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Russia responds to Syrian downing of IL-20: The unpredictability of Russian actions

A map shows Russian explanation of the downing of the IL-20 (Russian Defense Ministry)


On 17 September, the Russian ministry of defense announced that a Russian surveillance aircraft with 15 servicemen on the board had disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea. The Defense Ministry’s statement said that contact with the Russian Il-20, en route to Khmeimim airbase was lost at a distance of 35 km. from the Syrian coast”.

According to the ministry, the aircraft disappeared from the radars of aviation control at the time of an attack by four Israeli F-16 planes on Syrian targets in Latakia province and missile launches by the French frigate Auvergne based in this area. In the interim, both Russian and foreign media reported that the plane had been downed by missiles and all the servicemen on board have perished.

However, later Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu blamed Israel for the downing of the Russian plane in Syria in a telephone conversation with Israel’s minister of defense Avigdor Lieberman. A statement by the Russian Defense Ministry said: "Sergei Shoigu stated that the blame for the shooting down of the Russian plane and the deaths of its crew fully rests with Israel. Despite the existing deconfliction agreements with Israel, the Russian task force command was only warned a minute before the strike was carried out by the Israeli F-16s," the statement said, according to Russian news agency Interfax "The actions by the Israeli Defense Ministry are out of line with the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership, and we reserve the right to take further steps in response," Shoigu told Lieberman.

Finally also the Russians admitted that the missile that had downed the ill-fated IL-20 was Syrian and not Israeli, yet they kept blaming Israel for the loss of life of Russian servicemen. Despite anti-Israeli insinuations in Russian official media, President Vladimir Putin explicitly tried to “de-escalate” the atmosphere. Putin had a conversation with PM Benjamin Netanyahu and warned him that Israel should not allow any more such incidents to happen in the future. Putin argued that the Israeli air force violated Syria’s sovereignty and that Russian-Israeli understandings with the goal to prevent dangerous incidents were not respected”. This notwithstanding, Putin discarded attempts to compare this tragedy to the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkish fighter jets because in that event, the plane was deliberately targeted and downed. In other words, one can discern an obvious dissonance between Putin’s pronunciations and comments of official pro-Kremlin media and those of the establishment of Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries.

I will try to decipher Russian behavior and what can be expected next.

In the lines below, I will try to decipher Russian behavior and what can be expected next.

It is beyond any shadow of doubt that Russian radar and other air monitoring systems at Khmeimim airbase and at other bases were monitoring all the planes in the area including the IL-20. They knew from the outset what exactly happened. However they kept silence for at least 10 hours from 23:00 (the timing of the first alert), in the meantime diffusing hints that a missile fired by the French frigate Auvergne that is currently cruising in the vicinity of Syrian coast was responsible for the downing of the plane.

During this period, military bureaucrats of Russia’s ministry of defense appear to have been pondering whom to blame and how to report it to the Supreme commander Putin.

They decided to accuse Israel. According to the version of the Russian ministry of defense, as outlined by Minister Sergei Shoygu and his spokesperson Major-General Igor Konashenkov, Israel is to blame for several violations: first, Israel warned the Russian military less than a minute before the strike; second, Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as a cover because of its radar signature.

The IDF, for its part, issued a statement on 18 September saying its fighter jets had targeted a Syrian military facility in Latakia from where “systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The systems represented “an intolerable threat” to Israel”. The IDF statement mentioned also a crucial detail that is the key to a more accurate understanding of the incident.

Part of the statement at Russia's TASS site about the incident (screenshot)

The unfolding of events

Namely: “The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and, from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air,”. The IDF added that the Il-20 was not in the area where Israeli jets were operating at the time of the strike and those jets were back in Israeli airspace when the Russian aircraft was hit. In simpler words, Syrian air defense systems launched dozens of surface-to-air (SAM) missiles without target requiring; the Syrian systems are not equipped with foe-friend identifications systems.

First of all, a question arises, why did the IDF air force conduct strikes in Latakia area for the first time and were the strikes genuinely justified? Satellite images suggest that the bombed object in Latakia was a large warehouse. The IRGC had apparently decided that transferring precise weapons to Latakia area was the optimal solution to protect Iranian and Hezbollah warehouses from Israeli strikes, assuming presumably that Israel would be wary of attacking these sites precisely because of the possibility of incidents like the one in question. Israel has defied yet again the Iranian calculus.

The Russian official version is replete with grave contradictions

The Russian official version is replete with grave contradictions if not with clear lies. Former head of the IDF military intelligence Amos Yadlin (who is also a former fighter pilot) explained, that the very idea that a fighter jet could use another plane as a cover is absurd. The downed plane is an old rotor plane, whose speed is significantly slower than that of F-16 fighter jet. Konashenkov himself said that the IL-20 started reducing altitude from 5000 meters whereas Israeli jets penetrated Syrian air space on a much lower altitude to escape air-defense radars. It is likely that a Syrian SAM missed its original target, and then struck the Russian reconnaissance plane.

