Dozens of Russian mercenaries killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria last week were part of a secret Kremlin-backed private military company, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
The dead fighters worked for the Wagner company, part of Moscow's use of hybrid warfare—covert military and influence operations that include use of so-called "little green men"—unconventional forces operating without official insignia. The forces were first seen in 2014 during the military takeover of Ukraine's Crimea by Russia.
"They are a private army," said Vasyl Hrytsak, head of Security Service of Ukraine, known as SBU, in a recent interview.
Ukraine believes the Wagner company was formed, equipped, and financed by Russian intelligence services for military, terrorist, and other criminal activities in support of Russian geopolitical interests.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters enroute to Europe Tuesday the U.S. airstrike was carried out on pro-Syrian regime forces near the Euphrates River in Syria.
Mattis said the Central Command was told there were no Russians in the force targeted in the attack.
"There is now reporting in the press—I don't have any reporting—that some Russians—not Russian federation soldiers, but Russian contractors—were among the casualties," he said without elaborating.
The unacknowledged nature of the covert Russian paramilitary group prompted Moscow to deny that any Russian troops were among the forces targeted in the bombing strike. The Central Command communicates with the Russians prior to such airstrikes to avoid unintended casualties.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday five Russians were killed in the Feb. 7 airstrike. Other sources said between 80 and 300 Russians working for Wagner were killed, Reuters reported.
The BBC reported that associates of two Russian fighters killed in the strike confirmed their deaths and said they were employed by the Wagner company. They were identified as Vladimir Loginov, an ethnic Cossack from Russia's western Kaliningrad region, and Kirill Ananyev, a radical nationalist from Moscow.
Reports from the region say as many as 200 fighters were killed in the attack carried out in response to strikes by pro-Syrian fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The pro-Syrian forces had attacked positions of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near the town of Khursham in eastern Syria.
Hrytsak, the SBU chief, said the SBU has been tracking the Wagner Group since June 2014 when the fighters were first detected operating in Ukraine.
"When we started identifying members of this private army, these so-called little green men, we made an announcement in October 2017 that we can identify by name about 1,500 members of this military company."
The group has also been conducting military operations in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region.
The military contractors are well-armed and have been equipped with armored vehicles, tanks, and rocket artillery. The mercenaries also conduct intelligence operations.
The company recruits both former military personnel, including snipers and Spetsnaz special operations forces, as well as those with criminal backgrounds.
According to an SBU briefing paper on the Wagner army, the group is headed by a Ukrainian-born Russian named Dmitriy Valerievich Utkin, known by the nom de guerre as Wagner. Utkin is a former Russian GRU military intelligence operative.
The briefing lists two casualties of Wagner mercenaries last year at the same location, Deir al-Zour, in an airstrike that killed at least 100 people in Syria.
Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas declined to comment on the strike but described the operation as a "tactical engagement" that sent a message.
"There was a hostile action which required a self-defense reaction," Thomas said. "We notified the Russians over the de-confliction telephone line. Who the hostiles were is sort of academic to the incident. We expect others will not make that same choice again."
The three-hour U.S. attack was carried out with B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships, F-15E attack planes, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones.
The SBU, to expose the group's links to the Russian government, has posted intercepted phone conversations on its website between Utkin and senior Russian government and military officials.
The service also obtained photos of Wagner company officials, including Utkin, being awarded medals by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to the Ukrainians, beginning in August 2015 the Wagner company dispatched 1,350 fighters to Syria. They were joined by 2,000 pro-Syrian regime fighters. The combined forces are deployed near Latakia and Homs and Wagner fighters were key elements of the pro-Syrian forces that invaded Palmyra in the spring of 2016.
Wagner mercenaries are guarding regime energy facilities also. By early 2017, the number of Wagner personnel deployed to Syria was around 5,000 mercenaries.
By January, the SBU counted 88 Wagner employees killed in Syrian fighting.
Ukraine regards the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization and stepped up targeting its fighters after the group shot down a Ukrainian military transport in June 2014 near Luhansk, killing 49 Ukrainian troops.
About 60 percent of the mercenaries are non-Slavs, including some 200 Serbians. Others include people from North Caucasus, Buryatia, Udmurtia, and Russians from Central Asia. The use of non-Slavs is aimed at making identification of the mercenaries as Russian paramilitaries difficult.
As a result of casualties and exposure by the SBU, Russia's government has been under pressure to legalize mercenary groups like the Wagner company. Government action authorizing the groups could be taken as early as the end of February.
Ukraine has notified allied intelligence and security services about the mercenaries, who could be used for military operations in Europe and the United States.
"We're convinced that if there are going to be provocative actions in third countries somewhere in Europe or in other places, if this is going to be an undeclared war, you're going to have these green men," Hrytsak said.
"They could come to any country, even the United States, and do something, so we're convinced this information needs to be shared."