Originally published February 14, 2018 at 03:33a.m., updated February 14, 2018 at 03:33a.m.
MOSCOW -- Four Russian nationals, and perhaps dozens more, were killed in fighting between pro-government forces in eastern Syria and members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State militant group, according to Russian and Syrian officials.
A Syrian military officer and the U.S. each have said that about 100 Syrian soldiers were killed in the fighting on Feb. 7 and 8, but news about Russian casualties has dribbled out only slowly, through Russian news organizations and social media.
Much about the fighting and the associated casualties has been obscured in the fog of war. For reasons that remain unclear, Syrian government troops and some Russian nationals appear to have attacked a coalition position, near Al Tabiyeh, Syria.
The attack occurred in the vicinity of Deir el-Zour, a strategic, oil-rich territory coveted by the Syrian government. Most of the fatalities were attributed to a U.S. airstrike on enemy columns that was called in by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters who believed they were under attack.
At no point, a U.S. military spokesman said, was there any chance of direct conflict between U.S. and Russian ground forces.
"Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack," said Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S. military. "Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity."
Briefing reporters by video at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who heads Air Forces Central Command, said that "deconfliction" conversations between the U.S. and Russian militaries in Syria continued on a daily basis. He described the interactions as "professional." But he repeatedly declined to specify who was killed in the Feb. 7 airstrike.
The Kremlin has sidestepped questions about the episode, even as it faces rare criticism at home over its failure to acknowledge the deaths of Russians in Syria.
It has stressed repeatedly since Feb. 7 that no members of the Russian armed forces were killed and that any Russians fighting alongside the Syrians were mercenaries.
"We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen," Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said at a news briefing Tuesday. "We don't have data about other Russians who could be in Syria."
The Kremlin said much the same about the nature of the Russians fighting in Ukraine in 2014, however, claiming they were volunteers and men on vacation, only to admit later that they were regular soldiers.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Monday, but neither side publicly mentioned Syria as a subject of their call.
Putin has said at least three times since 2016 that combat operations in Syria were winding down, including once during a surprise visit to a Russian air base in Syria in December. Yet there are hundreds if not thousands of contract soldiers in Syria whom the Russian government has never acknowledged.
They were deployed both to help keep the official cost down and to avoid reports of casualties, especially with a March presidential election in Russia fast approaching, analysts have said. Even though the Kremlin enacted a law during the Ukraine conflict in 2015 to make battlefield casualties a secret, the funerals for regular soldiers killed in combat need to be more official than those for mercenaries and are thus difficult to hide.
And some individual Russians have begun speaking out. Alexander Ionov, a Russian businessman working in Syria offering security and other services, said he estimated after conversations with associates in several private military organizations that more than 200 Russians might have been killed.
Ionov said not all those killed were Russian: Some of the paid fighters came from other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. "More than 200 is the current estimate, we cannot know the exact number yet, but most of them were Russian," he said in a telephone interview.
Ionov said he was speaking out because he wanted any Russians who were killed to be officially recognized for their sacrifice.
"The truth has to be told," he said. "If people died, then this should be recognized and respects should be paid to people who fought against terrorists."
He called on the government to give a fuller version of events, adding, "People are outraged because they want to know the truth."
Ionov was not the only one speaking out about Russian fatalities. Alexander Averin, a member of the Other Russia nationalist party, confirmed that Kirill Ananiev, a party member who left for Syria about a year ago, had been killed in the airstrike, noting that there were other "substantial losses."
"I can confirm that Kirill died on Feb. 7 in Syria, near the Euphrates River, as a result of a strike by the American coalition," Averin said in an interview, adding that he was aware of "substantial losses" suffered by "paramilitary structures with ties to Russia." He declined to elaborate.
In the Baltic Sea city of Kaliningrad, a local Cossack conservative group also reported losing one of its own, Vladimir Login, in the attack.
Group leader Maxim Buga said Login, a sapper by training, departed in the fall to help the Syrian army clear mines. He said Login had years of experience in Chechnya and a "humanitarian mission" in eastern Ukraine under his belt.
"When he was leaving, he said that he was going to help Syrian people," Buga said. "He was in many hot spots before -- that was his specialty."
The names of most of the victims identified so far were first reported by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers. The exact circumstances of their deaths could not be established by The New York Times.
The Russian Defense Ministry, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad in the ongoing civil war, said none of its servicemen had been involved in the clash and that only 25 pro-government Syrian insurgents were wounded. It took pains to distance itself from the battle.
"The reason for the incident was lack of coordination between the reconnaissance movements of the Syrian insurgents and the Russian operative command," the ministry said in a Thursday statement.
Information for this story was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff of The New York Times and by Anton Troianovski and Andrew Roth of The Washington Post.
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