Two days after Bloomberg reported that over 100 Russian fighters - mercenaries fighting on behalf of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad - were killed in Syria on February 7 by US air strikes - the Russian foreign ministry slammed these reports about alleged "dozens" or "hundreds" killed Russian military servicemen in Syria as "classic disinformation" that was "launched by anti-government militants."
During her weekly news conference, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that reports by both Reuters and Bloomberg that Russian servicement were killed by US-led coalition strikes, stemmed from anti-government fighters in Syria, who spread them accompanied by doctored images.
“The reports on the deaths of dozens, hundreds, of Russians is classic disinformation,” Zakharova said, who nonetheless admitted that some Russians did die, although in Moscow's official estimation, the number was far lower, no more than "5 people."
"Preliminary data shows the armed confrontation, the reasons of which are currently being investigated, could have resulted in deaths of five people, presumably Russian citizens," she said, adding that their citizenship still needs to be checked.
More importantly, Zakharova added that those who were killed in the airstrike did not serve in the Russian armed forces: she had to make that distinction because as we discussed earlier this week, the fact that the Kremlin was covering up death of armed men in Syria could quickly become a political scandal for Putin:
Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent political analyst in Moscow, said the clash marked the first such armed exchange between the two powers since the Vietnam War.
“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” Frolov said. “But Russia will pretend nothing happened.”
Indeed, and as we noted last night, if and when the deaths are officially confirmed, it could turn into a political scandal for Putin, with the public demanding why the government is keeping military deaths under wraps. Already Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician who is running for president in elections next month, has called on Putin to disclose how many Russians had been killed in Syria and in what circumstances.
“If there was large-scale loss of life of Russian citizens, the relevant officials, including the commander-in-chief of our armed forces (Putin), are obliged to tell the country about it and decide who carries responsibility for this,” Yavlinsky said in a statement released by his Yabloko party.
The scandal started with a US attack on February 7, when the Pentagon said it killed more than 100 Syrian militiamen allied with the government of President Bashar Assad. This was after some 500 fighters had targeted “well-established Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters” in Deir al-Zor province in what the Pentagon called an “unprovoked attack.”
The Russian Defense Ministry later said 25 Syrian militia fighters had been wounded in the airstrike. The ministry added that they came under attack while conducting a reconnaissance operation that was not coordinated with the Russian side. No Russian military servicemen were in the area, according to the ministry, although that narrative now appears to have also changed with "at least" 5 Russians admittedly killed.