The problem with a lot of the news media these days is that they are so driven by the hot story that other, important developments get little, if any, coverage. Last week, a serious story emerged from Syria that confirms what many have suspected for quite some time, and which directly contradicts some statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense. While the story was reported, you could be forgiven for missing it amidst the rest of the noise.

A stinging defeat at the hands of the U.S. Army, a fact-checking project of the U.S. Government-funded outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, obtained what it claims are audio recordings of Russian private military contractors describing how their three “squadrons” got their “asses f*** kicked” by “Yankee” artillery and helicopters.

The Russian voice on the recording says, “Our guys were going to commandeer an oil refinery and the Yankees were holding it,” when they were hit by a withering attack that “took out” at least 210 Russians — although it isn’t specified if those Russians were killed or wounded. The contractor complains (although to whom is not clear) that the Russian government is not acknowledging the sacrifices made by this team.

The Russian government has been accused of being many things, but stupid is not among them. So if the contractor’s claims are true, they won’t be acknowledging the full extent of the incident any time soon. Because the team’s activities are illegal.

As I’ve written here before, private military companies, which largely prefer to be called private security service providers in the West, are not themselves illegal. Companies like Constellis, Aegis, and Sallyport work within a legal framework, under U.S. government supervision, to provide security and protective services in high-threat regions.

They are security contractors. While armed and armored, they do not engage in offensive operations, because that’s the line that cannot be crossed.

These Russian mercenaries are different

The Russians work for a company called CHVK Wagner, whose mercenaries are also suspected of operating in Ukraine. They may even have been the uniformed but unmarked “Little Green Men” seen during the Russian takeover of Crimea. In January, The Daily Beast called Wagner “A Russian Blackwater.”

I wrote last summer that the incorrect use of the word mercenary when discussing legitimate security contracts is either lazy reporting, or an attempt to delegitimize the industry. In that respect, the parallel to Blackwater isn’t fair, because the key word is “legitimate.” For all its faults, Blackwater’s activities never crossed the line into mercenarism. (And I’ve been around and around with one particular DB editor on this in the past).

The Russians in Syria are a different animal. By moving with Syrian forces to “commandeer an oil refinery” they have clearly engaged in offensive operations. This action takes them out of the protected realm of security contractors and into the criminal world of mercenaries.

Private military companies are still nominally illegal in Russia, although some lawmakers have talked about moving to change that. Why they would do this is evident when one learns the Washington Post reported that Wagner is owned by Putin-pal Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Those paying close attention will recognize that Prigozhin was prominently named in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s recent indictment.

He is accused of funding the so-called Internet Research Agency, through which the Russian government waged its disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. So between the death of his “contractors” and his indictment, February was not a particularly good month for Prigozhin.

I doubt he cares much about either, though.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin