The assault on the outpost reads like a Hemingway story, from the Spanish Civil War. That a hundred or more Russian mercenaries were killed in what amounted to a suicide attack on an American base along the Euphrates River has been known in Moscow more or less since it happened, on the of the night February 7-8, not far from the city of Deir al-Zour in in eastern Syria.
Last week a team of reporters for The Washington Post, citing “US intelligence reports,” wrote that the Russian oligarch who is thought to control the mercenaries was “in close touch with both Kremlin and Syrian authorities in the days before the attack.”
Russian soldiers are positioned within a few miles of each other on opposite sides, west and east, of the Euphrates. US troops are there supporting a considerably larger force of Kurdish soldiers who are battling the remnants of ISIS forces in the area. Russian soldiers have been in Syria since their government intervened on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Officers on both sides confer daily by telephone to avoid direct conflict.
According to the Post, oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozin is thought to control the Wagner force in Syria. In communications intercepted in January, he was said to have told Syrian officials that he had “secured permission” from a high Kremlin official to launch a “fast and strong” initiative in early February. The Syrians, in return, assured him he would be repaid for his efforts.
Prigozhin, a close associate since St. Petersburg days of Russian president Vladimir Putin, was indicted last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for US election meddling by his Internet Research Agency.
A good account of the assault on the American base is to be found in Bloomberg Businessweek: some 300 killed or wounded among an attack force estimated to have been 600 soldiers.
Russia’s military has said it had nothing to do with the attack and the US military accepted the claim.
“The Russians may have allowed the attack to take place simply to make it clear to Assad that you can’t do things without coordination with Moscow,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.
From a slightly different angle, Jonathan Haslam, Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, offered an illuminating account of the murderous folly, though the B-52 strikes he reported may have been AC-130 gunship support.
That some of the wounded have been evacuated to military hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg had been confirmed by Russian authorities. The echoes of Russia’s war in Afghanistan are melancholy.
In half a dozen capitals, the reporting has only just begun. There is much to be learned. The Russian elections next month will be an occasion for a thorough going appraisal, in the US, as well as Russia, of Vladimir Putin’s eighteen years in power.
Economic Principals is traveling and had no time to tether this weekly to larger themes. Read the Post story, or follow developments as they appear in the Times, the WSJ or the FT. To be continued next month.