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

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  • NEIL HAUER is an independent security analyst focused on Syria, Russia, and the Caucasus.
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