Russian soldiers' deaths shed light on Moscow's mercenary empire
Ivan Slichkin, Artem Gorbunov and Vasiliy Yurlin were all reportedly employed by a secretive Russian mercenary force, referred to as 'Wagner', when they were killed in fighting.
Mercenaries are illegal under article 359 of the Russian Criminal Code and the Kremlin has routinely denied their existence.
Yet despite the official denial, a Russian open-source intelligence firm has recorded hundreds of suspicious deaths of private security contractors over the past two years.
"[Mercenaries are] an illegal way to provide cannon fodder for the Kremlin's foreign adventures," said Kirill Mikhailov, an analyst at the Conflict Intelligence Team.
"But even though they are mercenaries, they are still Russians and we believe the Russian public has the right to know about Russians dying while doing Putin's dirty work abroad."
Russia's Fontanka reports the footsoldiers can earn up to $3,700 a month and receive official posthumous medals from the Kremlin if they die in action.
Russian mercenaries are thought to be deployed to combat zones in Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Libya.
An estimated 600 Russian non-state fighters have died in Syria, Sky News reported in August last year.
President Vladimir Putin has also spoken in public about how private military companies can be used to carry out deniable operations for the state.
As Russian prime minister in 2012, he called for the legalisation of mercenary firms - saying they were a "tool for the implementation of national interests without direct participation of the state".
The mercenary firm's unofficial name, 'Wagner', is thought to be a reference to the callsign of the organisation's leader - a former special forces soldier.
In February 2016, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned in an interview that foreign ground troops in Syria could lead to "world war".
"All ground operations, as a rule, lead to permanent wars," he said.
But at the time of the prime minister's interview, there were already hundreds of Russian troops on the ground in Syria - a fact the Kremlin could deny because they were not officially employed by the Russian army.
The Conflict Intelligence Team has drawn up a long list of mercenaries who have died in Syria - without any comment or recognition from the Kremlin.
This issue of foreign mercenaries is nothing new - there are proven stories with evidence going back to 2013 - and neither is the lack of recognition from the Russian government.
The head of one Russian security company told Reuters on March 10 that his firm had dispatched "consultants" to Libya to fight alongside rogue Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar.
Oleg Krinitsyn, owner of the private Russian RSB-group, said his company had not been employed by the Russian defence ministry, but had rather been "consulting" for the Russian foreign ministry until February 2017.
Krinitsyn said his consultants had not brought weapons with them, but had rather been given weapons in the country and would return fire if they were themselves fired upon.
There is an international arms embargo in force that prevents foreign powers from importing weapons into Libya.
"If we're under assault, we enter the battle, of course, to protect our lives and the lives of our clients," he said.
The CEO's statements came after the United States' military chief in Africa told the US Senate that Russia was trying to "do a Syria", by introducing mercenaries to the Libyan battlefield."Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya," said General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of US Africa Command.
The operations of private security firms are widespread, with many Western companies having operated in Iraq, Afghanistan and much further afield. Their roles often include providing close-protection bodyguards or personal security details for visiting officials, or guard duties for military infrastructure installations - but such activities are considered entirely legal enterprises by their home countries.
Russia, however, punishes mercenary work with jail terms of up to eight years - or, for any state official facilitating the work of mercenaries, with jail terms of up to 15 years, and a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($8400).