Russia deploys anti-aircraft missile system to Syria after Turkey downs jet
BEIRUT // Russia will deploy a sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft missile system to Syria, Moscow said on Wednesday, stirring tensions a day after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane.
The Russian jet was shot from the skies on Tuesday, after Ankara said it violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, ignoring multiple warnings. Russia maintains that its plane stayed in Syrian airspace and challenges that Turkish jets entered Syria to shoot it down.
After ejecting from the doomed Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bomber, the pilot was shot by Syrian rebels as he floated to the ground beneath his parachute. The second crew member was rescued by Russian and Syrian special forces.
Capt Konstantin Murakhtin, the jet’s navigator, insisted on Wednesday that there had been no warning before his plane was attacked.
“There was no warning, not by radio exchange nor visually. There was no contact at all,” Capt Murakhtin told reporters at Moscow’s base in Syria, his back to the camera in footage aired by state-owned Russia Today.
But the Turkish army on Wednesday released audio recordings it said were warnings issued to the Russian pilots.
“This is Turkish air force speaking on guard,” the voice on one recording says. “You are approaching Turkish airspace. Change your heading south immediately.”
During Moscow’s search and rescue operation on Tuesday, a Russian marine was also killed and a helicopter brought to the ground by Syrian rebel fire. It was later destroyed by rebels.
President Vladimir Putin, who on Tuesday accused Turkey of stabbing Moscow in the back and working as accomplices of terrorists, has ordered Russia to step up its military presence in and around Syria.
The Kremlin said it will be sending an S-400 anti-aircraft system – Russia’s most advanced – to Moscow’s Hmeimim airbase in Syria’s Latakia province.
In deploying such an advanced weapons system in response to the incident, Russia followed aggressive words with action and continued to pick at a potential conflict with a Nato state.
The system has a firing range of up to 400 kilometres, meaning that missiles could reach targets in all of Syria except the far east, as well as all of Lebanon, all of Cyprus, northern Israel, northern Jordan and a large chunk of southern Turkey.
Later on Wednesday, a US official said Russia’s deployment of the system raised “significant concerns” for the American military.
“It’s a capable weapons system that poses a significant threat to anyone,” the official said. “There are significant concerns related to air operations in Syria.”
In addition to deploying the S-400 system to Latakia, Moscow said it was deploying a warship equipped with a less advanced anti-aircraft missile system off the coast of the Syrian province.
“Russian defence ministry warns that all the potentially dangerous targets will be destroyed,” said Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy.
The moves will help cement rapidly-growing Russian air power in the eastern Mediterranean. They appear to be the most significant deployment of weaponry since Russia’s military build-up in Syria ahead of the launch of its air campaign in the country on September 30.
However, despite its aggressive military posturing and continued critical rhetoric towards Turkey, Russia said on Wednesday that it had no plans to escalate the situation.
While calling Ankara’s downing of its jet a “planned provocation,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had “no intention of going to war with Turkey”.
“Our attitude toward the Turkish people hasn’t changed,” he added. “We only have questions about the Turkish leadership.”
Mr Lavrov also advised Russian nationals to avoid visiting Turkey – a major destination for Russian tourists – due to terrorist threats. Russian media reported on Wednesday that a number of the country’s major tour operators had stopped selling package tours to Turkey in the aftermath of Tuesday’s incident.
Russian president Vladimir Putin criticised Turkey’s government on Wednesday, accusing it of pushing a policy of “Islamisation”, according to Russia’s Tass news agency.
“After yesterday’s event, we cannot rule out other incidents and if they happen, we will have to respond somehow,” he said.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, said Turkey was acting in “de facto protection of Islamic State”.
“This is no surprise, considering the information we have about direct financial interest of some Turkish officials relating to the supply of oil products refined by plants controlled by ISIS,” he added, according to Russia Today.
But as Russian leaders continued to speak of Turkey’s government with hostility, Russia’s ambassador to France, Alexandre Orlov, told Europe 1 radio that Moscow would still be ready to include Turkey – along with the US and France – in the formation of a joint command to combat ISIL.
Turkey, meanwhile, tried to downplay the tensions while reaffirming its right to protect its borders.
“Russia is our friend and neighbour,” prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Wednesday, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. “Relations between big countries cannot be sacrificed over communication accidents.”
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan similarly stressed that he was not looking for conflict.
“Turkey does not want to escalate this incident. Turkey only defended its security and its brothers’ rights,” he said.
“Turkey is not on the side of tension, crisis and animosity.”
* With agencies
Updated: November 25, 2015 04:00 AM