In an intriguing turn of events, Russian veterans want the Russian government to acknowledge that private military contractors are fighting in the war in Syria, doing the country’s bidding to keep Russian “troop” strength low. They want to secure financial and medical benefits for the contractors as well as their families.

The statement breaks years of public silence about a secret operation involving thousands of Russian civilians fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad whom Moscow has been helping militarily since September 2015.

Based on accounts of people who knew killed fighters and a military medic, Reuters earlier reported that over a hundred contractors had died in combat since the start of the operation in Syria. The Kremlin denies such an operation exists.

“For three years already, we have been receiving complaints and appeals from Russian citizens who were injured in Syria and cannot undergo medical treatment in Russia,” said the statement, signed by retired Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, retired Colonel Vladimir Petrov and Yevgeni Shabayev, a Cossack leader.

“Soldiers and officers of these combat units have no social, medical or financial support from the state … We demand that the status of combat participants in private military companies be recognised,” the statement said.

The Kremlin is often criticized by the liberal opposition for its foreign military campaigns but rarely faces objections from Russia’s military elite, which is generally happy that Moscow is in a standoff with the West.

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Moscow says that while some Russian civilians may fight in Syria, they went there on their own initiative and have no connection to the military, which is conducting air strikes with a limited presence on the ground.

According to Russian law, being a mercenary is a crime.

The Russian contractors are hired by a company called Wagner and is owned by Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, a former Ukranian citizen who was a Colonel and brigade commander of a special forces Spetsnaz unit of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

Wagner has training facilities for their contractors on Russian military bases at Molkino near the village of Molkin. Wagner, (named after Utkin’s callsign) also has been linked to Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also a close friend of Russian President Putin.

Putin was photographed with Utkin and several of his lieutenants which set off speculation in the past. The contractors have been active in Ukraine, Central African Republic, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya.

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