the Wagner losses has not appeared at all on Fontanka, the independent St. Petersburg website that first broke the story of the private military company’s deployment to Syria in 2013. (After Fontanka journalist Denis Korotokov published a series of articles on Wagner in 2017, he was accused on anonymous websites of "betraying the motherland," having ties with ISIS, and helping Ukrainian intelligence. Then he began to get violent threats.)
Independent war bloggers such as Necro_mancer66 on Twitter and the Conflict Intelligence Team, which usually report on war deaths in Syria unacknowledged by the Russian defense ministry, have been only cautiously reporting individual deaths they have found on social media. (They’re so far up to eight.) This time, the story is being promoted largely by pro-Kremlin Russian nationalists, which should make us slightly wary of what conclusions to draw.
For instance, Igor Girkin, known by his nom de guerre of Col. Igor Strelkov, a former Russian intelligence operative who commanded separatist forces in east Ukraine before he was sidelined by rivals, took to the social-media platform Vkontakte to claim that no regular Russian forces were in the area, but that "2 tactical divisions of Wagner" "were hit by strikes from American aviation. One is practically totally destroyed, and the second is smashed 'to smithereens.’" Strelkov, who is based in Moscow, estimated that as many as "100" Wagner mercenaries were killed. And while he once inadvertently furnished the first real evidence that pro-Russian separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, after they mistook the commercial airliner for a Ukrainian military cargo plane, he cannot be counted as a credible source.
Privately owned pro-Kremlin news site Vzglyad, produced by top pro-Kremlin social-media propagandist Konstantin Rykov has published purportedly decoded Russian mercenaries chatting with one another from voice tapes that appeared on the Russian-language Telegram channel "WarGonzo" shortly after the firefight with the SDF and U.S. warplanes. Four distinct voices put the total number of mercenaries dead at well over 200, although even they disagree as to the exact figures and details; with some arguing that entire companies were "destroyed," and that American flags were draped over the vanquished Russian trenches, which would certainly incite an incensed reaction back in Russia. For that reason, we suspect that the Vzglyad article is disinformation meant to embarrass the Russian government for failing to defend its assets in the field, if not cajole it into retaliating against the U.S.
Today, Bloomberg News appeared to corroborate the Vzglyad allegations, reporting that "[m]ore than 200 mercenaries, mostly Russians" were killed in the episode, citing an unnamed U.S. official and "three Russians familiar with the matter."
Thus far, Moscow has not even acknowledged a single loss, much less responded in kind to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. Instead, a Russian defense official couched the official response in more broadly anti-American terms: that the attack "demonstrated that the true goal of continuation of the unlawful presence of USA forces on Syrian territory is not a battle with the international terrorist group ISIS, but a capture and hold of economic assets under its control that belong only to the Syrian Arab Republic."
When pressed on reported Wagner casualties in the Syrian desert, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov answered: "These reports require verification." He also said, "Let’s be clear, there is a fair amount of our compatriots in various countries across the world."
Officially, private military companies are illegal in Russia. But you wouldn’t know it if you listened to Vladimir Putin. In April 2012, Putin voiced his interest in PMCs—known as Chastnye Voenniye Companiye (ChVK)—and their potential utility as "an instrument in the pursuit of national interests without the direct participation of the state," continuing, "I believe that it should be considered, thought over." Despite his support, and some efforts in the State Duma to draft legislation in support of the mercenaries, PMCs remain outlawed, leaving them in a precarious position and dependent upon their utility to the Russian state.
PMCs have the same attraction to Putin that all proxies, mercenaries, or contractors have to all states: deniability and low-cost. They are expendable, easily written off as patriotic "volunteers" and not state actors, whose demise needn’t be counted as wartime losses, and whose possibly lethal behavior lowers the risk of escalation with the enemy. Dead mercenaries avoid the unwanted press and attention that comes with young army conscripts returning home in zinc-lined coffins.
The very first deployment of Russian PMCs in Syria was more Keystone Kops than Spetsnaz. First appearing in 2013, the Slavonic Corps was formed as an offshoot of the Hong Kong-based Moran Security Group. From the get-go, their intervention was marked by confusion, poor coordination, and aged equipment. First tasked with seizing back regime oil fields, the Slavonic Corps’ mission quickly turned into a rout as they were outmatched in both numbers and equipment by anti-Assad opposition forces.
