Igor Kosutorov wasn’t a serving member of the Russian army. But relatives of the 45-year-old grocery shop owner believe he is among scores of Russian citizens killed this month in an airstrike by a US-led coalition near Deir al-Zour, an oil-rich territory in eastern Syria.
After initial denials, Russia’s foreign ministry admitted on Thursday that five citizens were likely to have been killed in the bombing while fighting alongside pro-regime Syrian forces on 7 February. But reports suggest as many as 200 Russian nationals could have lost their lives, which, if confirmed, would be the most lethal clash between US and Russian citizens since the end of the cold war.
While the numbers remain unclear, a picture is emerging of some of those believed to have died; some were battle-hardened veterans of Moscow’s war in eastern Ukraine, inspired to travel to Syria by patriotism or a resurgent sense of Russian nationalism. Others were simply hoping for a lucrative payday.
All were, according to multiple sources, employed by the Wagner Group, a shadowy Kremlin-linked private military contractor. Critics say Moscow uses mercenaries from Wagner to keep official military losses in Syria low. The official Russian army death toll in Syria last year was sixteen soldiers, although dozens of mercenaries are believed to have died.
“Igor was a former army sniper. He went to Syria because he was a patriot. He believed that if we don’t stop Islamic State in Syria, then they will come to us, to Russia,” Nadezhda Kosutorova, his ex-wife, told the Guardian in a telephone interview from her home in Asbest, in the Urals region. “He told me that if he didn’t go, then the authorities would just send young kids, with almost no military experience.”
She said she had remained close to Kosutorov after their divorce, but he had not told her who arranged his journey to Syria. News of his reported death reached her through informal channels.
“I’m collecting information bit-by-bit from different sources trying to find out where the bodies of the dead might be,” she said. When asked why Russian authorities had not contacted her, she sighed. “This is a political game that I don’t understand,” she said.
The airstrike marked the first time Russians had died at the hands of the US in Syria since the Kremlin entered the conflict on the side of President Bashar a-Assad in 2015, helping the regime to turn its fortunes around in the multi-front war.
Mikhail Polynkov, a nationalist blogger, wrote in an online post that he had visited men injured in the attack at an unnamed hospital in Russia: “My sources told me 200 men had died from one unit alone.”
But as the first reports of the deaths swirled last week on social media, the Kremlin stayed tight-lipped.
Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said it was possible some Russian citizens were in Syria, but that the Kremlin only possessed information about Russian servicemen. Speaking on Thursday, Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said reports of a death toll higher than five were “classic disinformation”.
“In the conflict zones there are many citizens from all parts of the world, including Russia … it is extremely difficult to monitor them and to check what they are doing,” Zakharova said.
Aside from Kosutorov, at least nine men are believed to have travelled to Syria from Asbest and the surrounding region to fight with Wagner in recent months, according to reports.
“They just threw them into battle like pigs,” said Yelena Matveyeva, the widow of Stanislav Matveyev, a 38-year-old mercenary from Asbest who is also believed to have died.
“Wherever they sent them, they had no protection,” Matveyeva told RFE/RL in an interview. She said Russian authorities should acknowledge citizens who die fighting in Syria, and where possible, help to repatriate bodies. “There should be something in their memory, so that the wives won’t be ashamed of their husbands and their children can be proud.”
Some 1,100 miles east from Moscow, Asbest, with a population of 70,000, is home to the world’s largest open-pit asbestos mine. Official average salaries are around 25,000 roubles (£314 pounds) a month, and residents are plagued by ill-health.
In contrast, monthly salaries for Wagner employees in Syria range from 90,000 roubles (£1,132) for a rank-and-file combatant to 250,000 (£3,147) for a military specialists, said Ruslan Leviev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, an investigative group that researches Russian casualties in Syria.
Critics said the Kremlin’s reluctance to acknowledge, let alone honour the Russians who died in the confrontation with US-led forces was in stark contrast to the hero’s funeral given last month to Roman Filipov, an air force pilot shot down over Syria.
“One gets medals and honours, while others are buried quietly and forgotten about,” Nadezhda, another woman who claims her husband had died while fighting as a mercenary in Syria in October, told the Guardian in an online conversation.
Other Russian citizens reported to have died in the February clash include Kirill Ananyev, a member of the radical leftist Other Russia party.
“He went to Syria because he liked fighting – Russians are very capable of that,” said Alexander Averin, a spokesman for the movement.
Despite the anger of relatives, some defend Putin’s reluctance to publicise the deaths.
“The authorities have the right to hush up information in the interests of the country,” said Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist writer who is believed to be close to high-ranking members of the Russian security services. “These people who died were warned before they went to Syria that they would not receive military honours if they perished there.”
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