A Russian tycoon believed to control Russian mercenaries who attacked U.S. troops and Kurd allies in Deir Ezzor told Syrian officials he would give Bashar al-Assad a "good surprise" days ahead of the assault, the Washington Post has reported.
The Russian government has strenuously denied involvement.
The deployment comes on the heels of the United States employing its most advanced fighter jet, the F-22 stealth fighter, in strikes against targets in Syria after a February 7 attack against US-backed forces by pro-Syrian government troops that also included Russian mercenaries.
With the intensifying Syrian crisis and a war-like situation between Syria-Iran-Turkey-Russia and U.S., a new and advanced combat stealth fighter adds to Russia's existing might. "They helped the Syrian army shatter large, well-equipped terrorist groups", Putin said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has paid tribute to the Russian military at a ceremony for presenting national awards on the occasion of the Defender of the Fatherland Day, the Kremlin has said.
But as stories began to spread in both the Russian and US news media that most of the dead were Russian mercenaries, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said last week that five Russian citizens might have been killed.
The Washington Post report will raise questions about how much the Russian government knew ahead of the attack, whether it was officially sanction and at what level it would have been authorised. "And we were assured by the Russians that there were no Russians involved", she said.
In a new statement Tuesday, the ministry acknowledged that "several dozen" Russians were killed or wounded in the attack and that the wounded had been "provided assistance to return to Russia. where they are undergoing medical treatment at a number of hospitals". Prigozhin had informed regime head Bashar Assad last month to expect a "pleasant surprise" between February 6 and 9.
The reports indicated an increased tempo of communications between Prigozhin and Kremlin officials during the same period, including Putin chief of staff Anton Vayno and deputy chief of staff Vladimir Ostrovenko, but the content of those talks is not known. The single-seat, twin-engine multi-role fighter are meant to go up against the Air Force's F-22 Raptor, which the US uses in patrols over Syria, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. According to Russian media, the Wagner Group is directly funded Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman who made his fortune in the culinary world.
Putin presented a Gold Star medal of the Hero of Russian Federation to the family of Major Roman Filipov, a military pilot who died heroically fighting terrorists in Syria on February 3. It is not clear if the Jets would be used for actual combat operations.