It appears that the Putin-linked Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, indicted for his alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, is also tied to the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group (Grupa Vagnera). As many as 300 Wagner mercenaries and their Syrian partner forces were killed by retaliatory U.S. air and artillery strikes on February 7.
In return for liberating oil facilities from the Islamic State, Syria will reportedly pay the mercenary group 25 percent of the recovered oil revenue. The Wagner force had crossed the Euphrates River into a neutral zone, and was approaching the Conoco Oil Field when they launched their coordinated artillery and armor attack on the U.S. and allied Syrian Democratic Forces’ position. Although Russia can deny an official state connection to the attack, it is worth noting that Russian military aircraft flew the Wagner casualties back to Russian military hospitals.
The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned both Prigozhin (in 2016) and Wagner Group (2017) for their roles in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. It is possible that Wagner merely exists as a front for members of the Russian Armed Forces to engage in armed conflicts while giving the Kremlin plausible deniability.
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On Tuesday, under increasing pressure from the families of the dead and wounded Wagner mercenaries, Russia’s Foreign Ministry finally admitted that “several dozen” Russian forces were killed in Syria and that the regime had provided them transport back to Russia. The official announcement did not state where or when the forces were killed, and continued to disassociate the dead with the Russian government.
Tuesday’s statement was, in many ways, an acknowledgment that Russia’s strategy of plausible deniability had been defeated. By causing massive, undeniable damage to the mercenary forces, the U.S. pushed the Kremlin into a corner, trapped between its strategy and the Russian public’s outcry and demand for answers.
Vladimir Gutenov, Chairman of the Military Industry Committee in the Russian parliament, commented Friday, Feb. 23, that the deployment of the Su-57 in Syria may send a political message, serving as a deterrent “for aircraft from neighboring states which periodically fly into Syria uninvited.” The Russian lawmaker added that the planes “need to be tested in combat conditions, in conditions of [enemy] resistance.”
DEBKAfile’s military sources note that the “political message” conveyed by the deployment of two fifth-generation, stealth SU-57 fighter jets at the Russian Khmeimim air base in Latakia is crystal clear. It is a warning to the US, Israel and Turkey against continuing their air force flights in Syrian air space. The reference to “the need to test the new plane in combat conditions” indicates that Moscow will not hesitate to send the high-tech jets into battle.
Deployment of the Su-57 come months after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the mission in Syria over and announced that 38 Russian warplanes would leave the theater.