As Russia counts the cost of victories in Syria two years after the start of its overt military intervention, there is apparent surprise at the news that two fighters from a Russian mercenary unit have been killed by Daesh. The Defence Ministry in Moscow immediately denied the news, stressing that there are no Russian prisoners of war in Syria.
The Kremlin promised to look into the identity of the men who are said to be Russians. Just as it has done in east Ukraine, Russia has denied the presence of any of its mercenaries fighting in Syria.
However, a brother of one of the killed fighters from the Moscow suburbs told Al-Hurra radio that his brother did belong to a mercenary unit. "The fighters are lured by money and are sent to be slaughtered, and then the authorities deny this. The state established a private army under the name 'Wagner', and my brother was part of it."
He added that his brother also fought in east Ukraine in 2014 as part of the Slavonic Corps, which later became the "Wagner mercenary army". Thousands of young Russians are said to have fought with the unit and been killed.
"Why doesn't Russia establish an official Special Forces unit with these fighters rather than use them as bait?" asked the anonymous relative. "Their existence is then denied when they are killed. President Putin himself has granted Wagner officials awards in the Kremlin. Why are official awards granted to the leaders of this private military company, while the fighters are denied when they are injured or killed?"
He added his belief that an official announcement of the Wagner private army would force the Russian leadership to announce the real number of its losses in Syria, which are "much higher" than has been admitted.
According to the girlfriend of the other fighter killed by Daesh, "Wagner" trains its fighters at an official military base in Krasnodar and promises to pay them well, about $4,000 a month. However, she said that they are only paid about half of that, while they pay the families of fighters killed between $22,500 and $52,000 depending on their rank and mission. She also said that the contract that the fighters sign with Wagner "would make anyone's hair stand on end." It apparently prohibits family members from contacting the fighters and prohibits them from opening the coffin and identifying them when they are killed. She claimed to have been informed of the death of her boyfriend on 26 September by "sources" in Syria, but has not still received his body. Although she knows that Rostov Airport received 12 coffins on the 28 September and that they were met by a Wagner representative, friends and relatives were not informed of anything officially.
The last letter the fighter's family received was on 13 September, in which he wrote, "I am still alive, but we cannot leave. Everything around us is mined."
Responding to the question of why fighters would join a mercenary unit to fight in Syria, she said, "President Putin has declared that the minimum cost of living for Rostov is 33,000 Rubles; I am a state employee and I make 13,000 Rubles. How can I live on this?" It is, she concluded, only natural for these men to want to make more money.