ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Russia is abuzz with media reports that dozens -- perhaps hundreds, by some accounts -- of Russian mercenaries were killed or wounded in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor on February 7-8 in fighting with the U.S. military and its Syrian-rebel allies.
The Russian government has been reluctant to talk about the incident, saying on February 15 that "about five" Russians "may have been killed" and, on February 20, that "several dozen" Russian and other former Soviet citizens were injured. The United States has estimated that about 100 fighters were killed in the incident, without specifying their nationalities.
Many of the wounded mercenaries from the Vagner commercial security firm have been evacuated to Russia and are being treated in military hospitals. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelizaveta Mayetnaya visited one such hospital outside St. Petersburg, where she spoke with Yevgeny Shabayev, the ataman of the Khovrino Cossack organization and a sometime mercenary.
Shabayev had just finished visiting eight of the wounded mercenaries. He agreed to talk with RFE/RL about the fighting in Syria and about how and why Russians end up going there. His assertions -- including about burials and casualties, remuneration and compensation, deployments, or purported meetings in the Kremlin -- have not been corroborated by RFE/RL.
RFE/RL: You've just finished visiting the wounded soldiers. What did they tell you about the night they were injured?
Yevgeny Shabayev: My friend who was brought back as "cargo 300" [wounded] from the battle in Syria told me a pretty depressing story when I saw him in the Khimkinsky [Central Military] Hospital. Our Vagner fighters -- more precisely, from the 5th and 2nd sections -- came under attack from the air. It might have been drones, but he couldn't confirm that since it was night and later there was already mopping up by helicopters.
When 550 men come under fire in the desert at night, not many of them are going to survive. He said that about 200 men emerged uninjured. He couldn't say what happened to the rest, but surviving there would have been very hard.
And that is for one simple reason: There was no helicopter cover or evacuation support because the Vagner units do not have helicopters. Knowing that, you can draw your own conclusions about the number of dead. [Ultranationalist State Duma deputy Vladimir] Zhirinovsky says it was more than 300. [Nationalist military analyst] Viktor Alksnis says it was 334. I think these numbers are pretty accurate, based on my information from various sources from various regions. Over the last weekend [February 17-18], they already buried the 15th guy who died that night.
RFE/RL: How long did it take to recover the wounded?
Shabayev: That is a very difficult question, since reinforcements came from the Vesna [Spring] battalion. That is a Donbas battalion (named after a region of eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists control territory) which, unfortunately, gets paid rather less than the Vagner regulars, although it is technically part of the Vagner force.
At least 100 Russians died and our government is worried about the deaths in American schools.
They also came under attack from the air -- not such a heavy attack, but still something pretty serious. It is really hard to evacuate people in the desert. It isn't like Afghanistan or Chechnya. So I can't really say precisely when they managed to evacuate them, but they started arriving in Russia around February 11-12, while the battle itself was the night of February 7-8.
RFE/RL: Were they evacuated by Russian military aircraft?
Shabayev: I can't confirm that, but I think, yes, since there are no other aircraft there.
RFE/RL: How long was your friend in Syria before he was wounded?
Shabayev: Quite a while, but I can't say for sure. There have been five "waves" of Vagner recruits. This wasn't my friend's first trip [to Syria].
RFE/RL: What types of wounds did you see among the Vagner fighters you visited at the Khiminsky hospital?
Shabayev: Mostly belly wounds from shrapnel. They were very serious wounds; these patients were not really transportable. The fact that they were brought here is up to the tremendous heroism of our medics. Thank you to them. We can't name their names for one simple reason -- they can be kicked out of the hospital because this is a military hospital, and private military companies -- any private military companies -- are illegal in Russia.
And there is one more reason why I don't mention their names. All of them, right down to the nurses, are obligated by law to report to the police and prosecutor's office any gunshot wounds or other similar injuries. Naturally, a criminal case would be opened, and people would be sent to prison.
RFE/RL: It is strange that, knowing full well that mercenary activity is illegal and carries a 15-year penalty, they still went there anyway...
Shabayev: The main reason why they go there is that they have no life here. No work and no social or economic status, neither as former military with specific experience nor as simple citizens. They went as hired soldiers to protect [oligarch] Yevgeny Prigozhin's pipeline, since they were guarding the oil fields around Palmyra.
Then they were ordered to grab another plot that was, let's say, "available." But it turned out that they were under the control of an alternative business company that takes the protection of its clients pretty seriously. I mean a private American company. (Editor's note: According to the U.S. Defense Department, the attack by the Russians and pro-government Syrian forces on February 7 was repulsed by fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. military personnel -- not mercenaries.)
RFE/RL: Have you heard of cases when the relatives of slain Vagner fighters were not paid death benefits?
Shabayev: The contracts that mercenaries sign when they go to Syria have no legal status in the Russian Federation. Generally, they include provisions that 1 million rubles ($18,000) will be paid in the event of injury and 2 million ($36,000) in the case of death. The recruiters who send these guys to Syria are responsible for these payments, but there have been many problems. I heard of a case from the Krasnodar region where a Vagner fighter was killed and his relatives did not get anything.
RFE/RL: Did the majority of mercenaries in Syria fight previously in the Donbas?
Shabayev: Even before our troops were sent to Syria, they say there was a meeting in the Kremlin where, according to what I've been told, [Donbas military commander Aleksandr] Borodai was given the order to "utilize" the large number of people who had seen with their own eyes that you can change the government by, let's say, nonelectoral means. Such people are not needed in our country.
You can find in one trench in Syria guys who were trying to kill each other in the Donbas.
So, in addition to our oil-related goals, there was also the issue of "utilizing" the Donbas veterans. That, basically, is what they are doing. The majority of the first three Syria recruitments were people who had undergone serious training, and they have been cleared out. More precisely, they were sent to storm Syrian cities before artillery bombardment.
RFE/RL: And who is paying for the treatment of those who were wounded in Syria?
Shabayev: The [Russian] government. They are in government hospitals. I'd like to stress that for the United States, private military companies are not state structures, since we ourselves [i.e., the Russian state] do not recognize them. So they [the United States] had no obligation to warn [Russia] about their attack. On the contrary, they confirmed their action publicly.
Instead of expressing "serious concern" like our beloved leader [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov always does, the Russian government just ignored the situation and spoke out instead about events in Florida. That is, at least 100 Russians died, and our government is worried about the deaths in American schools. I never really noticed that [U.S. President Donald] Trump was ever much worried when someone in Ulan-Ude kills schoolkids with an ax.
If our Russian government doesn't want to support our citizens, if it doesn't protect them and forgets about them even after they are killed, then that state is serving something besides the national interests of the Russian people. Most likely, it is serving commercial interests. Probably some business project in which people are nothing but biomass. On the other hand, they use us like biomass here in Russia, too. You pay for housing, for communal services, but they kill you. The country is going extinct; it's just that over there [in Syria], the living are destroyed more quickly.
RFE/RL: Now, following these major losses in Syria, [there is reportedly] a new, sixth mobilization. Are people signing up?
Shabayev: We have a prison in Donetsk and a prison in Luhansk [conflict zones in eastern Ukraine] where people, including Russian citizens, have been held for more than three years since the signing of the Minsk agreements [that ushered in a shaky cease-fire in Ukraine]. These people didn't want to stop. They wanted to attack further and defend their motherland. And they were thrown in prison without any charges. There are no lawyers there -- everything is done on orders. (Editor's note: Russian officials insist despite mounting evidence that no regular Russian troops are active in Ukraine.)
So these people have been sitting for three years. And a recruiter comes up to them and says, either you can rot in here or you can go and fight and maybe earn some money too. When you are confronted with such a choice, you go and fight. And not for 150,000 rubles ($2,650) per month like the main Vagner fighters. You go into Vesna or Karpaty, where you get less than 100,000 ($1,770). The recruiters also work in Ukraine. There are veterans of the [Ukrainian government's] Antiterrorism Operation in Syria as well. No one now cares who shows up there. You can find in one trench in Syria guys who were trying to kill each other in the Donbas.