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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Syria: March 17, 2016

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Confirms Deaths of Russian Soldiers in Syria
At a meeting with Russia's Armed Forces today, President Vladimir Putin confirmed that four Russian servicemen had died in the war in Syria, Novaya Gazeta reported.

During an awards ceremony in which medals were handed out to those who took part in the operation, Putin  turned to four widows of those who had been killed and addressed them each individually by name:

1. Yelena Peshkova, widow of Oleg Peshkov, commander of the Su-24 crew of the fighter shot down by the Turkish military near the Syrian border.

2. Valentina Cheryomisina, widow of Ivan Cheryomisin, a Russian military advisor who was previously not named due to security considerations. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Cheryomisin did not take part in the military operation but was advising the Syrian military.

3. Irina Pozynich, widow of Aleksandr Pozynich, who took part in a rescue operation in a Mi-8 helicopter which crashed

4. Yuliya Zhuravlyova, widow of Fyodor Zhuravlyov. Previously, Russian military authorities had not acknowledged Zhuravylov's death.

But as Vedomosti reported, Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian bloggers headed by Ruslan Leviev investigating Russia's wars, said Zhuravlyov, a 27-year-old spetsnaz, had died "no latter than November 19, 2015." RNS also reported, citing "a high-placed source in the Defense Ministry," that Zhuravlyov was an officer who "performed assignments involving guidance of highly-precision weapons of the strategic air force."

Reuters also obtained a confirmation from Peskov that Zhuravlyov was acknowledged in the ceremony.

"Therefore I have named all your husbands, fathers, sons by name. And not as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief or the President, but as a grateful citizen of Russia mourning these losses," said Putin.

A fifth soldier, Vadim Kostenko, a contract soldier, was said to have committed suicide as we reported at the time, so this is a fifth death acknowledged by authorities. 

However, his relatives do not believe he committed suicide, said Novaya. While military officials said Kostenko died of "asphyxiation" consistent with hanging, relatives said he had multiple injuries on his body. A close relative told Novaya that they found Kostenko's nose was broken, his jaw dislocated, his temple crushed, his left ear bruised, his vertebrae and skull bones fractured, and his knees capped. The family requested another autopsy to be performed but it is not clear if they will get any more information; Kostenko has now been buried. A local Russian Orthodox priest refused to perform the ceremony "until the completion of the investigation" 

Kostenko's father said he spoke to his son in Syria daily, and his last conversation hours before his death didn't indicate anything out of the ordinary; Vadim said he was fine and was coming home in a week. A story that he was motivated to commit suicide by the rejection of a woman he was dating was not confirmed by townspeople who said he had broken up with her before his deployment.

Novaya Gazeta noted that dark rumors have circulated of other "Cargo 200s" from the war from Syria -- the military term for the bodies of soldiers killed in combat which are returned home. Given the law against publication of such deaths passed last year evidently in the connection of the war in Ukraine, relatives are reluctant to suffer reprisals or even lose death benefits by disclosing such killings. Journalists, human rights activists and law-makers have suffered attacks for attempting to publicize this information, as we reported last year.

Thus all together, we now have reports of six Russian soldiers killed in Syria, including 5 acknowledged by the Kremlin (4 in Putin's ceremony today and 1 in past statements) and one not yet identified or acknowledged by officials whom ISIS fighters claim to have killed, which we have been reporting today.

Reports that "10" Russians were killed in the early days of the conflict and "brought to Crimea" were never confirmed.

Another report that "9 soldiers were killed along with Kostenko" was also never confirmed.

On the other side of the conflict there were also Russian citizens killed, including a man from Chechnya executed by ISIS fighters as a "Russian spy" whose death was confirmed by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Earlier this week Putin had listed among his list of accomplishments in Syria that "2,000 bandits had been killed, natives of Russia, among them 17 field commanders." The structure of the phrase leaves it somewhat unclear as to whether in fact 2,000 natives of Russia were killed, or such natives are only among all ISIS fighters killed. Authorities have estimated the number of fighters in Syria who are from Russia at 2,700, a number that appears to be based largely on a single informant's source. Therefore it seems convenient that now "only 700" are left.

The Russian Defense Ministry has never officially publicized the number of troops in Syria.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Equipment of Soldier Killed By ISIS Consistent with Russian Special Forces

As we have reported (below) ISIS claims that it has killed a Russian soldier, and evidence provided by the terrorist group suggests that they may be right.

