Russia’s Mercenary Debacle in Syria

Is the Kremlin Losing Control?

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 2018. Reuters

On the night of February 7, a Kurdish-held oil field in northeastern Syria came under sudden attack by forces allied with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Heavy U.S. air strikes and artillery fire repelled the assault, with initial reports suggesting that at least 100 pro-government fighters were killed in the span of three hours.

The next week, information began to emerge that many of those killed were Russian mercenaries contracted to the Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to the Kremlin. A pair of Russian-language audio recordings described 200 dead Wagner fighters; other sources gave casualty figures as high as 600. Although these figures sounded absurd at first, with other Russian sources estimating only 20 to 25 dead, corroborating evidence increasingly backed a casualty tally in the hundreds. Former Wagner fighters with links to those killed reported between 80 and 100 dead and 200 injured, while Russian hospitals treated hundreds of wounded. A Chechen-language recording from Syria claimed that 170 of 200 Wagner fighters involved in the attack were dead. Three hundred casualties now appears not only a plausible but a probable figure.

The recent operation seems to have caught the Russian government totally unprepared. Initial Kremlin statements were limited to a single quip on February 14 that there “may be citizens of the Russian Federation” fighting in Syria, but that these were “not connected” to Russia’s armed forces. The next day, the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted that “five Russians may have died” in Wagner’s attack. In the interim, several interviews with family members of the deceased emerged, as did independent confirmation of at least ten deaths. On February 20, the Foreign Ministry raised that number, stating that “several dozen” citizens of Russia and other Russian-speaking countries were killed or wounded in Syria. Moscow’s behavior seems to have been born from genuine confusion rather than calculated misinformation.

Over the past five years, Wagner has evolved into the preeminent Russian military contractor, playing a central role in Moscow’s military operations in Syria and Ukraine. This

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