Moscow Stretches its Syrian ‘Defensive Bubble’ in Latakia – Like Kaliningrad
Russian warplanes operating in Syria intruded into Turkish airspace twice this week, raising concerns over an escalation of tensions between Moscow and NATO if these provocations continue.
On Oct. 3, a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter flew briefly over Turkey’s Hatay province, followed the next day by a Sukhoi Su-24 fighter in the same area.
The US and NATO officials slammed Russia over the intrusions, with Turkey expressing outrage and vowing to retaliate if it happened again, raising the possibility of a confrontation.
After the first incident, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it was an accident and the intrusion only lasted a few seconds. However, there was no comment from Moscow on the second violation.
"We also have seen two of them, two violations of Turkish airspace," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. "Intelligence that we have received provides me with reason to say it doesn't look like an accident."
The Russian aircraft only turned back after Turkey, in accordance with NATO procedures, scrambled fighters to intercept it, he said, adding that the warplanes trespassed, despite “clear, timely and repeated warnings.”
At the same time, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources described Ankara as taking good care to order its airplanes to avoid any brushes with the Russian jets, certainly not to try and force them to land or shoot them down.
Russian warplanes habitually breach Western skies
Interestingly, the two Russian planes used the same route that Israeli fighter-bombers flew in 2007 when they passed through Turkish airspace, without permission, to bomb the clandestine nuclear reactor that Syria was building at Al Kibar with Iranian and North Korean assistance. Western and Israeli intelligence and aviation sources could not explain to DEBKA Weekly why the Russians chose that particular flight route.
They suggested that the Russians were trying to place that route off limits to US and coalition air forces for air strikes in Syria so long as they tried to ignore the Russian air force presence.
Or perhaps they wanted to check out intelligence or aviation-related data ahead of the talks taking place in Tel Aviv this week (Oct. 6-7) between Russia’s deputy chief of staff, Gen. Nikolay Bogdanovsky, and his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Yair Golan.
It is not unusual for Russian military aircraft to breach the airspace of neighboring countries without asking for permission. Last month, Russian Tu-95MS-H strategic bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, came close to California and Alaska. The many intrusions into skies over Europe, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Japan, and the US coast are rattling the West and forcing their air forces to constantly scramble their fighters to intercept the trespassers and drive them off.
Stretching the Russian “defensive bubble” in Latakia, like Kaliningrad
But Russian encroachments on Turkish air space were especially disquieting because they occurred in possibly the most combustible region on earth.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry press release issued on Oct. 5, accused Russian aircraft of over-flying the Yayladagi/Hatay region of the southern Turkey. This region has a large Alawite population, the sect to which President Bashar Assad, his family and close cronies belong. Damascus has never formally ceded the loss of Hatay to Turkey. Nor do Syrian maps confirm it. So perhaps Moscow was acting for Damascus in sending a warning to Turkey to stay out of Syria’s way or risk serious consequences in the future.
That is one theory. However, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources offer a completely different motive.
Moscow’s political and military leaders refer to the Russian military enclave in the Syrian city of Latakia in the same terms as the Russian military enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, between Poland and Lithuania. NATO Gen. Phillip Breedlove recently compared the two enclaves, calling them “Russian defensive bubbles.”
On September 28, he told an audience in Washington, “We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into these airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air aircraft going into these airfields.”
He went on to say: We are a little worried about another A2AD (anti-access, area-denial anti-ship and anti-air missiles) bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Moscow jets may be slipping over into Turkish air space in the process of expanding their “bubble” in Latakia, following the same mode of conduct they use Kaliningrad. But in this sector, they risk precipitating a dangerous confrontation with NATO or other forces in the region, if this week’s intrusions into Turkish airspace continue.