Armament Research Services, or ARES, has also analyzed the evidence and they report that the equipment -- including a heavily modified AK-74 self-loading rifle --  is indeed consistent with a Russian special forces soldier:  

The equipment is consistent with that issued to and acquired by Russian special operations forces (SOF) in recent years, including items documented in service with Russian SOF in Ukraine and elsewhere. The presence of mine-clearance equipment, including a Russian made metal detector and mine clearance probe, and what appears to be a pull line and hook, may indicate the combatant was an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operator.

Read the report here: 

Russian SOF equipment captured by IS in Syria

Islamic State group (IS)-linked 'news agency' A'maq has reported on 17 March 2016, via their official account on the messaging app Telegram, on the killing of "a Russian military advisor" during skirmishes between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and IS west of Palmyra, in the Homs Governorate of Syria.

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Mar 17, 2016 22:35 (GMT)
-- James Miller
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
ISIS Video Appears To Show Dead Russian Special Forces Fighter

ISIS has released a video showing the body of a man they claim to have been a Russian military adviser, killed near the Syrian city of Palmyra today.

The graphic footage shows the bloody corpse of a man in uniform, notably without any patches or insignia, before moving on to the man's equipment:


Amongst the equipment seen here is an advanced Kalashnikov assault rifle equipped with a suppressor, multiple ammunition magazines, a helmet fitted with a torch, what appears to be a metal detector, and several packets of Celox blood-clotting agent, used to stem bleeding from wounds.

Observers have suggested that this outfit would correspond with that of an explosive ordnance disposal technician (EOD).

The presence of Russian troops in the Palmyra area has been demonstrated before.

This CNN video from last month, while purportedly showing Syrian army forces, actually shows hardware, including BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers and artillery support vehicles used by the Russian army:

On March 9, Kamel Saqr, a Syrian journalist, reported significant movements of Russian forces towards Palmyra, including armour and artillery.

He posted a photograph of a Russian R-166-0.5 signals vehicle on the move:


Most recently,  Russian war pornographer Aleksandr Pushin, who specialises in drone videos from the battlefields of Syria, uploaded video of a purported ISIS attack, reportedly near Palmyra:

The Interpreter has reached out to experts for further help analysing today's video and will follow up on this story.

-- Pierre Vaux

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Estimates the Cost of the Russian Military Campaign in Syria, But Likely Lowballs It
Russian President Vladimir Putin estimated that the cost of the recent military operation in Syria for the Defense Ministry was 33 billion rubles ($484 million at current exchange rates), Novaya Gazeta reported, citing TASS.

But Putin said there would be more expense as even after the "end of the campaign," funds would still have to be allocated "for conducting training and combat readiness" and these costs "would be justified." Said Putin to the  military chiefs (translation by The Interpreter):

"The tasks which were set before you on the whole have been completed, the units and divisions are returning to the place of their permanent deployment, they are returning home to Russia."
Putin reiterated the point he made in his first announcement that "Russia helped resolve the civil war" and that "Russia's participation created conditions for peace."

Novaya Gazeta pointed out that in his statements, Putin has never once mentioned ISIS, although the claim was that the main purpose of the air strikes was to strike at terrorism. But Putin said Russia "strengthened the Syrian armed forces" and now they can deter terrorist attacks themselves.

There are several points to make about Putin's figure of "$484 million" for the "costs of Russia's war in Syria," which is how it is being reported.

First, Putin himself said the figure represented the costs of the Russian Defense Ministry. There are other costs of other ministries or agencies that may not have factored in the figure, regarding not only supplies but the Federal Security Service's involvement. The war in Syria would presumably be handled mainly by military intelligence, still known as the GRU, or main intelligence directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. But the FSB has no doubt been involved, notably regarding surveillance of Chechens and others from the North Caucasus who went to Syria to fight for ISIS.

But even leaving aside this technicality regarding specific agency budgets, there are other issues with the figures given by Putin.

Second, Russia's costs in Syria did not start at 0 on September 30, but of course began much earlier due to its already-existing presence in the country. Russia claimed that it moved in some weapons, like the S-400 surface-to-air missiles, only around September 30, but there is evidence that some of the ramp-up took place long before that, because the planning for the bombing campaign began earlier.

Third, other independent sources within Russia have come up with a higher figure for the costs., an independent news service, put the figure at 38 billion rubles, or $557 million, based on a cost of 153.3 million rubles, or $2.2 million, per operation.

The Moscow Times requested Jane's Defense to estimate the cost of Russia's campaign in Syria, and Jane's put the figure even higher. As of October 20, Jane's estimated a monthly expenditure that suggests Putin is lowballing the true costs of this war:

"The figures by IHS Jane's show that bombing raids, supply runs, infrastructure and ground personnel — along with a salvo of cruise missiles fired into the conflict zone — have cost Russia $80 million-$115 million since strikes began on Sept. 30." 
That calculation was made about three weeks into the war (October 20, 2015).

