Russia ordered the deployment of sophisticated ground-to-air missiles in Syria on Wednesday, a day after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian SU-24 warplane that Ankara said had repeatedly violated Turkish airspace near the Syrian border.
The Kremlin also said it was moving the missile-carrying naval cruiser Moskva closer to the Syrian government-controlled Latakia area, where Tuesday’s deadly confrontation occurred, to provide better protection of Russian aircraft. The Kremlin’s warplanes are in the region to wage airstrikes against Islamic State militants and other forces fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East.
The strengthening of Russian air defenses in the region further raises the stakes for the multinational coalition trying to contain the ISIS extremists who have proclaimed a “caliphate” in the vast Syrian and Iraqi territory they control. If Russia were to shoot down a Turkish plane, or one from any other NATO member state, the Western military alliance would be obliged to respond to the attack.
Meanwhile, Syrian special forces staged a dramatic overnight rescue of one of the two Russian pilots who ejected from the SU-24 after it was struck by an air-to-air missile. Both Russian airmen had been reported dead by Syrian rebel forces controlling the border area where the plane was shot down.
The rescued pilot, Capt. Konstantin Murakthin, told Rossiya-1 television that the warplane’s two-man crew had no warning of the Turkish attack and denied that they had strayed into Turkish airspace “even for one second.”
“The entire mission was in my full personal control until the explosion,” Murakhtin said from the field hospital at Russia’s Hemeimeem air base near Latakia, where he was recuperating after the stealth, 12-hour operation that plucked him from rebel-held territory.
The navigator was reported in good condition after his ordeal and vowed to rejoin the air campaign against the anti-Assad forces that Moscow has labeled terrorists.
“I have a debt to pay off on the part of my commander,” Murakhtin said of the SU-24 pilot, Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov, who was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted from the stricken warplane early Tuesday.
Syrian and Russian special forces entered the area where the surviving pilot was being held about three miles beyond government-controlled territory, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Another Russian airman was killed later Tuesday when rebels attacked an MI-8 helicopter that taken off from the Hemeimeem base in search of the two SU-24 pilots, Russian officials said. The helicopter was forced to land in neutral territory and the surviving crewmen were evacuated.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on Wednesday that the Turkish action in shooting down the jet had all the hallmarks of “a planned provocation.”
Russia is not going to go to war with NATO-member Turkey, Lavrov said, but warned that the attack will not pass “without a response.”
Lavrov disparaged claims made by the Turkish government in a letter delivered to the U.N. Security Council. The letter said Ankara had proof that two Russian jets had penetrated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds and to a depth of more than a mile, and that the SU-24 had been warned 10 times to stay away.
“It has made no impression on either serious political scientists or serious politicians,” Lavrov said. “We have other evidence which we are ready to share with our partners, including objective data released by the Defense Ministry, as far as I understand, related to the jet’s route.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country wanted to maintain good relations with Russia and would be pursuing “peace, dialogue and diplomacy” in the wake of the incident. But Erdogan reiterated that Turkey would defend its territory and sovereign rights against any violators.
Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called Russia “a friend and neighbor,” but criticized the Russian actions in Syria as directed at anti-Assad rebels rather than the militants of Islamic State. Davutoglu said the Russian targets in the area where the plane was downed Tuesday were Syrian Turkmens, ethnic kin of the Turkish people, and that “not one single” ISIS unit has been known to be in the area.
Echoing Erdogan, though, Davutoglu said Ankara wouldn’t want to see the mutually beneficial relationship with Russia “sacrificed to accidents of communication.”
Russia has become a major importer of Turkish foods and consumer goods since Moscow imposed a retaliatory embargo on trade with states of the European Union, an alliance of which Turkey is not a member. The 28-nation EU and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia in July 2014 in punishment for the Kremlin’s seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory. Russia and Turkey also have robust energy trade and have plans to construct a major pipeline under the Black Sea to export natural gas to other European countries.
In Moscow, protesters pelted the Turkish Embassy with rocks and other projectiles, breaking several windows in the compound before police broke up the demonstration.
The Kremlin’s decision to deploy S400 missiles to northwestern Syria was announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The missiles, to be stationed about 30 miles from the Turkish border, have a range of about 250 miles.
“It will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft,” Shoigu said.