MOSCOW — A group of Russian military contractors died in a U.S. airstrike in Syria last week, people who knew two of those killed said Tuesday, signaling the beginning of a potentially dangerous phase in the crowded theater of war in the Middle East.
The incident appears to be the first publicly known case of the U.S. military firing on and killing Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither Washington nor Moscow officially confirmed the deaths.
And the Kremlin, rather than using the incident to fan anti-American feelings, sought to play it down.
The United States described the Feb. 7 airstrike southeast of the city of Deir al-Zour as a counterattack after an unprovoked assault by pro-government forces on a base where U.S. troops were operating in support of local partner units. One U.S. official said that the American-led coalition was in regular contact with Russian counterparts “before, during and after” the attack and that no regular Russian service members were believed to have been killed.
Beyond Russia’s official military engagement in Syria backing the regime, an unknown number of Russian mercenaries are fighting as part of Assad’s army. In recent days, rumors swirled online in Russia that large numbers of those military contractors had perished under American fire. The contractors have been active in Syria since the Kremlin began its intervention in September 2015, according to Russian news reports.
On Tuesday, two Russians told The Washington Post that people they knew were among the dead. Russian news media reported that the deaths of several other military contractors have been confirmed, as well.
“I know he didn’t die alone,” said Alexander Averin, a spokesman for the far-left Other Russia party, describing the death in Syria of party member Kirill Ananyev. Averin added that it was “a fact” that other Russians also died, according to his sources in Syria.
In the Baltic Sea city of Kaliningrad, a local Cossack conservative group also reported losing one of its own, Vladimir Loginov, in the attack. Group leader Maxim Buga said Loginov, a sapper by training, departed last fall to help the Syrian army clear mines. He said Loginov 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.”
Analysts are increasingly concerned that the conflict in Syria could spill well beyond its borders, given the number of powers engaged in the country. Just this month, Israel, Russia and Turkey have had aircraft shot down over Syria.
Briefing reporters by video at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who heads Air Forces Central Command, said “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.
“It’s not as simple . . . to sort out exactly who everyone is down there, and we need to allow that to work its way through,” Harrigian said.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Monday, but neither side publicly mentioned Syria as a subject of their call.
The United States initially said that about 100 pro-government fighters were killed in the Feb. 7 counterattack. In Moscow, officials said none of them were Russian service members. Russian news media confirmed the deaths of several mercenaries in addition to Ananyev and Loginov, based on interviews with people who knew them, and speculated that the number of Russians killed may have exceeded 100. That would be more than double the 44 Russian service members who the government says have been killed in action in Syria since October 2015.
“I’m sure the number of those confirmed dead is going to increase,” said Alexander Ionov, a Russian anti-globalization activist who has fought in Syria and is well connected among former fighters from eastern Ukraine. “To some degree, both sides are guilty because both sides are staying silent. Neither side wants the world to know about a direct clash between Russians and Americans.”
Alexei Zhuravlev, a nationalist member of the lower house of parliament, reacted with outrage: “The tragic day of Feb. 7 can be seen as the beginning of an open war of aggression by the West against the Russian people,” he said.
But the Kremlin, which has been quick to play the anti-American card in the past, was more circumspect.
“Let’s be frank: There are rather large numbers of our Russian countrymen in many countries of the world, and it is very difficult in this case to possess detailed information,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday in response to a question about the Russian deaths.
Vitaly Naumkin, perhaps Russia’s most prominent Syria expert, also urged restraint in a news conference at the Valdai Discussion Club.
“There is nothing good in this situation, but let’s not exaggerate it,” Naumkin said. “What are we going to do, go to war with the Americans or look for a place where we can blow up 100 Americans?”
Moscow’s reticence on the matter underlines a key Kremlin balancing act: preventing anti-American sentiments stoked daily on Russian state television from getting out of hand. Vladimir Frolov, an independent Moscow foreign policy analyst, said Putin was looking for calm ahead of the presidential election next month, in which he is expected to win a fourth term.
“The Kremlin has no desire to go to war with the U.S. a month before the election,” Frolov said. “It wants this story to die ASAP.”
Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.