Dozens of Russians Are Believed Killed in U.S.-Led Syria Attack
Ivan Nechepurenko, Neil MacFarquhar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/New York times/February 13/18
MOSCOW — Four Russian nationals, and perhaps dozens more, were killed in fighting between pro-government forces in eastern Syria and members of the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, according to Russian and Syrian officials.
A Syrian military officer said that about 100 Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting on Feb. 7 and 8, but news about Russian casualties has dribbled out only slowly, through Russian news organizations and social media.
American forces came under attack on those two days, near Al Tabiyeh, Syria. “Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” according to Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the American military. “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
Colonel Dillon said the military was not aware of any direct United States strike on Russian forces. He said the toll from the two days of fighting was not yet clear.
Then, on Saturday, American forces struck a Russian-designed T-72 tank in roughly the same location as the previous fighting.
“The tank had been maneuvering with coordinated indirect fire on a defensive position occupied by Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition advisers,” Colonel Dillon. “The defensive position was within effective range of the hostile weapons systems. Coalition officials maintained regular contact with Russian counterparts via established deconfliction lines to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations that could endanger each other’s forces.”
The Kremlin — seeking to play down its involvement in the fighting in Syria and seemingly hoping to avoid escalating tensions with the United States — has sidestepped questions about the episode.
It has stressed repeatedly since last Wednesday that no members of the Russian armed forces were killed, and that any Russians fighting alongside the Syrians were mercenaries.
“We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.
The Kremlin said much the same about the nature of the forces in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, claiming they were volunteers and men on vacation, only to admit later that they were regular soldiers.
Mr. Putin has said at least three times since 2016 that combat operations in Syria were winding down, including once during a surprise visit to a Russian air base in Syria last December. Yet there are hundreds if not thousands of contract soldiers in Syria, however, which the Russian government has never acknowledged.
They were deployed both to help keep the official cost down and to try to avoid the Afghanistan scenario, when ordinary Russians soured on the intervention there in the 1980s due to the rising toll of young soldiers. Even though the Kremlin changed the law during Ukraine crisis in 2015 to make battlefield casualties a secret, the funerals for regular soldiers killed in combat need to be more official than those for mercenaries.
Also, even if President Vladimir V. Putin made Russia a player in the Middle East again by sending his miliary into Syria in September 2015, the intervention has never been particularly popular at home. Mr. Putin, running a re-election campaign that he is sure to win, has sought to take the spotlight away from overseas issues and to stress that his main concerns are domestic.
But individual Russians have begun speaking out. Some announced the specific names of victims, others claimed “scores” of Russian fighters died in an American airstrike near Deir-el Zour, between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border.
Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian businessman working in Syria, offering security and other services, said his associates in several private military organizations had estimated heavy losses of possibly more than 200 killed.
Aleksandr Averin, a member of the Other Russia nationalist party, confirmed that Kirill Ananiev, a party member who left for Syria about a year ago, was killed in the airstrike, noting that there were other “substantial losses.”
Mr. Ionov said not all those killed were Russian, some of the paid fighters came from other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. “More than 200 is the current estimate, we cannot know the exact number yet, but most of them were Russian,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Ionov said he was speaking out, like a growing number of opposition and other voices, because he wants the Russians killed to be officially recognized for their sacrifice.
“The truth has to be told,” he said. “If people died, then this should be recognized and respects should be paid to people who fought against terrorists.”
He called on the government to give a fuller version of events, adding, “People are outraged because they want to know the truth.”
What exactly sparked the battle also remains unclear. Some reports suggested that the fight was over control of a gas field. Mr. Ionov said he believed that it was some manner of the fog of battle, with the American-backed Kurdish troops interpreting the movement of government ground forces as an attack to control an oil field and calling in an airstrike.
Other sources like Mr. Averin have also suggested that many Russians died.
“I can confirm that Kirill died on Feb. 7 in Syria, near the Euphrates River, as a result of a strike by the American coalition,” Mr. Averin said in an interview, adding that he was aware of “substantial losses” suffered by “paramilitary structures with ties to Russia.” He refused to elaborate.
Another victim, Vladimir N. Loginov, died “in an unequal fight on Feb. 7 in the area of Syria’s Deir al-Zour,” according to a statement published online by his paramilitary organization.
“He died, heroically defending our motherland in the far reaches against the invasion of maddened barbarians,” the Baltic Cossack Union in Kaliningrad said in the statement.
Mr. Loginov, 51, has been a member of the local Cossack group, a pro-government paramilitary organization, since 2014.
In another case, Lubava Kocheva, a Russian woman from central Russia, said in a brief online chat that two of her male friends in Syria, Igor Kosoturov and Stanislav Matveev, also died in Syria on Feb. 7.
“We don’t know anything, whether they will bring them or not,” said Mrs. Kocheva, 41, referring to the men’s corpses. “This is very difficult and frightening.”
The names of most of the victims identified so far were first reported by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers. The exact circumstances of their deaths could not be established by The New York Times.
The Russian Defense Ministry, which supports President Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing civil war, said none of its servicemen were involved in the clash and that only 25 pro-government Syrian insurgents were wounded. It took pains to distance itself from the battle.
“The reason for the incident was lack of coordination between the reconnaissance movements of the Syrian insurgents and the Russian operative command,” the ministry said in its statement on Thursday.
The number and exact nature of private Russian security firms operating in Syria is unclear, although there have been persistent reports in the Russian media that some militiamen who fought on the side of the Russian-backed separatists the war in eastern Ukraine later deployed to Syria.
The main attention has focused on the so-called Wagner Group, a name drawn from the nickname of the retired Russian officer who leads it. The Russian paramilitary organization, with murky and unconfirmed ties with the Kremlin, has been operating in Syria in various capacities, including protecting some oil fields, according to multiple reports by the Russian media. The organization’s leaders have reportedly received awards in the Kremlin and its mercenaries are trained at the Russian Defense Ministry’s facilities.
Grigory A. Yavlinsky, a veteran Russian opposition politician, who is running for president in an election next month, called on President Vladimir V. Putin to disclose the number of Russians who died in Syria.
“I demand an explanation as to why Russian nationals take part in ground military operations in Syria, despite the statements by the president and defense minister that Russian military formations will be withdrawn from this country,” Mr. Yavlinsky said in a statement. “I also think there needs to be a public report about relations with the U.S., as there is a growing threat of an accidental or deliberate direct military clash between Russia and America.”
The official Kremlin stance is that its military deployment in Syria is now centered around two permanent bases, one for the air force and one for the navy, there by invitation from the Syrian government.
Russian political analysts said that Russia’s reluctance to confirm that its citizen died as a result of a U.S.-led airstrike is actually a sign that Moscow does not want to further worsen the already fractured bilateral relations with Washington.
“This is a very rare case, where the positions of Russia and the U.S. got closer,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, a leading expert in the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow. “No one wants to take steps that will do irreparable damage to the already broken Russia-U.S. relations.”