by Michael J. Totten
February 22, 2018
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Originally published under the title “The Russian Attack Against America You Didn’t Hear About.”
You probably didn’t hear this because few media organizations have even mentioned it, but Russia committed an act of war against the United States a little more than a week ago. No, this is not about more social media and election shenanigans. Russia mounted an armed assault against American soldiers and our allies in Syria, including Kurdish security forces affiliated with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, at a military base in the city of Deir Ezzor, the largest in eastern Syria. Russian combatants fought alongside Assad regime fighters and Shia militias armed, funded and directed by Iran.
Both the Pentagon and the Kremlin are going out of their way to keep this as quiet as possible. If you only read the New York Times story about the incident on February 13, you’d have to squint and zero in on the subtext. After the United States used air and drone strikes to obliterate incoming assailants, including dozens of Russians, American military spokespeople assured the press in calm tones that there was never any chance that Russian and American forces would clash directly in Deir Ezzor or anywhere else. The Kremlin, for its part, said any Russians who might have participated in the assault were mercenaries unaffiliated with the Russian armed forces.
The problem with the Kremlin statement is that Russian mercenaries in Syria are employed by the Wagner Group, which works for the Russian government, and, specifically, for Russia’s Ministry of Defense, not for the Syrian or Iranian governments. And the problem with the American statement is that the Pentagon is asking us to assume that dozens of Russians were killed not by the bombs it had just dropped but by somebody else…or perhaps by spontaneous heart attacks or a catastrophic series of vehicle accidents.
Some fine reporters at Bloomberg News dug a bit deeper. First, on February 14, Henry Meyer and Stepan Kravchenko reported that wounded Russians were flown from the battlefield to hospitals administered by the Ministry of Defense in Moscow and St. Petersburg, belying the claim that they were freelancing for somebody else.
Second, Eli Lake reported on February 16 that several US officials confirmed that the Russian government understood perfectly well what was going on in Deir Ezzor—thanks to the so-called “deconflicting” agreements in place to prevent American and Russian soldiers from accidentally shooting each other. He also helpfully pointed out that one of the leaders of the Wagner Group, Dmitry Utkin, is closely linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin (aka “Putin’s chef”), one of the 13 Russian nationals whom FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller just indicted for information warfare during the 2016 presidential election. The Wagner Group is also, by the way, responsible for the out-of-uniform Russians dubbed the “little green men” fighting in Ukraine in 2014, and the Washington Free Beacon obtained a photograph taken in 2016 that shows some of these mercenaries being given medals by Vladimir Putin himself.
|Whatever the reason or reasons, Americans have missed an opportunity to take stock of a terrible fact—that Russia is an outright enemy of the United States.|
Take a look at how carefully Secretary of Defense James Mattis describes what happened in Deir Ezzor: “I have no idea why [the Russians] would attack there,” he told reporters after the incident. “The forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew. We have always known that there are elements in this very complex battle space that the Russians did not have, I would call it, control of.” He’s going along with the story that the Russian government has “no control” over the Wagner Group, which clearly isn’t the case.
And why would he do that? Lake thinks Mattis is committing a “noble lie” for the common good of both countries. “If Mattis acknowledges the obvious,” he writes, “that the Kremlin authorized a direct assault on a U.S.-sponsored base by non-uniformed personnel — he risks an escalation spiral in Syria. Better to express bewilderment and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to back down and deny culpability, which he ended up doing despite the heavy casualties suffered by his mercenaries.”
Aside from the stories I’ve cited above, this incident has received almost no media coverage in the United States. Perhaps it’s because Americans suffered no casualties while, according to numerous Russian media accounts, as many as 200 Russians were killed, and three separate sources told Reuters that Russia suffered as many as 300 killed and injured. Maybe it’s also because during what would have been this story’s news cycle, Americans were transfixed by yet another bloody massacre at a high school, this time in Parkland, Florida. Another possibility is that, in this inward-looking and tribal partisan time in American history, a botched Russian attack doesn’t neatly fit into one of our pre-existing media narratives, where the Democratic Party is focused on Russian election meddling and the Republican Party would rather talk about almost anything except the Kremlin’s malfeasance.
Whatever the reason or reasons, Americans have missed an opportunity to take stock of a terrible fact—that Russia is an outright enemy of the United States that just committed an act of war against us in the Middle East. Unless Vladimir Putin has suddenly and silently been deterred—fat chance of that being the case—something else will have to happen to get our attention. Something bigger, something worse, something more dangerous.