To make their Syria intervention work Russia had had to resort to Russian private security companies. About half these private security firms are believed to have organized combat units that are reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it has been noted that recent military veterans working for several of these private security companies have been in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria (about 32 so far) were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company has been used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed.
The most reliable source of data on Russian casualties in Donbas are groups representing the families of the Russian dead. These are active on the Internet and use the net to share and compile casualty data. These groups believe about 1,500 Russians have died in Donbas since 2014 and many of those were contractors rather than conscripts or career military.
In eastern Ukraine the Russian use of contractors extends to the leaders of the local rebels, who are largely ethnic Russians whose families migrated to Donbas before World War II. Not all these rebels get along with their Russian overlords, who insist on keeping the extent of Russian support and control of the rebels secret. Since that often involves Russian agents killing rebels leaders who refuse to cooperate, it has also led several rebel leaders to flee Donbas and, if necessary, Ukraine (because of Russian assassins). But Western and Ukrainian intel services have questioned the defecting rebel leaders and can confirm their authenticity and also obtain a lot of details of how Russia runs its “local rebellion” in Donbas. Meanwhile Ukraine has negotiated a visa free travel deal with the EU (European Union). This took effect on May 11th and to many Ukrainians the visa deal marks a link with the rest of Europe that Russia has been trying to prevent. Ukraine is also participating in a growing number of NATO and EU military training events. In effect Ukraine is becoming an unofficial member of the EU and NATO.