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Russia’s Foreign Ministry: reports of ‘scores of Russians’ killed in Syria are disinformation

Alexander Mercouris

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Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, has vigorously denied widespread Western media reports of ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of deaths of Russian mercenaries supposedly killed in the recent US air strike in Syria against pro-Syrian government tribal fighters east of the Euphrates river.

These reports have appeared in BloombergThe New York Times, and The Guardian.  They have been followed up by a further report by Agence France-Presse and in The Guardian, sourced to the pro-Jihadi British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that another fifteen Russian mercenaries were recently killed as a result of an explosion at their base in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.

Zakharova’s denial does not touch on the explosion at the base, but does respond in detail to the claims of ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of deaths of Russian mercenaries as a result of the earlier US air strike

Reports about the death of dozens and even hundreds of Russian nationals are a classic example of disinformation. There were not 400, 200, 100 or even ten (who died), according to preliminary information, in a clash the cause of which is being investigated. Five people, who allegedly were Russian citizens, may have been killed. Several people suffered wounds but it requires verification, particularly as to whether all of them are Russian nationals.

Zakharova went on to say that the Russians who were killed in the US air strike were private civilian contractors (ie. mercenaries) who had no connection to the Russian military and whose movements in Syria were not coordinated with the Russian military and were not therefore fully known to the Russian authorities

I would like to stress that they are not military servicemen.  The Russian presidential administration and Defence Ministry have promptly clarified that there were no Russian military servicemen in the area targeted by the US-led coalition…..

There is a large number of people from all over the globe in conflict zones, including from Russia and CIS member states.  They have various reasons to be there, including participating in military activities. They do not turn to state agencies when they head off to conflict zones, and use illegal routes. It is difficult to figure out who is doing what there but the Russian Foreign Ministry together with other state agencies has been looking into every such case because one of our goals is to protect Russian nationals abroad

As to who was responsible for spreading the story of ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of Russian mercenaries killed in the US air strike, Zakharova pointed the finger at ‘Syrian militants’ (ie. Al-Qaeda or ISIS) whilst also blaming the US authorities and the Western media for spreading the stories.

Syrian militants fighting against the government [had been the first to start] spreading this disinformation through their channels.  God knows why they used a picture of the Martian landscape, adding a photo of destroyed military hardware, which could be Ukrainian (a probe is underway) that dates back to June 2014.  We can understand the reason why international terrorists spread such rumours, as well as why US media outlets do that. This information campaign was stoked by Washington, which has been accusing Moscow of interfering in the US presidential election.

The report of the fifteen Russian mercenaries killed in the explosion in Deir Ezzor unquestionably originates from Jihadi sources, as shown by the fact that it is sourced to the pro Jihadi Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The fact that the reports both of the air strike and of the explosion at the base concern events in eastern Syria, an area where Al-Qaeda has no significant presence, suggests that the people who are behind these reports are from ISIS, which is known to operate a sophisticated propaganda and disinformation operation, and whose heartland area eastern Syria is.

As I have previously pointed out, a false report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of the death of the ISIS leader Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi confirms that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has contacts with ISIS, though this does not seem to worry the Western media outlets which republish its reports

This tends to corroborate Zakharova’s claim that what we are looking at is a Jihadi orchestrated disinformation campaign about Russian casualties in eastern Syria, with the likelihood being that is being carried out by ISIS.

Sadly there is no doubt that members of Russia’s ‘non-system’ liberal opposition have also played a role in spreading and giving credence to this story.  Bloomberg’s report of the story unfortunately makes that all too clear.

The reports of ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of dead Russians in Syria – both as a result of the US air strike and because of the explosion in Deir Ezzor – in fact have all the obvious hallmarks of a disinformation operation.

Firstly, though there is no doubt that there are many Russian mercenaries in Syria, it is scarcely credible that ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of them would be gathered together in one place.

Beyond that, for a single air strike to kill ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of people – especially soldiers dispersed over a wide area and taking cover – would be unusual.

