The Russian Defense Ministry has published a detailed statement about the shoot down of an Il-20 intelligence aircraft in the Mediterranean off Syria last week. The aircraft was his by friendly fire from Syrian anti-aircraft batteries as they responded to an attack by Israeli F-16s.
In essence the briefing was a long accusation against Israel for reckless behavior and poor adherence to deconfliction procedures. The first half of the briefing was a minute by minute account of the events on 17 September that led to the crash of the Russian spy plane and the death of 15 airmen. The second half was a more general segment to show that Israel has a history of dangerous – and frankly ungrateful – behavior. The notion is that Russia’s actions in Syria – and especially in the Golan Heights – have improved security in Israel, so it would be appropriate with some goodwill in return.
According to Russia, Israel often neglects to use the established deconfliction channels before an attack. Russia has used the system 310 times to warn about upcoming military actions near Israeli territory. Israel, on the other hand, has only used the system 25 times, and usually they call so late that the air strike is already taking place. In the incident on 17 September, Russia only got the warning one minute ahead of the air strike, and it mistakenly indicated a wrong geographic location because the Israeli officer confused the Russian words for North and West.
Interestingly, the Russian Defense Ministry points out that their cooperation with the American authorities is outstanding when it comes to deconfliction of air operations. They basically suggest that the Israelis learn from the Americans how to behave professionally.
One party that does not get any blame from the Russians is Syria. This is noteworthy since it was a Syrian missile that shot down the Il-20. It does seem like a remarkable display of incompetence that the Syrian crew was unable to distinguish between a fighter jet and a large turboprop airliner.
When Russia chooses not to criticize Syria, one obvious explanation could be that Russia wants someone other than their ally to take the blame. You might as well exploit a situation when you have the opportunity, and if this can pause Israel’s air strikes for a while, that is a good thing for Russia. Another explanation is that Russia needs the Syrian air defense to look competent. They have routinely claimed that the Syrians shoot down an unbelievable number of missiles during air strikes, so they have to stick to a narrative where the Syrians are really good. And finally, S-200 is a Russian produced missile, and it is bad publicity if it shoots down the wrong airplanes.
But besides the reasons that Russia does not want to blame the Syrian government, they also seem genuinely unsatisfied with Israel’s behavior. The evidence that they have presented consists of bilateral exchanges between Israel and Russia, and if something is incorrect, it will be easy for Israel to refute. So it seems likely that the numbers do indeed confirm that Israel has a sloppy attitude to deconfliction during air strikes, and that Russia wants them to improve.