Russian involvement in Syria is tougher and more costly than what the Kremlin has disclosed, according to evidence gathered by Reuters. Since late January, Russian losses in the conflict are more than three times higher than the official toll.
Eighteen Russian citizens fighting alongside Moscow's allies, the Syrian regime's forces, have been killed since 29 January – a period that coincided with intense fighting to recapture the city of Palmyra, once again, from Daesh.
The Russian defence ministry has publicly reported only five servicemen's deaths in Syria over the same period, and its officials' statements have not mentioned any large-scale Russian ground operations in the fight for Palmyra.
The toll was revealed in interviews with relatives and friends of the dead men, cemetery workers, local media reports of funerals and evidence collected by a group of investigative bloggers, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT).
In each case, Reuters has independently verified information about the deaths by speaking to someone who knows the dead man.
The casualties since the end of January represent one of the highest tolls for the Russian contingent in Syria since the start of Moscow's military intervention 18 months ago.
Most of the dead were not regular Russian soldiers, but Russian civilians working as private military contractors under the orders of Russian commanders. Moscow has not officially acknowledged the presence of the contractors in Syria.
The 18 fatalities documented by Reuters include five soldiers whose deaths were announced by the defence ministry, four private military contractors, seven other such contractors, and two regular soldiers whose deaths the defence ministry has not announced.
One of the 18 men killed was Yuri Sokalsky, a 52-year-old from the Russian Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik who, according to a person close to him, signed up to go to Syria in January with a group of private contractors.
In one of his last phone calls home, the person close to him said, he expressed surprise at the large numbers of Russian contractors being despatched to Syria, and relayed what he had been told about the intensity of the combat.
"Out of every 100 people, 50 are coming back in caskets," the person recalled Sokalsky as saying. The person asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions for revealing information that is sensitive for the Russian authorities.
The period examined by Reuters coincided with the start of a major Russian deployment to the area around Palmyra, according to several people close to the dead fighters.
Local media reports and social media posts point to more Russian deaths in Syria since the end of January than the 18 casualties, but Reuters has not been able to verify that information independently.