President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that the shooting down of a Russian military plane near Syria’s seacoast was the result of a series of tragic and chance circumstances. His comments appeared to somewhat defuse a possible crisis involving outside powers that back opposing sides in Syria’s complex civil war, after Russia’s Defence Ministry accused Israel of indirectly causing the incident.
The ministry said that while Syrian anti-aircraft had mistakenly shot down the plane of a close ally, Israeli jets flying nearby had put the Russian jet in the path of danger, and it threatened to retaliate over what it called a hostile act. Putin told reporters: “It looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But, without any doubt, we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened. “As for retaliatory measures, they will be aimed first and foremost at further ensuring the safety of our military personnel and facilities in Syria. And these will be steps that everyone will notice,” Putin said. He also told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone that Israel’s air force had been conducting operations in breach of Syria’s sovereignty, a Kremlin statement said. “In this case, Russian-Israeli agreements on the prevention of dangerous incidents were not observed. As a result a Russian airplane came under fire from Syria’s anti-aircraft systems. The President of Russia called for the Israeli side to avoid such situations from now on,” the statement said. Russia’s Defence Ministry said the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft, with 15 Russians on board, was downed by Syrian government anti-aircraft guns in a “friendly fire” incident.
But the ministry said it held Israel responsible because, at the time of the incident, Israeli jets were attacking targets in Syria and had only given Moscow one minute’s warning, putting the Russian aircraft in danger of being caught in cross-fire. “We view the actions of the Israeli military as hostile,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian state television. “As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian service personnel perished.” Netanyahu’s office said that in his conversation with Putin he blamed Syria for the aircraft’s downing but offered “all necessary information” for the investigation into the incident. Any dispute between Israel and Russia could crimp Israel’s ability to carry out air strikes inside Syria on what it sees as the greatest threat to its security from the war – build-ups of Iranian forces or groupings of the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia.