Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Three Russian Stories Touching on Moscow’s Mercenary Losses in Syria

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 21 – The brother of a Russian mercenary who was killed in Syria earlier this month may be right that ultimately “Russia will forget you” ( But right now, this is the most heavily discussed story in the Russian media, eclipsing both the recent sex scandal and the elections.

            Many of these stories go over the same ground, but as is almost always the case when something like this occurs, some of them take up critically important issues but are fated to be missed in the general flow of more emotional commentaries.  Three such articles have appeared over the last several days

            The first, an article in Vzglyad entitled “Why was the Foreign Ministry Silent So Long bout the Russians Wounded in Syria” by Nikita Kovalenko and Andrey Rezchikov, focuses on the procedures the Russian government uses to identify and then report dead and wounded (

            The Russian government took “more than two weeks” to officially confirm that there had been a significant number of casualties in the clash of February 7-8 in Syria, the two journalists say. That opened the way to speculation, some of it uninformed, about just how many mercenaries had died and why.

            Viktor Murakhovsky, chief editor of Arsenal Otechestva, told the journalists that the authorities had moved slowly not in order to hide anything but because of the difficulties of identifying the dead in this war zone.  Until a body is identified, the soldier in question is always listed as a MIA.

            That being the case, the military journalist continued, “one can predict that the official figure of dead will rise in the coming days.”

            Anton Mardasov, a specialist on the Middle East at the Moscow Institute for Innovative Development, adds that a further complexity has been introduced in this process because “the volunteers as they are called could not act in Syria without the control of the corresponding counter-intelligence and intelligence structures” but are not integrated with them as regular units would be.

            He says he is “certain that the Ministry of  Defense has imposed control on the situation around the private military company fighters who have suffered but has distanced itself from this for political reasons.”  The ministry probably hopes that passions will cool and then it can report things more fully.

            But Aleksandr Averin, a friend of one of those who died and a representative of the unregistered Other Russia Party says that from what he knows, the delays may have arisen because of the difficulties involved in identifying the bodies, many of which were seriously harmed. He also doesn’t exclude that the independence of the private military companies may mean that they did not report as quickly as the military would.

                The second article, by Viktor Shevchuk on the Russky Mir portal, focuses on the losses Russian forces have been taking over the last four years and projects that these forces may lose three times as many more in 2018 unless Moscow begins a draw-down in Ukraine or in Syria (

            “If one does not count the clash of February 7-8 with the US army [for which no final official figures are available] … the Russian federation has lost about 600 professional soldiers” each year in Syria, with additional losses from private contractors adding perhaps as many as 200 more,” Shevchuk says.
            At present, he continues, Russia is suffering approximately 1500 dead each year in the two combat areas it is involved with, Syria and Ukraine. And these figures, an average over the last four years, are set to increase not only because Russia’s opponents are becoming better armed but because control over much of Syrian territory by pro-regime forces remains tenuous.

            “Probably,” Shevchuk adds, “the losses both in Ukraine and in Suria will grow for Russia from this year approximately two and in the case of growing intensity three times.” That would mean a total of 4500 combat losses each year. Preparing replacements will be difficult in current economic conditions.

            “One can therefore suggest two scenarios for the development of events; either an increase in spending on the Russian army and operations abroad or the gradual drawing down of military campaigns both in Ukraine and in Syria.” That would likely happen “no earlier than 2019” when the Russian economy will again be in “deep crisis.”

            The total losses of military specialists of the army of Russia, up to 10 to 12,000 for the period 2014 to 2018, will mean that Russia will lose almost a third of its professional soldiers with combat experience. And in a pessimistic scenario, that number could rise to 20 to 25,000 if the wars intensify. 

                And the third, a report on the Orthodox Russkaya Liniya portal, offers an argument by Moscow military specialist Konstantin Sivkov on why Russia needs “private military companies” as groups like Vagner are known and why the Russian government must have tight control over their activities (

            Private military companies like Vagner are “a worldwide trend, Sivkov says. “Russia needs them but with this qualification: they must have the right to operate only outside of the borders of Russia” and must function “under the strictest possible control of the state and operate only in its interests.”

            Many don’t understand all the things that private military companies can do, the military specialist continues. They are not only guards but provide expertise, prepare training materials, carry out instruction of the regular military, and perform various logical and communications functions. 

            And it is worth stressing, he says, that “private military companies fulfill yet another important function: the create of work places for officers and contract soldiers who have completed their service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, the special services, and the law enforcement organs.”

            They thus “fulfill the function of assimilating those cadres who have gone into the reserves and preferring their importance for the system of defense of the state.”

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