Syrian reports in fact said that the total number of fighters  – Syrian and Russian – killed by the US air strike was 25, and this still seems to be the most plausible and reliable figure.

South Front, whose analysis and reporting of the Syrian conflict is both reliable and outstanding, identified the reports of ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of Russian mercenaries killed in the air strike as an obvious case of a disinformation operation and said so even before Zakharova made her denial

On February 7 and on February 8, the English-speaking mainstream media, like Politico, Reuters, CNN, were spreading reports that over 100 pro-Assad fighters were killed in the US strikes. All the reports were based on anonymous sources and were mixed with statements from the Pentagon and the defense secretary to look more reliable. According to these reports, a group of 300-500 government fighters, backed up by battle tanks and artillery, were involved in the alleged attack on the SDF.

On February 8, some infamous figures and media outlets of the Russian media sphere started spreading reports that Russian PMCs had suffered mass casualties in the February 7 incident. The conflicting reports, also based on anonymous sources, included estimates such as “two truckloads of dead bodies”, 10-20 killed, 100, 200, 300, 600.

On February 10, the Russian telegram channel WarGonzo posted 5 audio recordings of an alleged conversation among 3 PMCs. One of the voices provides the number of 177 killed. These audio recordings had also been received by a number of Russian journalists since February 7 and were most likely a forgery.

By February 14, reports had settled at a general number of 10-600 dead PMCs.

Meanwhile, the analysis of open info, including reports from relatives and friends of the PMCs involved in the operation, allowed all the concerned sides to find out that 5 Russians reportedly died in the aforementioned period. However, no details are available.

Independent journalists also noted that no aircraft, which could have been involved in the transfer of the killed and injured PMCs, had been spotted at Khmeimim Air Base since February 7. SouthFront correspondents and sources in Damascus and Deir Ezzor can also not confirm information regarding the hundreds of killed PMCs.

SouthFront’s military experts aware of the situation say that the possible number of the casualties could be higher than 5, but not more than 15-20.

The entire story about mass casualties of Russian PMCs is based on unconfirmed and fake data, that includes a few real facts like the US strikes, some PMCs casualties and the participation of the ISIS Hunters in the incident. The rest is an orchestrated campaign in keeping with the best traditions of propaganda.

The goals of which would be that:

  • the US is able to fight back against the Russians in Syria;
  • Russia is not able to defend its interests;
  • the Kremlin is not concerned over killed Russian citizens or is not able to carry out any pay back

To which I would only add that in my opinion the primary motive of the Western media and of the members of the Russian ‘non-system’ liberal opposition giving credence to this disinformation is the third of the three cited by South Front: “the Kremlin is not concerned over killed Russian citizens or is not able to carry out any pay back”.

The first round of Russia’s Presidential elections is due to take place on 18th March 2018.  Spreading and giving credence to what looks to have been originally an ISIS disinformation campaign about ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of Russian mercenaries killed in eastern Syria looks like an obvious attempt to create controversy within Russia about Russia’s intervention in Syria on the eve of the election.

Just consider for example what Bloomberg reports Vladimir Frolov – a columnist of the staunchly pro-liberal opposition Moscow Times – as saying about the story

This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis.  But Russia will pretend nothing happened.

Clearly a number of Russian mercenaries – or possibly volunteers – got caught up in the US air strike which took place east of the Euphrates, and a number of them were killed.

The number may be higher than the five reported by Zakharova.  She admitted that this number is based on early reports, and that the final total may be higher.

However it beggars belief that it comes anywhere close to the fantastic numbers which have been reported in the Western media.

That ISIS – or whichever Jihadi group is responsible for this disinformation – has greatly exaggerated the number of Russians killed in the air strike is not surprising.

It is hardly unusual in war for one side to exaggerate the number of casualties suffered by the other.  In the Syrian conflict that happens all the time.  All sides – including the US and Russian militaries – are guilty of it.

