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After Syria Deaths, Creeping Anger -- And Kremlin Silence -- Over Mercenaries


Mother Talks About Dead Russian Mercenary
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Combat was not Ruslan Gavrilov’s primary motivation in signing up to go to Syria with a shadowy private military company. But the 34-year-old Russian also wasn't "going to Syria to build houses," he told relatives.

Rather, his mother says, Gavrilov was simply down on his luck and "wanted to earn some money." He was one of at least 10 men around her son's age who were recruited from their village around the same time, she adds.

"He didn’t have regular work -- it was temporary, hanging doors or putting up ceilings," Faina Gavrilova tells Current Time TV at the family home in Kedrovoye, in the central Russian region of Sverdlovsk. "Sometimes there's work; sometimes there isn't."

Gavrilov is on a growing list of Russian fighters who are thought to have died in massive U.S. air strikes in Syria's Deir al-Zor Province on February 7, at least several of them natives of Sverdlovsk.

His mother complains that she and other families grieving or fearing the worst have been left "living in ignorance" by officials.

The incident remains steeped in mystery amid reports suggesting it could mark the deadliest confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian fighters since the Cold War.

Gavrilova complains that she and other families fearing the worst "are living in ignorance."

But the unconfirmed reports of dozens or even hundreds of Russian casualties has also shone new light on the role of Russian mercenaries in Syria and elsewhere, and the men who enlist in such private armies.

Faina Gavrilova says her son, Ruslan, who is thought to have died fighting in Syria, was simply down on his luck and wanted to earn money.
Faina Gavrilova says her son, Ruslan, who is thought to have died fighting in Syria, was simply down on his luck and wanted to earn money.

Anger is building among relatives and survivors of the dead and injured as the public is left to speculate in the absence of clear information from Russian officials or the company widely believed to have been involved, ChVK Vagner.

Gavrilova says she still has no confirmation of her son's fate; she learned of his death from relatives.

The Kremlin has talked down casualty figures and insisted no uniformed troops were involved, while hinting that a private contractor may have been present in eastern Syria and partly to blame for any casualties.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stopped short of confirming on February 15 that Russian contract soldiers were among those killed during hours of U.S. bombardment on February 7 by B-52 strategic bombers, F-22 fighter jets, AC-130 gunships, and Apache attack helicopters.

Even if the numbers are not in the hundreds, the Syrian incident appears to be the deadliest ever for Russian mercenaries abroad and the first direct hostilities between such fighters and U.S. forces.

Zakharova said five Russians may have been killed and others wounded in the attack but added that officials were still trying to verify identities and nationalities.

The U.S. military said up to 100 people had died but that identification of the dead was continuing.

Against a backdrop of mounting evidence from relatives and colleagues of Russian contract soldiers and anonymous officials, the Foreign Ministry's casualty total is expected to climb.

Russian and international news reports say dozens of injured fighters are being treated in St. Petersburg-area military hospitals.

Hours after Zakharova’s statement, Ekho Moskvy radio station said it had identified another casualty from Syria, bringing the unofficial death toll tallied by reporters and open-source researchers to nine.

Reuters, meanwhile, reported on February 15 that the number of dead and wounded was around 300, quoting an unnamed military doctor and acquaintances and sources among the fighters-for-hire.

Even if the numbers are not in the hundreds, the Syrian incident appears to be the deadliest ever for Russian mercenaries abroad and the first direct hostilities between such fighters and U.S. forces.

Vagner At The Front

Virtually nonexistent in Russia a decade ago, private military companies have grown in strength and prominence.

In 2012, two years before the Ukraine conflict erupted, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin endorsed creating a regulatory framework for them.

They "serve as an instrument of realizing our national interests without the direct participation of the state," Putin told lawmakers.

