By Nicholas McCarty
There has been a great deal of confusion around last week’s US led strike on advancing pro-regime forces threatening SDF positions east of Deir ez-Zor, Syria. Major US outlets such as the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Vox have all issued reports citing “dozens” of Russian casualties, with most relying on Aleksandr Ionov’s account of over 200 “Wagnerovtsy” dead on the battlefield. More educated guesses, notably among them Michael Kofman, have revised this figure downward considerably to about 15-20 private military company members (PMC or ChVK in Russian) dead and an equal amount wounded. This, interestingly, also aligns with the Russian MoD’s statement to Interfax on Syrian casualties. As Kofman notes, this number is much more reasonable given Secretary of Defense Mattis and the DoD’s report that the attacking force numbered a “battalion sized” contingent of mixed Syrian and Wagner forces approximated at 300-500 men. Given that the DoD itself admits that only the contingents that continued their advance on SDF positions during the three-hour bombardment were hit, the figure of 200 dead Russian mercenaries (between 40%-70% of the entire Russo-Syrian force) seems incredibly doubtful.
The significance of the strike, however, does not lie in how many Russians or Syrians were killed but instead the fact that the strike even happened. Some publications, such as Newsweek and the New York Post, see this strike as the next step in a series of Putin ordered provocations aimed at testing American resolve through hybrid warfare. The truth, however, is far less alarmist. The American strike was conducted through official de-escalation channels and therefore had the tacit approval of the Russian MoD. This indicates that either the MoD did nothing to limit risk to the mercenaries, or, more likely, that Putin and his generals were unaware of the Wagner group’s involvement in the operation. If this is the case, the MoD’s ignorance exposes the limits of Russia’s much-heralded hybrid war, in which operational control is traded for deniability.
Though the term “hybrid warfare” has become almost a cliché in military circles, it is useful for our purposes in that it allows us to acknowledge that these proxy actors should be thought of as extensions of the Russian state and working toward the state’s goals. This framework, however, also allows us to acknowledge these proxy actors often have their own interests as well. The Russian journal Kommersant said as much in its own recap on 14 February. Citing an anonymous Russian MoD source, Kommersant reports the Syrian-Russian force was moving to seize Kurdish controlled oil resources, a move the Russian official called “unsanctioned” and “needlessly aggressive”. Though these movements align with Russia’s interest in further access to Syrian oil, the Wagner Group (and its backer Yevgeny Prigozhin) have a more pressing interest in oil field access. The group has reportedly been offered 25% of the proceeds its contractors capture and secure for the regime through the front group Evro Polis. This profit incentive likely sits side-by-side any loyalty to Putin and Russia.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Kremlin lose control of its proxy forces. In late winter 2017, chaos reigned in the Russian-backed separatist Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), as rebel interior minister Igor Kornet successfully overthrew the republic’s previous strongman, Igor Plotnitsky. Each man was backed by different Kremlin interests. Kornet’s support from within Russia’s security services apparently proved decisive. Infighting points to the ongoing difficulties Russia has encountered in maintaining control of non-state forces from afar, especially since PMCs are still officially banned in the Russian Federation.
It is significant, therefore, that Western media outlets are witnessing increasing dissent within the ranks of their hybrid warriors. Beyond the previously mentioned coup, we can look to Wagner’s survivors for clues as to the real relationship between Moscow and their erstwhile soldiers of fortune. As Bear Market Brief and others have written on before, PMCs like the Wagner Group offer wages considerably higher than average in Russia, with some reports of contracts offering wages above 300,000 rubles per month, as compared to 35,000 per month for the average Russian civilian . Such handsome compensation has served to attract recruits from across Russia, and kept them and their families quiet as they suffered losses in both Ukraine and Syria.
Danger was surely expected for Russia’s mercenary corps, and we have seen Wagnerovtsy captured by Islamic State and other rebel groups. But few likely anticipated being fired on by US forces without support from the mother country. The Kommersant report says that the Wagnerovtsy hoped to surprise the SDF-American force, closing to close-range quickly so that the Americans could not strike from the air without risk of friendly fire. Their failure, and the perceived Russian failure to come to their aid, now threatens morale among Wagnerovsty. Neil Hauer corroborates this with his independent tracking of Chechen PMC members on Telegram, quoted one Chechen Wagner member deployed to Syria as saying “whatever you do, don’t come here [to Syria]… we are getting f***ing slaughtered. Every day”. In Russia, nationalist groups are beginning to speak out, decrying not the casualties but the Russian state’s failure to acknowledge their sacrifice. This may explain exaggerated casualty claims of various Russian nationalist groups as they try to claim national recognition.
Taken together, these clues begin to paint a picture of a Russian military that is not as in command of the situation as it, or much of the Western press, asserts. Additionally relations between the Wagner Group and the Russian government are not as close as perhaps thought. At minimum, there is much more room for economic or political agency and “corporate desires” than previous conceptions of Russian realist genius may have thought. The Deir ez-Zor situation exposes this critical weakness in Russia’s modern military tactics.