Putin Sends Missile Battery to Turkey Flashpoint
MOSCOW: Russia yesterday (Wednesday) announced it was deploying anti-aircraft missiles to Syria capable of firing hundreds of miles into Turkish territory, as it alleged Ankara's downing of a Russian fighter jet was a premeditated "ambush".
A series of air attacks, said to be by Russian jets, were also carried out across northern Syria against rebel groups backed by Turkey, in what appeared to be a calculated show of strength.
Rebels said among the targets was a convoy belonging to a Turkish aid group, IHH, which has links to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. Western powers urged a de-escalation of tensions, but Vladimir Putin suggested he was in no mood to take lightly Tuesday's shooting down of a Russian fighter bomber by Turkish F-16 jets. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, accused the Turks of a "planned provocation" that would cause Moscow to "seriously reassess" relations with Ankara.
"We have no intention to go to war with Turkey," Mr Lavrov said at a televised briefing. "Yet we can't but react to what has happened."
The decision by the Russian president to deploy S-400 missiles to the airbase in Latakia is one of several new measures announced by Sergei Shoigu, Russia's defence minister.
With a range of 250 miles, the S-400s would easily be able to destroy any hostile aircraft operating over the border areas of Turkey and Syria where the Russian SU-24 was shot down.
Its deployment also sends a message to Nato. Mr Putin's decision to send a fleet of war planes to the base has already turned what was previously a minor Syrian outpost to a front-line Russian base on Nato's south-eastern edge.
Mr Shoigu also said all future bombing missions would be accompanied by fighter escorts, and ordered the country's most powerful missile cruiser, the Moskva, to patrol coastal waters near the Turkish-Syrian border.
"She will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft," he said.
The pilot of the SU-24 jet, Lt Col Oleg Peshkov, was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to earth after the plane was struck in the tail by an air-to-air missile on Tuesday morning. The navigator, Capt Konstanin Murakhtin, survived, despite initial reports that he too had been killed.
According to Russian tabloid Komsomolsksya Pravda, Capt Murakhtin landed in a forested, mountainous area after bailing out from the jet.
Equipped with a special survival kit issued to all Russian combat pilots, he reportedly fled from the crash site to avoid capture then spent the rest of the day hiding from search parties of rebels dispatched to find him, and made radio contact with rescue parties only after dark, informing Russian commanders that he was still alive and describing his whereabouts.
Russian and Syrian special forces then launched a joint rescue mission and by 2am he had been extracted back to regime-held territory. By 3am he was back at the Russian Latakia airbase.
Speaking publicly for the first time yesterday, Capt Murakhtin denied that his aircraft had entered Turkish airspace "even for a single second". He also rejected the Turkish claim that its F-16 had repeatedly warned the Russian jet before opening fire.
"There have been no warnings whatsoever," said Capt Murakhtin, who added that he wanted to keep flying missions from the base "to pay them back for my commander".
In response, the Turkish authorities released what they said was a recording of the warnings being issued.
Lt Col Peshkov was posthumously made a Hero of Russia, the country's highest award. Capt Murakhtin and Alexander Pozynich, a marine killed when his search-and-rescue helicopter was destroyed by rebels, were awarded the Order of Courage.
The incident has provoked fury in Russia, where a mob smashed windows at the Turkish embassy yesterday afternoon. The Russian authorities also appear to have threatened trade sanctions.
America made its own response: it announced a list of new sanctions on Syrian and Russian entities, for assisting the Assad regime.