For the first time in fifty years, U.S. and Russian military forces have engaged in direct combat. Soldiers from the two countries last clashed during the Vietnam War, when Soviet soldiers shot down U.S. warplanes with anti-aircraft weapons. Last week, on February 7th, the two powers met again, when U.S. drones, attack helicopters, and fighter planes struck a contingent of pro-regime fighters near Deir Ezzor, a Kurdish-held city in eastern Syria. As would emerge later, among those killed were up to a hundred Russian citizens who were fighting in Syria as private military contractors, a shadowy mercenary force whose presence in Syria is not officially recognized by the Kremlin.
Not long before the attack, the Russian contractors, fighting alongside members of pro-Assad tribal militias, carried out a strike against a compound held by Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led army, backed and advised by U.S. troops. During the maneuver, the Russian contractors crossed the Euphrates River near the town of Khusham, breaching what Moscow and Washington have agreed is the dividing line separating their respective zones of authority. U.S. Special Forces embedded with the S.D.F. called in the ferocious response from the air.
According to investigations in the Russian press, as many as two thousand or three thousand Russian contractors are involved in military operations in Syria. Most of them are linked to a structure called Wagner, a company that has apparent ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a onetime St. Petersburg restaurateur who became close to Vladimir Putin in the early aughts. Prigozhin ended up with lucrative contracts to supply food to the Russian Army and has taken to overseeing the sorts of enterprises that the Kremlin finds useful but doesn’t want to manage itself. On Friday, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, indicted Prigozhin and twelve other Russian nationals for allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. He is widely linked to a so-called troll factory in St. Petersburg, where hundreds of people are paid to sit and create fake social-media accounts to foster discontent and confusion in political discussions online. Wagner was named by its commander, a former Russian special-forces officer named Dmitry Utkin, who is a fan of the German composer. In 2016, Utkin was photographed at a Kremlin ceremony in which Putin handed out awards for military valor.
Many of the Wagner mercenaries previously fought with pro-Russia rebel groups in eastern Ukraine; their motives run from financial necessity to a kind of ultra-patriotic enthusiasm. (According to the Conflict Intelligence Team, an online monitoring group, average monthly salaries at Wagner range from ninety thousand to two hundred and fifty thousand rubles, or about sixteen hundred to forty-four hundred dollars.) Wagner fighters tend to be drawn from a hodgepodge of experienced veterans, war adventurers, and committed nationalists. A field commander who fought in Ukraine and knew many of those who died in Syria told the Russian paper Moskovsky Komsomolets, “They believed they went to defend the Russian world on the edges of our sphere of influence. So write it like this: ‘They perished for the sake of their homeland, and for an idea.’ ”
It remains unclear why the Russian contractors attacked the compound in Syria held by the American-backed militia. An oil-processing plant in the area might have been the ultimate target—an objective with both mercantile and strategic appeal in the Syrian war. A report in Moskovsky Komsomolets went further, quoting a source in Syria who said “it was a purely commercial issue. It had nothing to do with war.” Another Russian paper, Kommersant, reported that the offensive operation had not been sanctioned by the country’s official military command in Syria and was viewed as a “dangerous self-initiative.” According to U.S. military officials, before launching the air strikes they used a Russian-U.S. hotline to ask if Russian forces were in the area, and were told that none had crossed the Euphrates—meaning that the Russian military command either was not aware of the movements of the private contractors or did not want to admit the presence of soldiers it does not openly acknowledge.
When I spoke with Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who covers Syria, he told me that the entire incident is “clouded in more ambiguity than usual, even by the standards of the Syrian war.” As he put it, “The key question is: Who ordered this foray across the Euphrates, and why? Was it a local decision? Did the Russian military command know about it?” He suggested that the oil facility made sense as a target because, in recent weeks, the Trump Administration has referred explicitly to control over the oil fields of eastern Syria as leverage in the ongoing conflict. This may have increased Russia’s interest in those same oil fields. At the same time, Kurdish forces are caught in a prolonged battle with the Turkish Army in Afrin, in northern Syria. The S.D.F. has moved some of its troops to aid in the fight, repositioning them out of Deir Ezzor. “Someone may have viewed that as an opportunity,” Bonsey said.
Russia’s official involvement in the war in Syria began with an air campaign that Putin launched in September, 2015. Since then, reports have circulated in the Russian press of undeclared, private Russian mercenaries fighting on the ground. Russian contractors participated in both battles for Palmyra. The liberation of the city is perhaps Russia’s chief propaganda victory in the war. Shadowy,undeclared mercenary forces are attractive for several reasons: they allow the Kremlin to maintain the fiction that Russia is fighting from the air only, giving Putin the opportunity to declare an easy victory and avoid public discontent over the loss of human lives during a dragged-out conflict. Last December, during a surprise visit to a Russian airbase in Syria, Putin said that the “task of combating the armed groups here in Syria” had been “largely resolved,” and made a show of ordering many Russian units to leave the country.
Over the last two and a half years, Russia’s intervention in Syria has served several of the country’s interests, as Putin sees them. It saved the Assad regime from defeat, holding off the spectre of a regime change, and secured Russia an undeniable and influential role in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Considering Russia’s isolation in the aftermath of the conflict in Ukraine, Putin must consider it a fortuitous turn of events. It has also allowed Russia’s military officials and war planners to test a new generation of Russian weapons and military strategy. In Syria, Russia deployed drones widely, and launched air strikes with weapons guided by the country’s glonass navigation system. “The use of private military companies is part of this process of trial and error,” Ruslan Pukhov, a leading defense analyst and the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said. The appearance of groups like Wagner on the battlefield in Syria represents a “complete innovation” in Russian military practice, he told me.
