On July 30, 1970 during the height of the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel, Israeli fighter jets –Mirages and F-4E Phantoms – tangled with Soviet-piloted MiG-21s over Egyptian airspace. In the four minute dogfight that ensued, the Israeli Air Force shot down five of the MiGs while the rest of the Red formation scattered. The engagement brought Israel to the brink of war with a superpower.
Israeli-Russian relations have markedly improved since those tense Cold War years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin have developed an excellent relationship based on personal friendship and shared interests. Netanyahu was one of only two Western leaders to attend Russia’s Victory Day Parade this year and Putin was the first Russian president to ever visit the Jewish State. In 2012, Putin returned to Israel as a guest of honor at a state dinner and inaugurated a monument to Soviet soldiers who defeated Nazi Germany. During Operation Protective Edge, Putin voiced support for Israel in its quest to protect its citizens from Hamas terrorism.
Despite the warming of ties, Israel’s military brass and political echelons viewed Russia’s military intervention on behalf of the outlaw Assad regime warily. Given the proximity of Russian forces to Syrian and Iranian positions, the Israelis were rightly concerned over the prospect of an accidental engagement between Israeli and Russian militaries. Consequently, Israel and Russia developed and effective de-confliction mechanism aimed at avoiding such unintended engagements.
For the most part, this arrangement worked well but on the night of September 17, it went disastrously wrong. At approximately 10 p.m. four Israeli F-16 Sufa fighter-bombers launched a precision strike from Lebanese airspace at a weapons-linked facility in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, obliterating it. The attack was part of Israel’s relentless campaign of thwarting arms transfers to Hezbollah and Iranian entrenchment in Syria
The Syrians responded by wildly firing a number of anti-aircraft missiles. Syrian air defense units continued launching missiles even after the attack subsided. During the course of their unfocused response, the Syrians inadvertently shot down a Russian Ilyushin-20M “Coot-A” surveillance and control aircraft off the Syrian coast killing all 15 Russian personnel aboard. It was reported that several Syrian air defense personnel were arrested following the shoot-down.
Israel immediately expressed regret for the loss and sent a response team to Moscow to explain that fault for the downing rested squarely with incompetent Syrian air defense units. Putin appeared to accept the Israeli explanation and apology, and referred to the incident as an “unfortunate accident.” But shortly thereafter, Russia’s Ministry of Defense assumed a less conciliatory approach, which rejected Israel’s explanation and referred to the manner in which Israel carried out its strike as “criminal negligence.” The MoD even accused Israel of utilizing the Ilyushin as cover to mask the presence of IAF fighters.
The contradictory Russian response can best be explained by competing Russian political and military interests. Putin wants to maintain good relations with Israel while Russia’s MoD wants to demonstrate that it’s doing everything it can to back its overseas troops.
In response to the accident, Russia announced that it would deliver to the Syrian army the S-300 air defense system which would significantly enhance Syria’s air defense capabilities. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the delivery, which included 49 pieces of equipment, was completed on October 1. Russia’s MoD also announced that it would take three months to train the Syrians.
The Russians, not known for their magnanimity, announced that they provided the system to their Syrian allies free of charge but it is still unclear what variant of the S-300 was delivered. According to the Russian propaganda outlet RT, it was the more advanced S-300VM model while the defense blog The War Zone suggested that it was S-300PMU-2, Russia’s export version of the S-300. In addition to the delivery of the S-300, Russia also reportedly delivered a suite of electronic warfare equipment aimed at protecting anti-aircraft sites by jamming radars.
So what do these ominous developments portend for Israel and its efforts to thwart Iranian arms trafficking to Hezbollah and Iranian entrenchment? And how will these developments affect Israeli-Russian relations?
With respect to the latter, it is highly unlikely that Israeli-Russian ties will be adversely affected by this momentary blip. Both Israel and Russia have an interest in maintaining good ties and both have an interest in seeing Iranian expansion in Syria checked, albeit for different reasons. Moreover, visits by high-level Russian leaders to Israel have not been impeded as evidenced by the fact that Russia’s deputy prime minister, Maxim Akimov, is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday. Nevertheless as General Joseph Votel, who heads the US Central Command noted, the transfer of the S-300 platform to the Syrian army represents a “needless escalation” and cover for nefarious Syrian and Iranian activities.
It is also highly unlikely that Israel will cease its operations over Syria. Israel’s quest to thwart Iranian aggression represents a paramount strategic objective. Israel has already conducted over 200 strikes in Syria and has likely carried out a number of covert operations as well. Indeed, a day prior to the September 17 attack, Israel blew up an Iranian Boeing 747 containing weapons destined for Hezbollah at Damascus International Airport.
The S-300, with its 124 mile range, advanced radar and anti-jamming systems, and ability to track multiple targets simultaneously certainly presents challenges to the IAF’s freedom of action but it is a virtual certainty that the Israelis have already developed counter-measures to this formidable weapon system. As The War Zone notes “Israel has also already gained significant insight into the capabilities of the S-300 system specifically by participating in training exercises that feature older variants in Greece.”
While the transfer of the S-300 to the Syrian army certainly doesn’t make things easier for Israel, it will not for a moment prevent Israel from acting resolutely when its security interests are threatened. This is an ongoing Israeli doctrine that is subordinate to no other interest.