What is concerning is that this unverified and wildly implausible story of ‘scores’ or even ‘hundreds’ of Russians killed in Syria has spread like wild fire through the Western media as if it were true.

One more example of how when it comes to news about Russia for the Western media anything goes.

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Constantinople: Ukrainian Church leader is now uncanonical

October 12 letter proclaims Metropolitan Onuphry as uncanonical and tries to strong-arm him into acquiescing through bribery and force.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The pressure in Ukraine kept ratcheting up over the last few days, with a big revelation today that Patriarch Bartholomew now considers Metropolitan Onuphy “uncanonical.” This news was published on 6 December by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (running under the Moscow Patriarchate).

This assessment marks a complete 180-degree turn by the leader of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, and it further embitters the split that has developed to quite a major row between this church’s leadership and the Moscow Patriarchate.

OrthoChristian reported this today (we have added emphasis):

A letter of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine was published yesterday by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in which the Patriarch informed the Metropolitan that his title and position is, in fact, uncanonical.

This assertion represents a negation of the position held by Pat. Bartholomew himself until April of this year, when the latest stage in the Ukrainian crisis began…

The same letter was independently published by the Greek news agency Romfea today as well.

It is dated October 12, meaning it was written just one day after Constantinople made its historic decision to rehabilitate the Ukrainian schismatics and rescind the 1686 document whereby the Kiev Metropolitanate was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, thereby, in Constantinople’s view, taking full control of Ukraine.

In the letter, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that after the council, currently scheduled for December 15, he will no longer be able to carry his current title of “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.”

The Patriarch immediately opens his letter with Constantinople’s newly-developed historical claim about the jurisdictional alignment of Kiev: “You know from history and from indisputable archival documents that the holy Metropolitanate of Kiev has always belonged to the jurisdiction of the Mother Church of Constantinople…”

Constantinople has done an about-face on its position regarding Ukraine in recent months, given that it had previously always recognized the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate as the sole canonical primate in Ukraine.

…The bulk of the Patriarch’s letter is a rehash of Constantinople’s historical and canonical arguments, which have already been laid out and discussed elsewhere. (See also here and here). Pat. Bartholomew also writes that Constantinople stepped into the Ukrainian ecclesiastical sphere as the Russian Church had not managed to overcome the schisms that have persisted for 30 years.

It should be noted that the schisms began and have persisted precisely as anti-Russian movements and thus the relevant groups refused to accept union with the Russian Church.

Continuing, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that his position and title are uncanonical:

Addressing you as ‘Your Eminence the Metropolitan of Kiev’ as a form of economia [indulgence/condescension—OC] and mercy, we inform you that after the elections for the primate of the Ukrainian Church by a body that will consist of clergy and laity, you will not be able ecclesiologically and canonically to bear the title of Metropolitan of Kiev, which, in any case, you now bear in violation of the described conditions of the official documents of 1686.

He also entreats Met. Onuphry to “promptly and in a spirit of harmony and unity” participate, with the other hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in the founding council of the new Ukrainian church that Constantinople is planning to create, and in the election of its primate.

The Constantinople head also writes that he “allows” Met. Onuphry to be a candidate for the position of primate.

He further implores Met. Onuphry and the UOC hierarchy to communicate with Philaret Denisenko, the former Metropolitan of Kiev, and Makary Maletich, the heads of the schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate” and the schismatic “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” respectively—both of which have been subsumed into Constantinople—but whose canonical condemnations remain in force for the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The hierarchs of the Serbian and Polish Churches have also officially rejected the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian schismatics.

Pat. Bartholomew concludes expressing his confidence that Met. Onuphry will decide to heal the schism through the creation of a new church in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Onuphry’s leadership is recognized as the sole canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine by just about every other canonical Orthodox Jurisdiction besides Constantinople. Even NATO member Albania, whose expressed reaction was “both sides are wrong for recent actions” still does not accept the canonicity of the “restored hierarchs.”