As with much in the defense sphere, Russian officials are convinced they are playing catchup with the West, particularly with the United States. The Kremlin began to consider the notion of private military companies in the years after the U.S. war in Iraq, where companies such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy took on outsized roles. But whereas in U.S. operations private military contractors tend to perform support and logistics functions—escorting supply convoys, guarding bases and top officials—the opposite seems true of Wagner forces in Syria. Many Wagner units carry out dangerous assault missions, and while official Russian special forces work alone, or in concert with Russian air power, Wagner mercenaries are given the task of embedding and coördinating with Syrian militia groups.
One source with close ties among private Russian military companies told me that the Russian defense ministry provides Wagner with everything from munitions to food, and even transport aircraft, to move its fighters in and out of Syria. “In theory, all its operations and tactics should be agreed to by the military command,” the source explained. “But there’s always the human factor,” the source added, guessing at how things might have gone so wrong in Deir Ezzor. It’s possible that someone on the ground came to an agreement with local Syrian paramilitaries and didn’t bother to inform Russian military headquarters, or misled it about the nature of the mission. Or the Russian Army gives winking approval to Wagner’s more commercially inclined operations while formally claiming no knowledge of them. Last year, the Associated Press obtained a contract between a Wagner-linked company and Syria’s state-owned petroleum corporation, which promised a twenty-five-per-cent cut of the profits from oil and gas production at fields captured from militant control.
Complicating all of this is the fact that, at least technically, private military companies are illegal in Russia, and previous attempts in parliament to draft the necessary legislation to formalize their status have gone nowhere. “We’re at crossroads,” Ivan Konovalov, a defense analyst and the author of a Russian-language book on private military companies, said. “Either we’ll see the winding down of the operations of such companies or the passing of legislation to regulate their activity.” One deputy in parliament this week called for exactly that. Konovalov hopes a law will soon appear. “Without it, there’s no mechanism to deal with such situations, no one knows what to do,” he told me.
So far, Russia’s campaign in Syria has given Putin a seemingly cost-free propaganda boost, but, with the Russian losses at Deir Ezzor coming a month before Putin is up for reëlection, things may get trickier to manage. State-news broadcasts have been able to air stirring and choreographed reports of Russian military prowess without the ugliness and confusion of a prolonged ground war. The officially recognized number of Russian military personnel killed in Syria is small—forty-six people—and the deaths the state has publicly acknowledged have tended to come with heroic narratives, such as that of the Russian fighter pilot who blew himself up with a hand grenade as isis fighters encircled him when his plane was brought down over Syria, earlier this month. Up until now more unpleasant stories, like the capture of two Wagner fighters by isis last November, have been infrequent and small-scale enough for the state to successfully ignore. A poll last fall by the independent Levada Center showed that half of those surveyed thought Russia should send its military operations to Syria.
The Kremlin fears, perhaps rightly, that it cannot sell a costly military engagement to the Russian people—it wants geopolitical leverage abroad and a patriotic boost at home without any echoes of the doomed Soviet war in Afghanistan or more recent campaigns in Chechnya. At the same time, despite years of caustic rhetoric, Putin and those around him have little appetite for an actual, full-throttle conflict with the United States: Russian officials are comfortable in the pose of ersatz, made-for-television showdowns with the U.S., not the real thing. That is all the more true in the age of the Trump Presidency, when Putin still hopes relations with the United States can be made more productive, or at least not head down the road to a third World War.
In Moscow, one gets the sense that the Kremlin would like the whole story of Deir Ezzor just to disappear. Putin has yet to address the incident publicly, and it has received little attention on state television. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, claimed that the Kremlin had no information about private Russian mercenaries in Syria. “Let’s be clear: there are a good many of our compatriots in many countries around the world,” he said. Later, when pushed on whether Putin would announce a national period of mourning, Peskov acted flummoxed. “I don’t get why a mourning period needs to be declared,” he said. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration and the U.S. military also seem to have little appetite for chest-thumping, or making the clash into a bigger deal than it already is. Defense Secretary James Mattis has tried to downplay the fact—potentially quite incendiary—that U.S. forces struck Russian fighters, telling reporters he didn’t know whom the U.S. air strikes had hit: “Right now I don’t want to say what they were or were not, because I don’t have that kind of information.”
Does that mean the deaths of dozens of Russian fighters as a result of a direct U.S. military attack will quietly fade away, however improbable that may seem? Earlier this week, a person close to private Russian military companies told me that those involved in the ill-fated battle in Deir Ezzor talk of a simmering feeling of betrayal—even if it’s hard to know who is responsible for it. “Some of them say they were betrayed by local Syrian militias who proposed this mission; others think they were betrayed by the Kurds, who asked the Americans to hammer them,” the source said, before moving farther down the list. “As they see it, the Americans can’t really have betrayed them because they are already enemies, anyway. Nor do they blame the Russian defense ministry: these guys know they got into something they shouldn’t have. And, as for the Russian government itself, well, none of them expect much of anything from the state, anyway.”