Mercenary Army Of Russian Oligarch Tied To Failed Assault On US Forces

Screengrab/CBS This Morning/YouTube

The Wagner group, essentially the private army of Putin-connected Yevgeny Prigozhin, was responsible for the attack.

New details have emerged regarding an attack on U.S. troops in Syria earlier this month perpetrated by Russian military contractors.

Though estimates vary, at least dozens of Russian fighters were killed in the incident.

The Russian mercenaries who carried out the siege -- which was repelled by U.S. airstrikes -- were reportedly working for oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin and the same man accused of running a troll factory that targeted American voters.

According to U.S. officials, it is believed the mercenaries were targeting a gas installation next to the base where U.S. troops were stationed alongside Kurdish forces.

U.S. officials have told CBS News that Prigozhin was in contact with both Syrian and Russian officials in the days before and after the attack. The U.S. believes the Russian mercenaries knew they were attacking a position held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rebels, but didn't know there were U.S. advisers at the site.

Prigozhin's private army initially entered the Syrian war zone to support Russian troops that were aiding Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

More recently, however, Prigozhin's so called Wagner group struck an agreement with the Syrian government to seize oil and gas fields in rebel-held territory in Syria, and Prigozhin stands to get a share of the profits. The Wagner group is officially a private defense firm in Russia, but many suspect that, given the oligarch's close ties with Putin, it works to some degree in conjunction with Russia's Ministry of Defense.

U.S. and Russian military officials have a 'hotline' they use to communicate in an effort to avoid situations such as the February 7 incident. The U.S. had warned Russian officials of the impending counterstrike, but the military opted not to respond in kind.

The Russian military officers contacted did not try to stop the U.S. airstrikes, probably, [CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer] says, because they resent the mercenaries freelancing to enrich a Kremlin-backed oligarch on an already complex battlefield -- where mistakes like this risk dangerous escalation.