Israel, in an almost unprecedented move, sent its IAF commander with authorized and detailed documentation to Moscow which was intended not only to shed light on what transpired, but also on the events leading up to it.
Norkin met in Moscow with senior Russian officials, including his Russian counterpart and yet the Russian report that was published on Sunday which stuck by its original claim that Israel bore sole responsibility for the incident made no mention of a single Israeli claim. The report didn’t even try to refute Israel’s claims or to make counterclaims against the information the Russians had been provided just days earlier. Even more surprising is that the Russian Defense Ministry simply repeated, word for word, with no change whatsoever, the version of events that were published mere hours after the incident.
The report seems as though absolutely no attempt to clarify matters was made by the Israeli side. There is not even a mention of Norkin. Apart from blaming Israel, the report, which promised a minute-by-minute evaluation, contains almost no new facts on the matter.
Moreover, there are all kinds of additional claims that are intended to demonstrate just how ungrateful Israel apparently is to the charitable Russians who are trying to protect it and are only repaid in bad faith.
From reading the report by the Defense Ministry which was initiated by Russian media which marches to the Kremlin’s beat, it is not difficult to discern that its findings are intended, more or less, to achieve several goals. It is worth examining them one by one.
Firstly, it is intended to fabricate excuses to the Russian public about the failures of its forces deployed in Syria on the night of the incident. These failures and shortfalls in the overall aerial situation are what contributed to the plane being shot down no less that the Syrian air defenses who pulled the trigger and launched and SAS missile at the Ilyushin Il-20.
The Defense Ministry did not include in its report any warning or threat of retaliation and this is a good sign. In this story the Russian Defense Ministry is the “baddy” which is seeking a get out of jail free card at Israel’s expense in Syria. Putin is seeking to create an image in which he is the good cop who wants to safeguard good relations with Israel and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Defense Ministry knows that it can’t go too far and make threats against Israel upon which it is unable to deliver.
The proof that the Russian officers in the Khmeimim Air Base did not read the battle correctly is the fact that the first message they sent to the Defense Ministry in Moscow is that they registered missile launches from French frigate in Mediterranean at the Syrian army targets in Latakia. They also falsely reported that certain targets, for instance power plant in Latakia, were hit.
Another blunder was that the Russians did not provide its Syrian allies with the electronic signals which identifies their planes as Russian.
The Russian officers who operate jointly with the Syrian air defenses failed to properly supervise the anti-aircraft fire and the radar screens while the Syrian operators pressed the launch button. The Russian officers were there and they can surely recognize Russian planes but for a reason that is not clear, a mistake was made or someone failed in their professional responsibility. The claim that Israeli jets used the Russian plane as a shield against the Syrian air defense systems is merely a ploy to cover up this failure.
Another reason for the report can be attributed to the power struggles being waged between various security officials in the Russian Defense Ministry and Putin’s offices. This incident is an opportunity for Defense Ministry officials, a large number of whom identify with the Russian regime, to lash out at Israel in order to make it easier for Russian industries to supply weapons to its allies in the Middle East. But the main thing, as mentioned, is Russian public opinion and ensuring that no encouragement is given to the opposition elements to the Kremlin.
The second reason for the unfounded accusations against Israel is to solicit new compromises from the country regarding the situation in Syria. It can be assumed that the Russians will try to use the crisis against Israel to limit the freedom over Syria’s skies which it has been granted by Moscow through new agreements. This will then be presented as an achievement to the regime in Damascus and Tehran who will then “owe” them.
How believable is the report by the Russians? What is clear it that the Defense Ministry has not pointed out the simple fact that the Syrian air defenses were the ones that shot the plane down. It was not Israel. The scathing report attempts to create the impression that the State of Israel is exclusively responsible for bringing the plane down which is why it does not mention this simple truth and why it doesn’t mention the responsibility of Hezbollah and Iran for this tragic situation who themselves have tried to use the Russian military presence as a shield against Israeli attacks.
This string of facts which are ignored in the report cast a significant doubt on its validity, but also on the fact that the Kremlin does not want to overstep the mark with Israel. This is also a positive thing for us. While they want to squeeze out of this crisis as much as they can, the Russians will not go too far in directly confronting Israel.
Unpacking the Russian claims
The first claim: The Israelis gave less than a minute’s notice before the attack on Latakia and did not provide the location of their planes or the list of targets.
The recording that was brought to Russia by Norkin proves that a warning was delivered to the Russian coordination room in the Khmeimim Air Base located south of Latakia. It proves that a lot more than one minute was given before the strike. Israel was not obligated to provide the location of its planes or the list of targets because such information would have exposed the fighter jets to danger and revealed the Israeli modus operandi to the Russians and the Syrians. It may have enabled the Syrians to intercept the rockets fired by the Israelis at the weapons depots.
