Article by Aleksandr Golts for The New Times. Translated by Claire Haffner.
The story of a combat group destroyed by American artillery and aircraft on the shore of the Euphrates is being fleshed out by several sources in all its gritty detail, and Russian officials are far from pleased with the disclosure. We’re not talking about outliers like the former Defense Minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin-Strelkov, or the leader of the Kaliningrad Cossacks, nor the authors of numerous social media posts, but rather three of the most prominent world news agencies: The Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg published reports saying that several dozen Russians were killed in US bomb strikes. Citing Russian military medics, the Reuters article alleges that the Ministry of Defense’s hospitals are crowded with wounded coming in from Syria. Maria Zakharova, representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, acknowledged the death of five Russians (with the stipulation that their citizenship needed to be confirmed).
Andrei Nikolaevich Troshev, named by a couple of media sources as the head of the private military company Wagner, expressed his thoughts on the issue (“Wagner” himself, retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Army Special Forces, Dmitriy Utkin, is now reportedly involved in the restaurant business owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, recently indicted by US special counsel Mueller): “Write this on your forehead: fourteen volunteers died in Syria. You’ve got your fingers up your noses and you’re telling tales in your little articles, sitting around wasting time…As for all of your conjecture, what you’re writing over there, and…your investigations — nobody deserted anyone. If the Motherland deserted anyone, we would have been done for long ago, and you would have too, for that matter,” this gentleman, with the utmost politeness, told Pravda.ru.
Admittedly, this squabble seems relatively trivial. The main issue is not the number of Russians who died, be it fifteen or a hundred and fifty, but something else: for the first time in over sixty years, since the Korean War, Americans and Russians have come into direct conflict.
At the red line
It is by no means a coincidence that top officials at the Pentagon — from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to the commander of US Air Forces Central Command General Jeffrey Harrigian, responsible for the use of aviation — are now making a point of playing dumb. They say they documented the advance of pro-Assad forces (having spent several days observing their build-up on the eastern shore of the Euphrates), and asked the Russians, who answered: we don’t know anything about it, but we disbanded that column. And even though American journalists asked the same question a dozen times in various formulations — “Did you know who you were attacking?” — the American military seems completely unaware of who exactly their planes and helicopters hit. Moreover, no one is paying attention to the obvious questions that arise after analyzing this version of events. One must conclude that American military intelligence operatives are incredibly uninquisitive if they indifferently observed the build-up of “enemy forces” without even trying to figure out who they were comprised of.
It gets worse. Arguably the most striking aspect of General Harrigian’s briefing is that B-52 strategic bombers participated in the strike. These planes are based in Qatar and on the island of Diego Garcia, which would mean a flight time of about an hour and a half to the site of the strike. Fighting lasted about three hours. Of course, it is conceivable that the B-52’s arrived at the very end of the clash to bomb the rest of the group — and this is the version of events that the US military will most likely stick to.
However, it’s much more likely that these “tacticians” were either kept in a state of readiness, or that they were already in the air. This suggests that the strike was designed to show who’s boss.
A show of force
The signature style of Russian politics has become so-called “secret operations” that are a secret to no one. “Well then prove it” has become a catchphrase repeated by Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov. This concerns the covert war in Donbas, interference in the domestic politics of other countries, including the US, the land operation in Syria, and the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. They’re counting on the fact that there is no court where one could present evidence of a nuclear power violating international law. One only has to remember how Russia blocked the creation of an international court to investigate the downing of the Malaysian flight over Donbas.
And so when all was said and done, those fed up with the mocking explanations about “tractor drivers and miners” who get their tanks and guns on the “military market” decided to play by Russian rules. And they sent a reply. You confirm that the entire battalion consists of “not our troops”? Well, if there are no Russians there, you won’t mind if we destroy the entire group. Let’s see how you twist your way out of this one…
By doing this, the Americans crossed the red line that they’ve been nervously hanging around for the last 60 years. Contrary to popular belief, the Soviets and Americans never entered into direct military confrontation, neither in the Middle East nor in Afghanistan.
The first real military clashes took place between the US Air Force and the Soviet army’s 64th Fighter Aviation Corps, stationed in China at the start of the Korean War in the 1950s, where former supporters of anti-Hitler coalitions found themselves on different sides of the front. Soviet pilots covered North Korean and Chinese troops. On the side of the future South Korea was an international coalition, headed by the US under the banner of the UN. Soviet pilots wore Chinese uniforms and carried Chinese papers. However, Russian participation quickly became a kind of Pulcinella’s secret — during fighting, the pilots were most definitely not speaking Chinese. Yet even at the height of the military standoff, the US didn’t risk announcing the direct involvement of Soviet pilots in battles.
Many years ago, Paul Nitze, former advisor to president Truman, admitted that he had written a secret memorandum about whether it was worth publicly disclosing Soviet troops’ participation in battle. The US government decided against it, seeing as the indignation of the American people could lead to unpredictable consequences, including nuclear war. Similarly, in the current situation, the Americans are hiding that they knew who their strike was hitting; both sides are trying to avoid the worst possible fallout of events.
Sixty years later and a similar scenario is playing out, forcing official representatives to lie and to hem and haw in order to avoid the worst. A number of Russian and American experts believe that given the general degradation of bilateral relations, a string of incidents and confrontations during conflicts in proxy theatres – in Syria, for example – could lead to an irreversible scenario. One can only hope that Moscow and Washington are aware of this danger.