U.S. soldiers killed scores of Russian mercenaries in Syria last week, thwarting an attack on a shared U.S. and Kurdish base in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region. The clash represents the largest between U.S. and Russian citizens since The Cold War.
Complicating—or by some standards simplifying—the issue is that these Russian forces were not strictly part of the Russian military. While the U.S. claims responsibility for its successful retaliation, Russia denies involvement.
Vladimir Frolov, a Russian diplomat-turned-political-analyst, argues that this should be “a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” but “Russia will pretend nothing happened.”
Russia has good reason to do so. “No one wants to start a world war over a volunteer or a mercenary who wasn’t sent by the state and was hit by Americans,” Vitaly Naumkin, a senior adviser to Russia’s government on Syria, said in an interview.
The Kremlin is caught between its interest in shaping the Syrian conflict and protecting its fragile relationship with the United States. With Iran’s help, the Russians have been able to alter the course of Syria’s seven-year civil war in favor of its despot, Bashar al-Assad. However, U.S. presence in the region makes Russian military involvement difficult, as it did during Ukraine’s internal conflict. In order not to disrupt alliances that could catalyze a world war, the Russians employ mercenaries to act on behalf of their interests without bearing their state flag. Thus, U.S. soldiers and Russians soldiers can meet on the battlefield without either country having to commit to all-out war.
What isn’t clear is how these mercenaries receive payment. It is possible that money and arms come from either Russia, Syria or Iran. Some wonder if funding reaches these mercenaries through an independent military contractor called Academi. It is possible that Assad or his allies hired the contractor to protect Syria’s remaining energy assets, which might explain why the attack took place against a base in an oil-rich area.
Assad’s government in Damascus condemned the U.S. retaliation as a “war crime,” and Russia’s Defense Ministry doesn’t hesitate to call U.S. presence in Syria an “illegal” excuse to steal from the region. Though it seems counterintuitive to talk about legality in the context of war, U.S. actions were up to code. Russia, however, has a duty to the international community and to the world to report its involvement in the attack.