On Wednesday, Feb. 21, Moscow almost leveled for the first time about the more than 100 Russians killed or wounded in a recent battle in Syria – but only almost. The Russian Foreign Ministry acknowledged that “several dozen” Russian citizens – not regular soldiers – were recently killed or injured – but continued to hold back on the details of when, where, how many – or indeed in what circumstances – they lost their lives.
For days, the Russian authorities have been dodging around the battle on Feb. 7 in which hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed in a US attack near the eastern Syrian town of Khisham not far from Deir ez-Zour. At first, the Russian Defense Ministry said, “five Russian citizens were killed,” later insisting that data was only issued for members of the armed forces.
This official caginess on the casualties from that battle has generated a viral flood of posts on social media, which cite much higher casualty figure, offer details about the operation and who exactly took part on the Russian side. Some names have been offered by mourning families complaining about the secrecy and demanding honors for the dead fighters; others are identified along with the names and numbers the Russian military units to which their loved ones belonged. Some of the mercenaries are described as former Russian army servicemen, including veterans of the Ukraine war who were recently employed by the Russian security contractor Wagner.
The bloggers even named the man who ran the mercenary contingent in the “failed” Deir ez-Zour operation as a Russian citizen from Petersburg called Sergei Borisovich Kim, a veteran of the Russian Navy. As Chief of Operations at Wagner PMC, he is said to have acted in coordination with the Russian military command in Syria. Clearly, regular Russian soldiers were among the casualties, as well as the hired guns of Wagner, a Russian so-called private contractor, run by a close crony of President Vladimir Putin to provide trained personnel or “volunteers” for services to GRU military intelligence and Special Operations Forces, which Moscow prefers not to acknowledge.
When the battle was over, the Russian military command tellingly requested a ceasefire to recover the wounded and dead. It was also revealed that the Russian command was warned by the Americans to stay out of the Deir Ez-Zour battle, but ignored the warning.