As Syrian forces push their advantage against the Islamic State, it is increasingly clear that there are Russians on the ground with them. Some are Spetsnaz special forces, there for recon and forward air control, but others are mercenaries, working for a shadowy outfit in St. Petersburg. Increasingly, the Kremlin is waking up to the potential advantages of outsourcing combat missions to private contractors — but doing so in a very Russian way, in which “private” is still a euphemism for “deniable,” and where official intelligence agencies are still in control.
Much of the confusion about the scale and nature of Russia’s direct commitment on the ground probably reflects the presence of both state and private forces, with each having their own deniable components. Russian contractors appear to be operating T-90 tanks in combat and similar heavy equipment, and were at the fore of the recent drive to take Palmyra.