The Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria say they are not in the country for the money or to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Syrians] can't stand Assad," one Russian mercenary commander told RFE/RL. "Really. Only a tiny percentage of the population there supports him and the rest oppose him. Only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin supports him. Russia supports him -- no one else."
There is a bigger motivation, the mercenary claimed. "If you are fighting under a Russian flag, with a Russian weapon, even if you are eating moldy food and are 10,000 kilometers from home, you are nonetheless fighting for Russia," he said.
"There is no Syrian war," he added. "There is no Ukrainian war. There is only a war between the Russian Federation and the United States."
Early last month, an unknown number of Russian mercenaries -- some reports say a dozen, others as many as 200 -- were killed by U.S. air strikes during fighting in Syria. The men were hired by a private military contracting firm called ChVK Vagner, which has been sending Russians to fight in Syria since 2015.
RFE/RL has been able to speak -- on condition of anonymity -- with three Vagner commanders who have fought for the company both in Syria and, before that, in support of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Together, the three men -- all veterans of the Soviet Army -- paint a grim picture of the campaign in Syria and of the men who are fighting there.
The first Russian mercenaries were sent to Syria by an organization called Slavic Corps in 2013 -- 267 men, according to an investigation by the St. Petersburg website Fontanka.ru. Their official mission was to guard oil facilities and pipelines, but they were soon caught up in the country's civil war and suffered heavy losses. When the survivors returned to Moscow in October 2013, their leaders were arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for illegal mercenary activity.
Nonetheless, the idea of a role for mercenaries apparently took hold somewhere among the Russian authorities. In 2014, as Moscow was annexing Ukraine's Crimea region and stoking a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, a Soviet and Russian army officer named Dmitry Utkin and others began forming paramilitary units to fight in Ukraine's Donbas.
"In 2014, [Ukrainian separatist military commander Igor Girkin a.k.a.] Strelkov was fighting around Slovyansk and a lot of people wanted to go and help him," one of the Vagner commanders said.
'A Cruel Fellow'
The mercenary groups worked hand-in-hand with the Russian military. They trained at a military facility near Rostov-on-Don and were commanded by experienced officers from the special services and the Defense Ministry. By June 2014, the first groups of about 250 mercenaries each had crossed the border into Ukraine.
"They were basically company-sized tactical groups," one commander said. "There were no private military contractors then, but people were paid on time."
One of the groups sent to Ukraine was headed by Utkin, who fought under the nom de guerre Vagner, after 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner.
"Vagner is a cruel fellow," one of the Vagner commanders told RFE/RL. "He's no fool." The man added that Vagner has a swastika tattooed on his shoulder, wears a helmet with horns, and practices a form of paganism, a description that RFE/RL could not confirm.
The Syrian story of the Vagner force began in 2015. Now there are several Russian private military contracting companies working in the country, but only the Vagner troops are said to engage in combat operations.
RFE/RL's sources estimated that there are about 2,000 Vagner fighters in Syria, although other media reports put the figure at 4,000. In addition, the Vagner troops fight together with a unit called Karpaty, which is made up primarily of about 300 Cossacks with Ukrainian citizenship.
Including Russian military forces, there are some 8,000 Russians supporting Assad in Syria now, the commanders say. "There were 6,000, but they announced a draw-down and reduced it to 8,000," one commander quipped.
The five Wagner companies and the Karpaty company work under Syrian command in close coordination with the Russian military.
"Every company has a connection to [Vagner] headquarters and there is an officer of the Russian military command there," one commander said. "He coordinates the air cover where an operation is under way. In general, the coordination is very precise. Sometimes it is a thing of beauty to see how perfectly the aviation and artillery support works out."
'Zones Of Influence'
Vagner forces do not carry out full-scale military operations, the sources said, but rather "expand zones of influence."
"They take territory under control -- as a rule, oil and gas fields -- and then guard these territories," a commander said. "They are paid for this.... But it is impossible to control an oil field if there are hostile fighters 500 meters away, so they have to force them out."
Officially, the Vagner mercenaries sign contracts for civilian work in oil and gas fields.
Mercenaries can earn 150,000 rubles ($2,650) a month, plus a bonus of up to 100 percent for completing a three-month tour. In three months, a mercenary can make nearly a million rubles. A commander can earn about three times as much. But a fighter who changes his mind is sent back to the supply port to unload crates at 1,000 rubles a day.
The commanders RFE/RL spoke with estimated that some 400 Russians have been killed in Syria since 2015. Not all the killed mercenaries, they said, are returned to Russia.
"There is a rumor that Vagner is a so-called meat-grinder project," one of the commanders said. "What is to be done with those who fought in Donbas? With the idiots from the first wave who are real ideologues? These are scary people who could catalyze society. They can cause trouble like yeast in bread. But in Syria, you can help the interests of the country and get rid of some yeast at the same time. That's what some people are saying. And probably there is something to it."
In the early days of the operation, the mercenaries were well supplied, with, albeit used, Russian military equipment, including T-90 and T-72 tanks and various armored vehicles.
One commander remembers unloading crates of 120-millimeter mortar shells at the port of Tartus. The crates were labeled "Use: 1986." You'd grab a crate, one of the commanders recalled, and the handles would come off in your hands as the box disintegrated.
In 2016, the commanders claimed, some disagreement between Vagner patron and close Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu took place that resulted in much poorer conditions for the mercenaries.
"They took away the tanks and the weapons," one commander said. "They took back everything they had given earlier. Now the Vagner forces fight with Syrian weapons."
'War Without Ceremony'
Even the training ground in Russia where the Vagner mercenaries prepare is now stripped bare. But one of the Vagner commanders did not see that as a problem. "War will teach them," he said dryly.
The mercenaries now are paid by the Syrian government, which transfers the funds to Prigozhin-controlled structures in St. Petersburg.
The mercenaries have little respect for their Syrian comrades in arms, the commanders said.
The Syrians "are afraid of Islamic State," one said. "Say, for example, you go on the attack and take some high ground. You hand it over to the Syrians, but in the morning they don't have it anymore. IS is back there. And we have to take the hill again."
"I asked one translator, 'How come your boys don't want to fight?'" he said. "He told me that many of them had been killed and it is necessary for some of them to remain and to [have intercourse] with girls so that there will be some children."
The Vagner fighters know that they mustn't be taken prisoner. And their IS foes know it, too.
"It is the kind of war without ceremony," one commander said. "Everyone knows perfectly well that being captured means death by torture."
"I have specialists who remove eyes," he added. "They take a spoon and dig around up and down until the eyeballs are just dangling there."
The Vagner commanders predicted the demand for their services would only grow as the "war between the Russian Federation and the United States" continued.
"There are many fights ahead," one commander said. "Soon it will be in Libya. Vagner is already fighting in Sudan."
"Putin just explained to everyone that they'd better get ready," he added, referring to Putin's state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly on March 1. "It was a good speech and it is about time someone told them, 'enough.' I agree with it completely -- we can't play defense forever. Such a world power [as Russia] and a bunch of gays are going to tell us how things should be?"
"If we have to fight with America, we will win," he said. "They don't know how to fight. As Putin said, you can invent all sorts of missiles, but you can't invent people like we have. Our people -- they know how to sacrifice themselves."