MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin prides himself on speaking up for the interests of his countrymen around the world. But the Kremlin is going to remarkable lengths to not talk about the Russians killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria last week.
That determination was on display Wednesday in Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s regular conference call with reporters. Peskov said, “It cannot be excluded that citizens of the Russian Federation may be present on Syrian territory.” But he added that “we in the Kremlin do not possess concrete, detailed information that would allow any conclusions to be drawn” as to whether any of them died last week.
Then a Reuters reporter asked whether Putin wasn’t planning to declare a period of official mourning — as happened in 2016 after a Russian military plane carrying the Red Army Choir to Syria crashed. The following exchange ensued:
Reporter: In past cases, when for various reasons large numbers of Russian citizens have been killed, the president sometimes declares a period of mourning. Is this being considered in this case?
Peskov: I don’t understand the question.
Reporter: Is the question of declaring a period of mourning being considered? This is a prerogative of the president.
Peskov: Because of what? I don’t get why a mourning period needs to be declared.
Reporter: Because of the death of a large number of Russian citizens —
Peskov: What number?
Reporter: — in Syria.
Peskov: What number?
Reporter: We don’t yet know the exact number.
Peskov: Neither do we, which is why we don’t understand your question.
The Kremlin’s stance contrasts with the scene in the southwest city of Voronezh this month. Some 30,000 people reportedly attended the funeral of Roman Filipov, a fighter pilot who was shot down, after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid his respects at an airfield near Moscow.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent group that uses open-source information to track Russian military moves in Syria, says it has confirmed eight names of Russian mercenaries killed in last week’s airstrike. Other reports say the Russian death toll might have topped 100 — more than double the 44 uniformed Russian servicemen killed in action in Syria since October 2015. The Washington Post on Tuesday spoke to two associates of Russians who were killed.
Last week’s incident is casting an unwelcome light on Russia’s shadow army in Syria. Several thousand Russians, many of whom previously fought for Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, have deployed as military contractors to support President Bashar al-Assad’s military force, according to Russian news media reports. The founder of one of the mercenary groups was identified at a Kremlin reception hosted by Putin in December 2016.