15:15 Nov. 3, 2016
Officially, Russia is participating only in an air war over Syria with a small number of special forces on the ground, but casualties tell a different story
Moscow denies that its troops are involved in regular ground combat operations in Syria, arguing that Russia is participating only in an air war.
However, in interviews with more than a dozen people with direct knowledge of these deployments, Reuters has established that Russian fighters are playing a more substantial role in ground combat than that the role the Kremlin says is being played by the regular Russian military.
The sources described the Russian fighters as contractors or mercenaries, hired by a private company, rather than regular troops. But despite their unofficial status, according to these accounts, they operate in coordination with the Russian military and are given privileges back home normally available only to serving soldiers.
They fly to Syria on board Russian military aircraft which land at Russian bases. When they are injured, they are treated in hospitals reserved for the Russian military and get state medals, people interviewed by Reuters said.
Under Russian law, it is illegal to work as a private military contractor in another country. However, Russian citizens have participated in wars across the former Soviet Union throughout the 25 years since it broke up in 1991.
In 2014, large numbers of Russians fought openly on behalf of pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine. Western countries say those insurgent units were organized, paid and armed by Moscow; the Kremlin says any Russians there were independent volunteers.
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Last year, Russia joined the war in Syria. Word got out among veterans of the Ukraine war that mercenaries were needed. According to people interviewed by Reuters, many of those who had fought in Ukraine, then headed to Syria, where Russia began its intervention in Sept. 2015.
One Ukrainian militant commander said many of the fighters there were tempted to fight in Syria because they had found it difficult to return to civilian life.
"I meet them now and see how much they have changed. I simply have nothing to discuss with them. They can't imagine any other life but war. That's why they go fight in Syria."
A former Russian officer and Donbas ‘volunteer' said Russian veterans of the Ukraine fighting were recruited for ground combat in Syria when it became clear that Syrians would not be able to hold ground without help, despite Russian air support.
"The Arabs are not warriors by nature, but are thrown together and told to storm high ground. They don't know how to storm it let alone conquer their instincts and move towards the bullets. How can you make them do it? Only by setting yourself as an example," he said. "That's why our guys reinforced their units."
Asked if fighters in the group coordinated with the Russian defense ministry, he said: "Of course".
According to two people who knew different fighters, they arrive in Syria via ships that land in the port of Tartous, leased by the Russian navy, or in military aircraft that land at Russia's Hmeymim air base in western Syria.
A doctor at a Russian military hospital told Reuters the wounded are evacuated to Russia on board military cargo planes and then treated in military hospitals.
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job, said he had personally treated contractors injured in Syria, whose role there was clear from their conversations.
According to him, the surgical department where he works had treated six or seven Russian fighters back from Syria with combat injuries who were not serving Russian servicemen.
The overall number of wounded contractors treated at his hospital could be a few times higher, the doctor said. He also says he knows of at least two more hospitals in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg where contractors are treated.
Reuters was not able to determine the precise number of such Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria, nor the total number of casualties they have sustained.