Yelena Matveyeva shows photos of her husband, Stanislav, who is thought to have died fighting in Syia. "Wherever they sent them, there was no defense. They just threw them into battle like pigs," she contends. "The government should avenge them somehow."
Yelena Matveyeva shows photos of her husband, Stanislav, who is thought to have died fighting in Syia. "Wherever they sent them, there was no defense. They just threw them into battle like pigs," she contends. "The government should avenge them somehow."

A nearly 4-year-old war in eastern Ukraine, where central government troops are battling Russia-backed separatists, has featured many Russian fighters alongside local separatists and what Kyiv says are uniformed Russian troops serving clandestinely. Moscow has rejected allegations that active Russian troops are in Ukraine and says Russians there are simply volunteers.

Russia's entry into the Syrian war in 2015 appeared to fuel an increased reliance on mercenaries serving alongside regular armed forces.

Private military companies' freedom from Russian regulation and close overlap with the activities of formal military structures like the GRU have allowed them to flourish.

Open-source researchers have documented 10 private military companies in Syria, with the St. Petersburg-based Vagner regarded as one of the largest and the primary source of Russians contracted to work there. Vagner's fighters were said to have played an important role in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces recapture the city of Palmyra in May 2016.

Vagner's head has been identified as Dmity Utkin, a former commander with Russia's military intelligence agency, known by its acronym GRU. He and Vagner were targeted by U.S. Treasury Department sanctions last year for their alleged roles in the Ukraine conflict. One of the company’s main financiers has been identified as Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose company has major catering contracts with the Kremlin.

Prigozhin also is said to control an oil-trading firm, called Evro Polis, that reports have linked to Vagner’s operations in Syria. The unit that was attacked by U.S. air strikes in Deir al-Zor appeared to have been trying to seize a Syrian oil field known as Conoco.

Private military companies' freedom from Russian regulation and close overlap with the activities of formal military structures like the GRU have allowed them to flourish.

Lawmakers from a Kremlin-supportive party, A Just Russia, tried to introduce legislation regulating such companies in 2016, but the government reportedly opposed it and the bill was withdrawn.

But that gray area has become increasingly problematic, particularly as contract soldiers who serve in places like Ukraine and Syria die and their families receive fewer of the benefits that regular conscripts might.

Russian Widow Says Husband Died In Syria 'For No Reason'
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Vladimir Shamanov, a retired airborne-forces general who heads the defense committee in the lower house of parliament, signaled this week that legislators were considering new regulation.

“So that no one is left guessing what happened there and how, the state should be directly involved in these issues, all the more when this concerns the life and health of our citizens,” Shamanov said.

No Work, Know War

Back in Kedrovoye, Gavrilov’s mother notes that when her son left for Syria in October, it was open knowledge that he wasn’t the only recruit from the village. Estimates ranged from six to 12.

Another villager, who asks not to be named, says his son-in-law was serving alongside Gavrilov. The last time he heard from him was February 7.

The fact that the men were unable to find steady, well-paid work angers Faina and other relatives. It also underscores the yawning economic gap between Russia’s wealthier cities and distant provinces, where jobs are scarce.

Two years ago, mercenaries were reportedly making as much as $3,900 a month while serving in Syria. In 2016, Russia's RBK reported that as many as 2,500 private soldiers were contracted by Vagner to work in Syria, earning around $4,600 a month plus bonuses and other perks.

The average monthly wage across Russia in November 2017 was around 39,000 rubles ($670), according to official statistics. In many provinces, like the Ural region of Sverdlovsk, it is much lower.

Another woman in the Sverdlovsk region, whose husband is also thought to have died in Deir al-Zor, was more scathing in her criticism of authorities and a perceived lack of government support. She told Current Time TV that he and his fellow fighters were "thrown into battle like pigs."

The anger was not limited to relatives. The Kommersant newspaper offered a harsh editorial on February 14 in which it alleged, "The Kremlin has destroyed the image that it is the defender of all Russians."

Current Time is a 24-hour Russian TV channel produced by RFE/RL, in conjunction with Voice of America.

With additional reporting by Current Time TV
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    Anton Zakharov

    Anton Zakharov is a correspondent for Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

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