Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday appeared to dial down hostile rhetoric blaming Israel for the downing of a Russian air force surveillance plane this week, saying that the blame rests with the Syrian air defense crew that fired on it.
Initially, the Russian Ministry of Defense pointed a finger squarely at Israel, claiming Israeli F-16s that had been sent to bomb Iranian targets inside Syria used the Russian Il-20 as “cover,” knowing that it would paint a larger radar picture to Syrian air defense crews than the smaller fighters.
Russian Defence Ministry: Russian Ilyushin Il-20 plane was downed by Syrian Air Defence missile after Israeli F-16 pilots used it as cover thus setting it up to be targeted by AA defence. Such actions can only be classified as a deliberate provocation https://t.co/qBcqPz2en6 pic.twitter.com/21mTTNXmpd
— Russia in RSA 🇷🇺 (@EmbassyofRussia) September 18, 2018
“It looks like a chain of tragic circumstances because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down our jet,” he said, as reported by Israeli news site Haaretz.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Putin to express his condolences over the downing of the reconnaissance plane. But he reiterated Israel’s intent to continue to deny Iran safe space in Syria because Tehran is using its influence with the Assad regime to bolster its military presence in the country to threaten Israel.
As Haaretz reported:
Putin’s comments were a shift in tone after Russia accused Israel earlier of a “hostile provocation” in striking the Syrian port city of Latakia, which led to the downing of a Russian military plane with 15 servicemen on board.
When asked about comparisons to Turkey’s downing of a Russian aircraft in 2015, Putin said: “This is a different situation. The Turkish fighter jet knowingly downed our plane.”
Analysis: So that’s it, right? Hardly.
Putin’s dialing down of the rhetoric is an effort to mask his intentions. He — Russia — still has the same foreign policy interests in Syria as he did before the plane was shot down, and those aren’t going to change anytime soon.
When journalists asked him about the much more hostile statement of his Defense Ministry, which also vowed a retaliatory response, Putin stated clearly that it was “fully coordinated” with him (of course it was).
He defined what ‘retaliatory’ meant. “The retaliatory measures will be directed above all to boosting the security of military men and installations in Syria,” he said. “These will be measures everyone will see.”
In our assessment of the shootdown and subsequent ‘retaliatory’ rhetoric, we wrote:
Now there is nothing left to do but see what Russia’s response will ultimately be.
Whatever it is, it won’t be a Russian withdrawal from Syria. If anything, Putin will bolster his forces there and make it expensive for Israel to conduct future strikes.
That appears to be precisely what Putin is doing: He’s going to make it more difficult for Israel to conduct future attacks against Iranian (and Syrian) forces inside Syria that are aligned with Moscow. And he’s going to do it in a way that is transparent — easily seen and verifiable, via intelligence means — so that Israel gets the message loud and clear.
This will complicate things immensely for Israel because Netanyahu’s foreign policy and national security objectives are not going to change, either. Iran, its proxies (Hamas and Hezbollah) and, to a lesser extent, Syria, remain enemies of the Jewish state.
Netanyahu will continue to target Iranian military assets inside Syria if he believes they represent a threat. Putin, alternately, has said if Netanyahu does that, Israel is liable to pay a price because Putin’s first responsibility is to protect his own forces.