The embarrassment did not end there. On their return to Russia, the ex-members of the Slavonic Corps were arrested by the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, and most were charged with violating Article 348 of the Russian Criminal Code, banning mercenary service.
And yet, while Russia’s first use of PMCs was less than an unalloyed victory, the Kremlin’s appetite for soldiers of fortune has only increased in the years since. The next opportunity came with the conflict in Ukraine, and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and incitement of rebellion in the Donbas. The use of proxies and PMCs came to form a central component of Russia’s "hybrid war" strategy.
In order to support Russia’s activities in Ukraine, a veteran of the Slavonic Corps and former Spetsnaz officer was chosen. Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 was an officer in the 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade of Russian military intelligence (GRU), called this new group "Wagner" in honor of Hitler’s favorite composer. Apparently, in addition to being a veteran of both the Slavonic Corps and Spetsnaz, Utkin has an affinity for the "aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich," making him not just a neo-Nazi but that oh-so-perfect embodiment of Putinist disinformation efforts: a combatant ostensibly deployed into a neighboring country to stop a "fascist junta," as the Kremlin routinely called the government in Kiev, from exterminating ethnic Russians.
However, this outing turned out to be far more favorable than the maiden foray into Syria. Among the mixture of rogues, Mafiosi, and killers that made up Russia’s rebel army in Eastern Ukraine, Utkin and Wagner provided Russia with a competent and loyal unit able to do its bidding (including, reportedly, eliminating those more feral rebel commanders who had outlived their usefulness).
A crucial feature of Russia’s support of the Assad regime has been to stabilize it. Spetsnaz advisers provide crucial reconnaissance to Russia’s air contingent and support Syrian government offensives. Russian officers help organize, train, and deploy the various militias that make up most of the regime’s fighting force, along with advising the regime’s larger military and strategic planning. For the most part, Russia has been successful in avoiding getting its "official" forces sucked into direct ground combat. Getting directly involved in on-the-ground fighting would damage the Kremlin’s narrative that they are there as "peacekeepers" and, recently, that the combat portion of their mission has ended.
But Syrian forces are unable on their own to obtain key objectives that are crucial to sustain the Assad regime, and the narrative that they are fighting—and winning—the war against ISIS. To get around these issues, Russia has turned to Wagner. Crucial in the offensive to retake Palmyra, Wagner and its Russian mercenaries have become an even more important element of Russia’s efforts in Syria. They allow Russia to deploy capable and professional forces who have the experience and training to seize strategic objectives without the potential blowback of casualties. Mercenaries receive no state funeral and are not officially reported, allowing Russia to maintain the façade of winding down its involvement.
As Assad’s position has solidified, Russia’s focus has centered around regaining assets that will enable the regime to economically support itself—and pay for the continued supplies and weaponry. According to documents seen by the AP and Fontaka, Evro Polis has signed a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp. for 25 percent of the proceeds from all the oil and natural-gas fields it captures from ISIS. Peskov’s "compatriots" around the world should all be so lucky.
While at first the agreement seems similar to other resource rights for mercenary deals of the past, the ownership and structure of Evro Polis gives even greater insight into the workings and connections between economics, favors, and power in Russia. Evro Polis is reportedly Wagner’s commercial front in Syria. It is owned by Putin’s "favorite chef" Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose companies have extensive contracts to provide food for everyone from the Russian defense ministry to most of Moscow’s public schools. Most famously, Prigozhin set up a "Kremlin troll factory" in St. Petersburg to influence public opinion in the West by peddling conspiracy theories and disinformation on social-media platforms.
Not simply an agreement to incentivize Wagner’s continued involvement in Syria, the Evro-General Petroleum deal is also an incentive for keeping mercenaries on board for future Russian adventures abroad. And given the tensions between Moscow and Damascus owing to latter’s reliance on Russian loans and oil shipments to keep the lights on and the Syrian war machine humming, the Kremlin has every reason to coax its team of expendables into helping Assad regain control of more of his captured hydrocarbon industry, be it from ISIS or an emerging U.S. protectorate in eastern Syria, which has shown every intention of not handing major oil fields back to the regime.
For this reason, last week’s events seem more a prelude than an anomaly in what has been a war of proliferating sideshow conflicts. So long as Putin has Wagner to provoke or skirmish against the Syrian Democratic Forces, he can attack U.S. allies without formally attacking them and risk retaliation from the Pentagon, while insisting that the Russian military was nowhere near the scene of the crime.
By Michael Weiss, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Andrew Bowen, The Daily Beast