by Neil Hauer
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 confusion surrounding the attack, however, suggests that Wagner’s offensive actions resulted in a debacle the Kremlin did not expect. With its ability to control the Assad regime already in question, Russia appears to now be facing issues restraining even its own mercenary contractors.
If the February 7 attack indeed came as a surprise for the Kremlin, how and why did it happen at all? In this case, a report from the Russian daily Kommersant provides crucial details. A former Wagner employee and comrade of several of those killed in the incident stated that it was an attempt by “local big businessmen currently supporting Bashar Assad” to seize oil and gas fields controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurds. The plan, apparently, was to attack the Kurdish base and seize it before U.S. airpower could drive them off.
At first glance, such a move is unprecedented: since Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, there have been no reliable indications of Wagner operating outside the Kremlin’s command. Yet an incident in 2013 holds more clues. That year, the Slavonic Corps, a predecessor of Wagner, was contracted by an unknown Syrian client to seize oil fields in the east, in roughly the same area where the February 7 fighting took place. This, too, was a debacle—the group was poorly outfitted and driven off by Syrian rebel fighters. It demonstrates, though, that such attacks can occur without the express knowledge of Moscow.
A sensational scoop in The Washington Post late last week revealed that the order for the assault came from a remarkably high-placed source: Yevgeny Prigozhin. A member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in control of a number of powerful enterprises, Prigozhin is not only closely linked to Wagner but possesses other interests in Syria’s northeast. He heads the firm Evro Polis, which inked a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corporation early last year to secure production rights for 25 percent of all Syrian oil and gas fields. With most of those fields under Kurdish control, Prigozhin coordinated with senior Syrian officials to plan “a good surprise” for Assad’s government. It appears Prigozhin secured not only promises of additional pay from Damascus but also at least tacit agreement from the Kremlin: the oligarch was in contact with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino, in the days before and after the attack.
This revelation raises more questions than it answers, the most important of which involve the degree to which the Russian government approved the attack and whether Prigozhin and the Syrians were aware of the U.S. presence in the area. The most likely answer at this point is that the Kremlin was aware that Wagner and Prigozhin planned to send the Kurds a signal at Damascus’ behest but anticipated little if any response from U.S. forces, and certainly not the drubbing that Wagner received.
THE BOONS AND BANES OF MERCENARIES
The February 7 incident has also highlighted the role that Wagner has come to play as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. After its inauspicious start as the Slavonic Corps in Syria in 2013, the group was allegedly involved in the February 2014 takeover of Crimea. Wagner mercenaries participated heavily in Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine in 2014, including the battle for Debaltseve in January and February 2015. And although private military companies remain technically illegal in Russia itself, Moscow contracted the group for a number of tasks in Syria following its 2015 intervention there. Wagner was especially active in the country’s center and east: its fighters participated in the March 2016 capture of Palmyra as well as the late 2017 campaign for the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor.
Current best estimates place Wagner’s numbers in Syria at around 2,500 servicemen. For perspective, in September 2016 Russia was estimated to have just under 5,000 personnel in Syria, making the Wagner detachment equal to about half the size of the official one. The mercenaries have often played a light infantry role, reconnoitering territory and spotting for air strikes, but they have also been employed on the frontlines. The utility of such a group is obvious—it allows Russia to employ ground forces without incurring the political risk of potential casualties. This is particularly useful when there is heavy fighting—in September 2017 alone, Wagner reportedly suffered 54 combat deaths. The group’s service has been publicly rewarded: Putin was seen presenting a medal to Wagner head Dmitry Utkin at a Kremlin ceremony in December 2016.
As the events of February 7 demonstrate, however, Wagner may diminish the political risk of casualties but cannot eliminate the threat altogether. A battle producing 100 deaths is impossible to hide in the social media age, and some journalists have already spoken to family members of the deceased. The mother of one dead fighter, in a small town in the Urals, said that the members of his unit were treated “like pigs… sent to slaughter.” Another was similarly indignant, saying that the Russian government is “responsible for its actions.” The damaging publicity is not what Putin needs with the Russian general election scheduled for mid-March.
But as bad as the February 7 attack is on the Russian domestic front, its impact on the Syrian conflict is likely to be worse. Moscow is already finding it difficult to control the course of the crisis, with its much-vaunted Syrian peace congress in Sochi having recently ended in debacle. Conflict continues to rage between Syrian Kurds and Turkey in the northwest, and reports indicate that the Kurds and the Syrian regime—ostensibly Moscow’s client—spurned Russian involvement in their negotiations. Even if Wagner’s assault was tacitly sanctioned in some form by the Kremlin, its disastrous results and the scale of the battle that ensued will do little for Moscow’s legitimacy as a force for stabilization in Syria. The revelation that the Kremlin either cannot or will not exercise control over proxies such as Wagner only further challenges Russia’s narrative as kingmaker in Syria.
As for Wagner itself, the next steps are unclear. Moscow will certainly seek to rein in the group, likely by redeploying elements from the area of the February 7 incident to the outskirts of Damascus, where a major regime offensive is looming. Wagner is also likely to become more involved in Idlib Province in Syria’s northwest, now becoming a focus of combat between the regime and surviving rebel groups. The revelation that Prigozhin effectively used Wagner as a tool for his personal enrichment in conjunction with Syrian officials, even if sanctioned to a degree by the Kremlin, demonstrates an unsettling and heretofore unknown potential for escalation. The United States gave Wagner a substantial bruising sure to make its commanders think twice before attempting such a stunt again—but the precedent of the group fighting U.S.-backed forces has nonetheless been set. For Putin, this attack appears to be just the latest in a series of unwelcome escalations in a country where he declared victory just two months ago—and proof that proxy forces such as Wagner can backfire in an unintended fashion.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.