Earlier this year, a contingent of U.S. Special Operations troops working alongside Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria were engaged in a four-hour long firefight against a Syrian government-backed force of some 500 troops. Among those pro-Assad troops, it was reported at the time, were a number of Russian civilians — widely recognized among those in the region as mercenaries working indirectly for the Kremlin, but formally unacknowledged by the Russian government.

The firefight may have opened with a barrage of artillery from Pro-Assad forces, but the tides quickly turned as American air support arrived to beat back the advance. When the dust settled, not one of the forty Americans that took part in the firefight were injured, but media estimates place the number of Russian and Pro-Assad dead at somewhere in the neighborhood of 300. The remnants of the attacking contingent were allowed to retreat without incident.

In the following days, the world waited with bated breath to see how the Kremlin would respond to hundred of Russians dying in a firefight against American troops… but as the days wore on, Russia offered no harsh statements or threats of war. Instead, they began to distance themselves from the Russian men that had died in the fight. Russia’s official line on the incident was that any Russians involved in the offensive were volunteers who had gone to Syria of their own accord to support a cause they felt was just.

Similar incidents of Russian “civilians” engaging in clearly military activities have permeated throughout conflict zones with Russian involvement. Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, for instance, found a great deal of support in their civil war against the nation’s formal government in the form of plain-clothes wearing Russian soldiers. These soldiers, according to Moscow, were also volunteers.