MOSCOW—As many as nine Russian contractors died in October when a mortar round hit their base in western Syria, according to several people familiar with the matter.
The incident, experts say, shows how Russia has used contractors to perform quasi-military tasks, avoiding the political repercussions of deploying uniformed troops—and steering clear of the domestic concerns that come with the deaths of soldiers.
The Russian government hasn't acknowledged the deaths, described to The Wall Street Journal by three people.
“It’s one of Russia’s first attempts at trying to create a private military company like what was Blackwater,” said one of them, Ivan Konovalov, director of a Moscow-based security think tank and a consultant to lawmakers who are trying to create the legal basis for such military companies, which now fall in a legal gray zone.
Blackwater, which provided armed security, logistics and other support to U.S. government agencies, became emblematic of Washington’s reliance on private-sector firms to advance foreign-policy aims in conflict zones.
Unlike Blackwater, though, the Russian Defense Ministry hasn't publicly acknowledged their existence. It isn’t clear whether the men’s role went beyond protecting government installations to direct involvement in fighting.
Founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, Blackwater was involved in a series of controversial incidents, including a deadly 2007 shootout in Iraq that ultimately led to its reorganization and rebranding as Academi and to Mr. Prince’s exit from the business. Blackwater said it was carrying out dangerous work on behalf the U.S. government in a way that was more cost-effective than using uniformed personnel. Four former guards were convicted after the shooting, but said they shot in self defense.
The Russians killed in Syria belonged to a private group called OSM, according to Denis Korotkov, a former security adviser and journalist. The group is known informally asWagner, after the nom de guerre of its leader, a former military intelligence officer who has served in several conflicts since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Syria wasn't the group’s first deployment. According to all three people, the group operated in eastern Ukraine, where its members were charged with protecting factories and pro-Russian rebel leaders.
In Ukraine, the Kremlin employed “hybrid warfare”—a term national-security experts use to describe the use of irregular forces, propaganda campaigns, economic coercion and sometimes direct military action.
Groups with connections to Russian military and intelligence, and whose activities can be denied, have operated in the conflict zones that flared up since the fall of the Soviet Union. Wagner’s group however has emerged as one of the most prominent both in terms of the size and missions, according to Mr. Konovalov.
Based in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, the group deployed to Syria after a contract was drawn up with Syrian authorities, Mr. Konovalov said.
Russia has never acknowledged direct military involvement in eastern Ukraine. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has conceded some level of involvement in military operations, without giving specifics.
“We never said there aren’t people there who are solving certain issues in the military sphere, but that doesn’t mean that regular Russian troops are there,” he said about Ukraine in a televised question-and-answer session this week.
Attempts to reach the group weren't successful. The group’s contact details are publicly unknown, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry referred questions on the matter to the Russian military. The Russian Defense Ministry didn't respond to a request for comment.
The three people familiar with the situation said that Wagner, however, was pulled out after its camp was hit by a rebel mortar shell. Mr. Konovalov, who said the men’s role was to protect government infrastructure, wasn’t aware of how many people were killed, but the other two said eight or nine.
An official close to the Russian Defense Ministry said that the group had numbered around 1,000. Unlike Western security contractors, who are typically armed with only light weapons, members of the group were operating T-90 tanks and howitzers.
Russian citizen sleuths have uncovered video of Russian-speaking men taking part in apparent combat operations in Syria, but the footage has no been independently verified.
Mr. Putin has ruled out sending regular ground troops to Syria, relying instead on airstrikes to support the Syrian government. But Russia also acknowledges that military experts and instructors are assisting with Russian weapons delivered to Damascus.
The leader of OSM was a member of a previous group of Russian contractors in Syria, the three people said. That group—Slavonic Corps—was ultimately disbanded, but many of those who fought in Slavonic Corps returned to Syria with Wagner, according to Mr. Konovalov and the official close to the Defense Ministry.
Such groups, however, fall into a legal gray zone. According to experts, Russian law bars mercenaries, although the definition under Russian law of what constitutes a mercenary is unclear. Mr. Konovalov is trying to change that so they can operate legally.
“It’s a question of honor; Russians hate the concept of a mercenary because if you pick up a weapon you do it to defend the motherland,” he said. “The idea of doing it for money lies counter to everything we’re taught.”
The wars where Russia has been involved—from Chechnya to separatist conflicts on Russia’s periphery—have created generations of men with fighting experience. Some groups, experts say, can get around the ban by registering themselves as private defense enterprises in Russia, which guard shopping centers and other businesses, while they take on paramilitary contracts abroad.
Mr. Korotkov, who worked as a police officer and security consultant and now is a journalist at the St. Petersburg-based news site Fontanka, is the only Russian journalist to write on Wagner’s group.
Mr. Korotkov, who says he has spoken to people who have served in the group in Ukraine, said funding for the group has been head and shoulders above what other similar companies offer, causing some to speculate on Kremlin support for the group.
“These kinds of things always need money, and someone with connections can provide that,” Mr. Konovalov said.