By: Bradley Hanlon with the ISW Research Team
Key Takeaway: The Russian Wagner private military company and Lebanese Hezbollah attacked U.S. and partner forces in Eastern Syria on February 7, 2018. Wagner is part of the business empire belonging to Putin ally Evgeni Prigozhin, whom Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted on February 16. The Kremlin uses proxy forces in Ukraine as well as Syria to maintain plausible deniability and avoid accountability for aggressive actions abroad. A proxy directly attacking U.S. forces is a significant escalation in the Kremlin’s use of irregular forces. The U.S. responded tactically in self-defense, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis did not hold Russia accountable, questioning whether Moscow had ordered the attack. The U.S. failure to hold Russia accountable and respond strategically to this attack sets a dangerous precedent, enabling the expansion of Russian proxy warfare. The Kremlin can use deniable proxies to attack U.S. forces and partners in other theaters, such as Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
The Russo-Iranian military coalition supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used a Russian private military company to launch a coordinated attack on U.S. and partner forces in Eastern Syria. Several hundred pro-Assad regime fighters launched a coordinated attack against a base occupied by U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the main U.S. partner in Syria – in Eastern Deir ez-Zour province on February 7. Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner participated in the attack.
The Kremlin officially denied knowledge of the assault and employed an information operation to muddle the true narrative of the event.Russian military officials maintained contact through ‘deconfliction’ channels with U.S. forces throughout the attack, while denying that they knew that Wagner and its Lebanese Hezbollah partner forces had engaged. Russia thereby sought to obscure its role in the attack. The Kremlin has subsequently obfuscated the number of Russian mercenaries involved, the number killed, and the motivation for the attack using techniques common to Russia’s information campaign in Ukraine.
The Kremlin nevertheless likely knew of and permitted the attack on U.S. and partner forces on February 7. The Kremlin has used proxy forces in the past to maintain plausible deniability and shed accountability for aggressive actions abroad. Wagner is a private military company with close ties to the Kremlin and Russian military forces. Dmitry Utkin – a former Russian special forces officer – founded the company. Wagner reportedly trains recruits at a shared base with Russian Special Forces near Molkino, Russia. It has played an important role supporting Russian military operations. Wagner operated as a Kremlin proxy in Ukraine, fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists and in coordination with the Armed Forces of Russia. Wagner deployed to Syria in 2015 and played a key role in the Russia-backed offensives to retake oil-rich areas in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour Province from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). The Russian Ministry of Defense has provided direct support to Wagner in Syria through both arms and transport.
The indictments handed down by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller significantly reduce the plausibility of attempts to deny Kremlin control over Wagner’s actions. Russian businessman Evgeni Prigozhin is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and a known associate of Dmitry Utkin. His business empire includes Wagner. The Kremlin leverages Prigozhin’s businesses as a proxy tool to achieve various foreign policy objectives while maintaining plausible deniability. Special Counsel Mueller indicted Prigozhin for attempting to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election on February 16, 2018. Prigozhin served as the financier of a company that purchased private networks in the U.S. to establish fraudulent social media profiles allegedly posing as U.S. persons in order to defraud U.S. elections according to the indictment.
The Kremlin likely benefits economically from Wagner’s involvement in Syria as well. Utkin commands Wagner in seizing and securing Syrian oil fields in Eastern Syria. The Prigozhin-led company Evro Polis signed a contract with the Syrian regime’s state-owned petroleum company. The contract allocates 25 percent of all revenue from oil and gas facilities in Syria seized with the assistance of Russian forces to Evro Polis. These revenues are likely channeled to support the Putin regime.
The U.S. failure to hold the Kremlin accountable for its mercenaries’ attack on U.S. and partner forces sets a precedent that the Kremlin will likely exploit in Syria and in Eastern Europe. The U.S. response to the pro-Assad regime attack on February 7 will not be enough to deter Russia from the future use of proxies, despite its tactical success. The U.S. has previously failed to hold the Kremlin accountable for the actions of its proxy forces against Ukraine, encouraging Moscow to expand its use of this tool. The U.S. response to the February 7 attack further signals to the Kremlin that it will not be held accountable for the actions of its proxies – beyond a tactical cost – even when those proxies directly threaten American forces.
 [“Ukraine’s security service: Uncontrolled militant leaders in Donbas eliminated by Russia’s Wagner,”] UNIAN, October 9, 2017, https://www(.)unian.info/war/2177591-ukraines-security-service-uncontrolled-militant-leaders-in-donbas-eliminated-by-russias-wagner.html
 [“The Wagner List,”] Fontanka, August 21, 2017, at http://www[.]fontanka[.]ru/2017/08/18/075/