Russian mercenaries with ChVK Vagner declared they are fighting in Syria for patriotic reasons, in a recent anonymous interview with RFE/RL news. One commander declared, “[Syrians] can’t stand Assad. Really. Only a tiny percentage of the population there supports him and the rest oppose him. Only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin supports him. Russia supports him — no one else.” He continued with, “If you are fighting under a Russian flag, with a Russian weapon, even if you are eating moldy food and are 10,000 kilometers from home, you are nonetheless fighting for Russia. There is no Syrian war. There is no Ukrainian war. There is only a war between the Russian Federation and the United States.”

The interview comes after the Vagner Group suffered heavy losses at the hands of American military firepower during a failed raid on an oil refinery located in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. According to reports, a dozen to 200 men were killed by U.S. airstrikes and artillery fire. The interview was held with three commanders, all of which fought in both Syria and Ukraine; their past experience comprised of service in the soviet army. The men had been deployed to Syria in 2013 by the organization known as Slavic Corps. There they guarded oil production based facilities until they too became involved in the civil war. When they returned to Russia in late 2013, their leadership was sentenced to years in prison for conducting illegal mercenary operations.

Despite this, the Russian military went ahead and re-employed their services for the annexation of Crimea by supporting Separatist operations from within Ukraine. One of the commanders interviewed was part of the formation and command of paramilitary units there. He stated, “In 2014, [Ukrainian separatist military commander Igor Girkin a.k.a.] Strelkov was fighting around Slovyansk and a lot of people wanted to go and help him.”

They worked in partnership with the Russian military, they trained at Russian military run institutions and facilities. For the invasion they fell under the command of Russian Army Spetsnaz officers, one mercenary commander elaborated, “They were basically company-sized tactical groups. There were no private military contractors then, but people were paid on time. Vagner is a cruel fellow. He’s no fool.”

Vagner entered Syria in 2015 to conduct combat based operations on behalf of the Russian government. They are not the only company on the ground but they are the only one filling a military based role. According to the commanders being interviewed there are approximately 2,000 Vagner mercenaries fighting in Syria. Russia has pumped it’s own numbers up over time, “There were 6,000, but they announced a draw-down and reduced it to 8,000,” he informed jokingly.

According to the commanders the men work closely with the Russian military, “Every company has a connection to [Vagner] headquarters and there is an officer of the Russian military command there. He coordinates the air cover where an operation is under way. In general, the coordination is very precise. Sometimes it is a thing of beauty to see how perfectly the aviation and artillery support works out.”

According to the men, Vagner does not conduct large scale operations but more or less, “Expands zones of influence.” One continued, “They take territory under control — as a rule, oil and gas fields — and then guard these territories. They are paid for this…. But it is impossible to control an oil field if there are hostile fighters 500 meters away, so they have to force them out.”

On an official side of things, the mercenaries sign contracts that stipulate they perform work withing gas and oil based professions in Syria. The can earn almost $2,650 a month and a bonus of nearly double their rotational salary (3 months) if they complete the full deployment. A commander may earn three times that amount. If a man backs out, he is sent back to the Syrian supply port where he performs logistics for a fraction of his salary.