It was also not necessary for the Russians to know since the targets were 25 kilometers at least from the area where Russian military personnel are located. They had no reason to know where the Israeli jets were. At the same time, they had no Russian plane or any Russian vessel in the area where Israeli planes were operating. The Russians sought to obtain these details because they wanted to know how Israel’s intelligence and air force functions. But this information that they are suddenly demanding was not needed to prevent a clash. In the past, Israel has not been using the coordination agreements to provide Russia with the locations of its jets and the list of targets.
The second claim: The Israeli F-16 that approached the coast of Latakia and the Russian spy plane as it was about to land in the Khmeimim Air Base.
This is an outright lie. This absolutely never happened and it was proven by Norkin to the Russians using photographic evidence. The actual truth is that all the Israeli planes were, at the same time, already in Israeli airspace at the time of the plane’s downing. The Syrian air defense, under Russian supervision, shot at the Russian plane that was the only target that the Russians and the Syrians saw on their radar.
In their attempt to make excuses for this fact, it is now being argued by the Russian Defense Ministry that the Israelis used radar-jamming systems to hide their actual whereabouts. Even if we assume that coordination was there and the Israelis scrambled the radars, how is it possible that the Russians could have reported in such detail that Israeli F-16s approached the Syrian coast and the air base and that the Russian spy plane, when the IAF aircraft's whereabouts were supposed to have been hidden from the Russians by the aforementioned radar-jamming device.
The simple fact is that the Israeli planes which attacked the targets in Latakia were not there when the downing of the plane took place. The claim is purely intended to cover up the failure and incompetence of the Syrians and the Russians. The claim is intended to hide the ignominious facts from the Russian public.
The third claim: The Russian Defense Ministry claims that the Russian coordination personnel at Khmeimim Air Base has given 310 notifications to Israel about Russian and Syrian planes approaching its airspace in order to prevent accidental confrontations.
Israel, the ministry claims, has only given 25 warnings in the last 1-and-a-half years even though it has launched 200 strikes on Syrian soil. These facts are true, but the Russians have failed to mention the “friction prevention mechanism” and that when there are no Russian planes or Russian interests near where Israel is attacking, there has been no need to avoid a confrontation. That is why there was not even any need to inform the Russian coordination personnel.
The hundreds of Russian warnings, on the other hand, were given because of hundreds of attacks launched by Russian planes and drones in southern Syria to assist President Assad near the Israeli border. Israel has not intervened in the Syrian-Russian operations in the south of the war-torn country and Russia has had an interest in not flying dangerously close to our border to avoid any damage to their own planes.
The fourth claim: The Russian Defense Ministry also claimed that the heads of the IDF do not appreciate the relationship and security cooperation with Moscow which supposedly helped to prevent firing of stray mortar shells from Syria into Israeli territory, and that the fact the Russians allowed the UN peace force to operate in the area.
This claim is also false seeing as the Russians were willing to do all of that in return for an Israeli and American promise that neither Israel nor the US would intervene once Assad recaptures the Syrian Golan Heights. These were explicit understandings that the Russians wanted more than Israel needed them. This is how they got southern Syria on a silver platter.
The fifth claim: The Russian Defense Ministry claims it managed to keep Iranian forces operating in Syria 140 kilometers from Israel’s northern border.
This is also only partially true. Some of these Iranian militias really left the area and went to fight in Idlib, but some of them are located around the city of Damascus, only 40 kilometers from the Israeli border.
The sixth claim: The Russian Defense Ministry said that its people helped to preserve sites holy for the Jewish religion as well as Jewish graves in the city of Aleppo, and that Russian soldiers risked their lives in search of remains of Israeli soldiers who were killed in battles of the past.
The incident took place in an area held by ISIS until they surrendered to the Syrian regime which took control of the camp.
They need us as much as we need them
Of the six claims presented by the Russian Defense Ministry, only one and a half are partially true and it can be easily proven. However, it can be assumed that Israel, the IDF, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, will not try to publicly embarrass the Russians with actual facts.
The Israeli government and the defense establishment will ignore the Russian lies and the insulting refusal to take into consideration the investigation findings presented to them by the IAF chief, in the hope that this will calm the situation, and it will be possible to fully resume the security coordination with the Russians.
However, it is clear that Israel will now have to reconsider when it approves an operation in Syrian territory and when it refrains. This fact will not go unnoticed by the Iranians who will try to conceal weapons and equipment it transfers to Hezbollah in areas populated by Russian military forces, knowing that Israel will most likely refrain from attacking such areas in the near future as to not aggravate the crisis with Russia.
Nevertheless, if there will not be any other exceptional events, it can be assumed that things will return to the way they were before the downing of the Russian plane. In any event, Israel will not allow Iranian entrenched in Syria and will not allow Hezbollah to acquire high-quality weapons, because for Israel it is an existential threat, as emphasized by Defense Minister Lieberman recently.
This means that both Israel and Russia will have to improve coordination and deconflict the situation in order to prevent future crises. We must not forget that when it comes to Syria—the Russians need us almost as much as we need them.