Tough questions

If there are tough questions, they should be addressed to the Russians, not the Israelis. Usually, when a SAM missile doesn’t manage to acquire a target, a self-destruction mechanism must automatically be activated. One can only wonder why over three years of the Russian involvement in Syria, the Russian military did nothing for a better interaction between Syrian air-defense systems (all Russian made) and the Russian air force. Even worse, why did the Russians not equip Syrian air-defense with the friend-foe recognition system, which is by its own right an act of flagrant irresponsibility in an area in which so many different planes are operating.

Why did the Russians not equip Syrian air-defense with the friend-foe recognition

Moreover, why did Syrian air-defense fighters not turn on the self-destruct system? This raises further questions with regard to the professionalism of those who taught them this craft.

Finally, and crucially: nothing is known about the actions of the Russian military after they received the Israeli warning. Did they order their Syrian allies to immediately cease fire? It seems that blaming Israel is easier for the Kremlin than answering similar questions. Colonel (Rt) Rustem Klupov said in an interview to the opposition-minded Novaya Gazeta that the Syrian missiles are obsolete S-200 and were not equipped with modern target recognition systems. Russian officers who are responsible for the interaction with Syrian air-defense are surely the culprit here, whereas Israelis pilots acted professionally, said Klupov. Needless to say that the plane in question was a surveillance plane, and the crew (as well as the radar) of course knew the precise situation in the air.

What next?

Israel can do little to influence further Russian decision making in Syria. Several developments are possible in the next period.

In an optimistic scenario, Russia would do its best to calm down the echo after the incident and also prevent the further deepening of the Iranian foothold in the vicinity of Russian bases. Russia cannot force the Quds force and Hezbollah to pull out from Syria, but it definitely can halt the placing of Iranian facilities and weapons in Latakia. On the other hand, Russia has an array of means to annoy Israel or at least limit its freedom of action in Syria’s skies. The question is what Putin will prefer. The Russian president has already promised “additional measures to improve the security of our servicemen and facilities in Syria. The measures will be such that everyone will notice them”. For starters, Russia could bolster the capacities of Syrian air-defense, creating more difficulties for Israeli fighter jets.

However, a closer look at the issues shows that even simple solutions are not so elementary as they may seem at first glance. Anton Mardasov, an expert from the Russian Council for International Affairs argues that delivery of more modern missile systems to Syria might turn out to be counter-productive. This is because Iran will immediately exploit new difficulties for Israel to supply more weapons to Syria. The latter, in turn, will make Israel react and they will end up developing even more sophisticated methods to destroy Iranian objects in Syria. Mounting tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria contradict Russian long-term interests. Proceeding from that, the Russian expert concludes that nothing substantial will change but there will be some “corrections" in the liaison between Israel and Russian military.

It is noteworthy that no serious Russian analysis suggests that Israel will stop its activity targeting Iran in Syria. The continuation thereof is taken for granted by solid Russian analysts, in contrast to propagandists close to the Kremlin.

What benefit do the positions of the propagandists bring? Following the recent incident, IDF air force commander Amikam Norkin traveled to Moscow to hand over all the information regarding it. The incompetent performance of the Russian and Syrian military is equally obvious. Why then the lies? Naturally there is no only simple answer to this question but the behavior of the Russian establishment in the tragic event with the Il-20 reveals a lot of similarities both with the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing MH14 plane by Russian air-defense in Ukraine in 2014 and with the Skripal affair.

In 2014, the Kremlin, including the above-mentioned Maj-Gen Igor Konashenkov accused Ukrainian forces in the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing. Already in 2014, the Russian Defense ministry stated that it had "irrefutable facts that prove Ukraine was behind the MH17 Boeing crash in 2014”. As in the present incident, all the facts on the ground were obvious even for non-professionals and they clearly pointed to the responsibility of the Russian military in the tragedy.

Two individuals suspected of involvement in the attempted murder of Segei Skripal in Salisbury in the UK, Messrs Petrov and Boshirov gave an interview to RT’s anchor Margarita Simonyan on 12 September. The two claimed to be tourists who had wanted just to visit “wonderful Salisbury and go sightseeing around Wiltshire. During the interview they behaved as if they were a gay couple. Their answers to Simonyan’s questions were incoherent and clearly untrue. The behavior pattern is the same to that seen in the aforementioned incidents: independent investigation has clearly established Petrov and Boshirov’s affiliation with the GRU military intelligence service, yet the Kremlin embarked on spreading lies and “dizinformatsiya” instead of trying to conceal the whole affair.

Unpredictability of Russian actions

The danger of this behavior lies in the unpredictability of Russian actions - because Russian actions do not necessarily align with an operative common sense or with economic interests. Everything depends upon Putin’s final verdict but mutual accusations and lack of coordination between different elements of the Russian power structure suggest that Putin does not necessarily micro-manage or control every action of his lackeys. So what will prevail? Long term strategical interests that can be analyzed and understood by the US or Israel or the short-term calculus of a high ranking military bureaucrat -whose main concern is to cover himself and dodge any responsibility and accountability. This dilemma is responsible for making Russian behavior hardly predictable, rather than any “enigmatic” Russian psyche, or stratagem.

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