Russia admitted Tuesday that several dozen of its "citizens" had been killed or wounded in recent fighting in Syria that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said involved an attack on a base held by U.S. and rebel forces. That attack was repelled with heavy losses.
"During a recent military clash, in which servicemen from the Russian Federation did not participate in any way, citizens from Russia and [former Soviet] countries died," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The statement is notable because it did not specifically identify the Russians killed as military members.
The Foreign Ministry statement dodged on whether the "citizens" of Russia and former Soviet client states were part of the attempted assault that began Feb. 7 on a U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces base near Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, where U.S. advisors were also stationed.
The attack quickly fell apart against the mostly-Kurdish SDF, and a U.S. Marine artillery battery and U.S. air support decimated the fleeing enemy, according to U.S. Central Command.
Nose-camera video showed the destruction of a Russian-made T-72 tank that was part of the botched attack. There were no casualties reported among the U.S. and SDF troops.
About several dozen Russians were wounded, and they had been flown back to Russia for treatment, the Ministry said in its statement.
"As has already been noted, there are Russian citizens in Syria who have travelled there on their own initiative and with different aims," the Ministry said. "It is not the place of the Foreign Ministry to assess the legality and legitimacy of their decisions."
The statement was similar to the routine Kremlin pronouncements denying the presence of its troops in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and calling the fighters citizen "volunteers."
The U.S. and NATO allies have taken to branding the masked and well-equipped volunteers as "little green men" carrying out a new form of hybrid warfare authorized by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On his plane returning to the states from Europe last weekend, Mattis told reporters that he was at a loss to explain why Russians backing regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would move against a U.S.-supported base.
Mattis said U.S. forces in the region were in constant communication with the Russians to preserve the "deconfliction lines" that roughly trace the course of the Euphrates River, with the U.S. and the SDF to the east and the Russians and Syrians to the west.
"I understand that the Russian government now is saying some of their -- not military forces, but 'contractors' -- were involved in that still unexplained attack on the SDF forces to east of the river," Mattis said.
He said the attack came "east of the deconfliction line, and again apparently, to the apparent unawareness of the Russian officers that we coordinate with on the deconfliction communication line."
"So it is what it is. I still cannot give you any more information on why they would do this," Mattis said of what was possibly the first clash of U.S. and Russian forces since the Cold War "but they took direction from someone."
"Was it local direction? Was it from external sources? Don't ask me. I don't know," Mattis continued, adding he doubted that the attackers "all just decided on their individual own selves to suddenly cross the river into enemy territory and start shelling a location and maneuvering tanks against it."
Mattis' use of the term 'contractors' followed reports that the so-called "citizens" were in the employ of a Russian firm called "Wagner" that reportedly had links to one of the Russian oligarchs indicted last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
Wagner is headed by Dmitry Utkin, a former colonel in the Russian special forces who has been sanctioned by the U.S. for assisting the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, CNN reported.
Utkin also was formerly head of security for Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has the nickname "Putin's chef" and was one of the 13 Russians named last week by Mueller in the indictments, CNN said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.