In fact, about the only people in this dispute that seem to be in support of the “restored” hierarchs, Filaret and Makary, are President Poroshenko, Patriarch Bartholomew, Filaret and Makary… and NATO.

While this letter was released to the public eye yesterday, the nearly two months that Metropolitan Onuphry has had to comply with it have not been helped in any way by the actions of both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Ukrainian government.

Priests of the Canonical Church in Ukraine awaiting interrogation by the State authorities

For example, in parallel reports released on December 6th, the government is reportedly accusing canonical priests in Ukraine of treason because they are carrying and distributing a brochure entitled (in English): The Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Relations with the State. The Attitude Towards the Conflict in Donbass and to the Church Schism. Questions and Answers.

In a manner that would do any American liberal proud, these priests are being accused of inciting religious hatred, though really all they are doing is offering an explanation for the situation in Ukraine as it exists.

A further piece also released yesterday notes that the Ukrainian government rehabilitated an old Soviet-style technique of performing “inspections of church artifacts” at the Pochaev Lavra. This move appears to be both intended to intimidate the monastics who are living there now, who are members of the canonical Church, as well as preparation for an expected forcible takeover by the new “united Church” that is under creation. The brotherhood characterized the inspections in this way:

The brotherhood of the Pochaev Lavra previously characterized the state’s actions as communist methods of putting pressure on the monastery and aimed at destroying monasticism.

Commenting on the situation with the Pochaev Lavra, His Eminence Archbishop Clement of Nizhyn and Prilusk, the head of the Ukrainian Church’s Information-Education Department, noted:

This is a formal raiding, because no reserve ever built the Pochaev Lavra, and no Ministry of Culture ever invested a single penny to restoring the Lavra, and the state has done nothing to preserve the Lavra in its modern form. The state destroyed the Lavra, turned it into a psychiatric hospital, a hospital for infectious diseases, and so on—the state has done nothing more. And now it just declares that it all belongs to the state. No one asked the Church, the people that built it. When did the Lavra and the land become state property? They belonged to the Church from time immemorial.

With the massive pressure both geopolitically and ecclesiastically building in Ukraine almost by the day, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.

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Ukrainian leadership is a party of war, and it will continue as long as they’re in power – Putin

“We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

RT

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Via RT…


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has branded the Ukrainian leadership a “party of war” which would continue fueling conflicts while they stay in power, giving the recent Kerch Strait incident as an example.

“When I look at this latest incident in the Black Sea, all what’s happening in Donbass – everything indicates that the current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this situation at all, especially in a peaceful way,” Putin told reporters during a media conference in the aftermath of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This is a party of war and as long as they stay in power, all such tragedies, all this war will go on.

The Kiev authorities are craving war primarily for two reasons – to rip profits from it, and to blame all their own domestic failures on it and actions of some sort of “aggressors.”

“As they say, for one it’s war, for other – it’s mother. That’s reason number one why the Ukrainian government is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Putin stated.

Second, you can always use war to justify your failures in economy, social policy. You can always blame things on an aggressor.

This approach to statecraft by the Ukrainian authorities deeply concerns Russia’s President. “We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been soaring after the incident in the Kerch Strait. Last weekend three Ukrainian Navy ships tried to break through the strait without seeking the proper permission from Russia. Following a tense stand-off and altercation with Russia’s border guard, the vessels were seized and their crews detained over their violation of the country’s border.

While Kiev branded the incident an act of “aggression” on Moscow’s part, Russia believes the whole Kerch affair to be a deliberate “provocation” which allowed Kiev to declare a so-called “partial” martial law ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election.

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When Putin Met Bin Sally

Another G20 handshake for the history books.

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Via Zerohedge


In the annals of handshake photo-ops, we just may have a new winner (much to the delight of oil bulls who are looking at oil treading $50 and contemplating jumping out of the window).

Nothing but sheer joy, delight and friendship…

…but something is missing…

Meanwhile, earlier…

Zoomed in…

And again.

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