The chief Kremlin spokesman has suggested that if any Russians were killed by U.S. air strikes in Syria last week, they were not regular soldiers, continuing to distance President Vladimir Putin's government from reports that several Russian mercenaries -- and possibly dozens -- died after staging an attack on U.S. forces and their allies in the Middle Eastern country on February 7.
"We in the Kremlin do not possess detailed information that would enable us to draw conclusions," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 14, amid mounting evidence that Russian contract soldiers fighting on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's side were killed in the incident in Deir al-Zor province.
"It cannot be ruled out that there may be citizens of the Russian Federation [fighting] in Syria. They are not connected to the armed forces of the Russian Federation,'' Peskov said in a conference call with journalists. His comments echoed previous statements from the Defense Ministry, which has said no Russian servicemen were in the area at the time.
The Pentagon has said its air strikes in Deir al-Zor last week targeted Syrian government troops that had attacked a base housing U.S. and Syrian opposition forces, killing about 100 of the attackers. U.S. officials say they do not know whether Russian mercenaries were among the casualties.
"There is now reporting in the press," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on February 13. "I don't have any reporting that some Russians, non-Russian Federation soldiers, but Russian contractors, were among the casualties. I can't give you anything on that. We have not received that word at Central Command or the Pentagon."
"I will not speculate on the composition of this force or whose control they were under," said Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
U.S. forces are "focused on" fighting Islamic State (IS) militants, he said, adding: "We're not looking for a fight with anyone else, but as Secretary Mattis said last week: 'If you threaten us, it will be your longest, and your worst, day.'"
The U.S. Defense Department said the air strikes, which included fighter and ground-attack aircraft and Marine artillery, were launched after as many as 500 attackers waged a coordinated assault on a base housing Syrian opposition forces, along with U.S. military advisers in Deir al-Zor.
In recent days, news reports, open-source researchers, and relatives and colleagues of Russian mercenary soldiers have said that multiple Russians may have died in the exchange on February 7.
Citing an unnamed U.S. official and three Russians it said were familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported on February 13 that "U.S. forces killed scores of Russian contract soldiers" in the incident.
Bloomberg cited two of its Russian sources as saying that more than 200 mercenaries, most of them Russians, were killed, and The New York Times cited a Syrian military officer as saying about 100 Russians were killed.
The Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which monitors Russian involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, on February 12 identified eight Russians it said were among those killed.
A Cossack organization in the Kaliningrad region posted on social media that one of its members had also been killed, and the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, citing unnamed sources, reported that 13 Russians were killed and another 15 wounded.
The reports of Russian deaths in the incident in Deir al-Zor come amid persistent tension in U.S.-Russian relations, which are strained by disputes over Syria and several other issues.
They also come weeks ahead of Russia's March 18 presidential election. Putin is widely expected to secure a fourth term in the controlled political environment, but analysts say he wants high turnout and a convincing victory to bolster his mandate as he heads into what may his last term.
Asked on February 14 whether Putin had canceled trips and meetings that had been scheduled in the past few days in order to discuss the reports of Russian deaths in Syria, Peskov said that was not the reason. Peskov said on February 13 that Putin's schedule was changed because he had a head cold.
Russia has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government crucial support throughout the seven-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protests. Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in his favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.
In a surprise trip to Russia's air base in Syria in December, Putin said that Russian and government forces had "crushed" terrorists and ordered a partial withdrawal of the Russian contingent there.
Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal politician who is running in the election, called on Putin on February 13 to report publicly about "the actions of Russian troops in Syria at present and the number of deaths of Russian citizens regardless of their military status."
"I also think it is essential to account publicly on interactions with the United States, since the danger of an accidental or intentional direct military engagement between Russia and the United States is growing," Yavlinsky said in a statement.