PHOTO: Russian soldiers patrolling Palmyra, Syria, in 2016. A U.S. air strike last week in eastern Syria reportedly killed scores of Russian citizens who were private military contractors // Vasily Maximov / AFP / Getty

Published: The New Yorker. 16.02.2018

By Joshua Yaffa

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. 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.

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. 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. 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.