Jane's at that time had given a range of the cost per day at $2.4 to $4 million, or a total of $401 million to $668 million if you count 167 days of war (September 30, 2015 through March 14, 2016).

Jane's estimated the manpower to cost $440,000 per day, which would already put their total cost at $73.5 million.

Then later, in December 2015, Jane's revised this cost upward, saying it was $5-7 million per day. So that figure would lead to $835 million to $1.17 billion over 167 days.

Thus "around a billion" is what the war would have cost at least for that period.

Procurement costs are likely lower in Russia than in the West, but presumably Jane's would have factored real costs in. 

Yet likely Putin would be motivated not to reveal the true extent of the costs to avoid public anger, especially if the mission really continues, or if it turns out the anti-Assad insurgency or ISIS aren't in as much "disarray" as he implied in his announcement.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
The US Sees No Significant Russian Drawdown In Syria; New Attack Helicopters Spotted

The United States military does not see a significant drawdown of Russian forces from their bases in Lattakia, Syria. AFP reports:

Colonel Steve Warren, a US military spokesman in the region, said Russian intentions remain unclear.

"We have not seen a significant reduction, frankly, in their combat power. Particularly the ground combat power remain static, the air combat power has been slightly reduced, but that's it," he said.

Warren said there were some indications of small units packing up, and eight to 10 Russian aircraft have left the country.

Yesterday NPR quoted Warren as saying that about 20% of Russian fixed-wing aircraft have withdrawn from the Hmeimim air base in Lattakia, and some support troops appear to have been withdrawn with them. Effectively, while Russia has withdrawn some equipment and combat flights appear to be significantly reduced at the moment, Russia is still maintaining its fighting presence and capabilities in Syria.

In fact, yesterday The Interpreter documented the appearance of two new attack helicopters in Syria - the Mi-28 and the highly-capable KA-52, an aircraft that excels at battlefield reconnaissance, target identification, and coordination.

The new helicopters are perfectly suited to defend the Russian air base against direct attack and provide close air support as needed.

Before the announcement of the withdrawal, Russian airstrikes were reduced but by no means stopped. Targeted Russian airstrikes against non-ISIS rebel groups continued throughout the "ceasefire" period. The Atlantic Council reports:

The Syria Ceasefire Monitor reports 111 violations as of March 9--almost all perpetrated by regime or Russian forces. Attacks mostly targeted insurgent territory in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, Damascus, and Deraa. Air strikes and ground operations in Idlib very likely targeted the Nusra Front, but the regime and Russia also attacked opposition territory in which the Nusra Front had little or no presence. The clearest examples were attacks on a large, encircled opposition pocket in southern Hama and northern Homs provinces. The rebel territory, including cities such as al-Rastan and al-Hawla, straddles the critical M5 highway, which connects regime-controlled Homs and Hama cities.

Since the ceasefire started, the regime and Russia have been trying to break up the rebel pocket, in order to eliminate a point from which the opposition can launch attacks against regime territory. To that end, they have reportedly attacked Hirbnafsa in Hama Province at least ten times, launching around 100 air strikes and three ground offensives to capture the town. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights and local civil defense groups, the Nusra Front has no presence in Hirbnafsah (which supports the authors’ understanding of which rebel groups are present there). That would make these regime operations clear violations of the ceasefire terms, going beyond sporadic bombings to include ground assaults.

Ceasefire violations by the regime are concentrated in but not exclusive to northern Syria. They have also been reported in Deraa, southern Syria, and the critical, rebel-held Damascus suburbs. These include shelling, sniping, and what appear to be regular albeit limited regime ground assaults against Jaysh al-Islam, a Damascus-based Islamists group that is a party to the ceasefire. That said, air strikes have been far more common in the north. Violations in the south are more likely to take the form of artillery shelling and small arms fighting, reflecting greater regime emphasis on the north and/or recognition that these latter violations are harder for the international community to detect.

The War on the Syrian Insurgency Continues in Plain Sight

The Atlantic Council promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic Community in meeting global challenges. Founded in 1961, the Council provides an essential forum for navigating the dramatic shifts in economic and political influence that are shaping the twenty-first century by educating and galvanizing its uniquely influential, nonpartisan network of international political, business, and intellectual leaders.

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Mar 17, 2016 18:46 (GMT)

In other words, a 20% reduction in air power may not have any negative impact on Russia's current air campaign, especially since the ceasefire went into effect after the non-ISIS rebel groups in both northern and southern Syria suffered a series of devastating losses.

So Russia may have withdrawn some forces, but perhaps only because they no longer need this much firepower in Syria.

-- James Miller