Notwithstanding the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Russian Tu-154 air crash into the Black Sea minutes after its takeoff for Syria from Sochi early Sunday Dec. 25, the dread announcement that none of the 92 people aboard had survived was not accompanied by an official suggestion of terrorism.
That suggestion began rising to the surface later in the day. Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov reported the finding of 11 bodies in the sea, adding ominously that “fragments of other bodies were also found.” He added: “Of course the entire spectrum and almost any possible causes…are being probed, but it is premature now to speak about this as a terrorist act.”
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a military spokesman put in that the pilot was “first-class,” and the 33-year-old Tupelov passenger jet had been serviced recently.
But by then, investigators must have had some idea of what caused the crash just two minutes after takeoff – too suddenly for the pilot to send a distress signal.
Did they find evidence of explosives planted on the plane or, possibly, a sabotaged fuel line or tank, or a passenger carrying a bomb or wearing a bomb vest? A possibly technical fault cannot be ruled out at this stage. However, the unusual Russian response to the disaster indicated that the Kremlin was in a hurry to find answers and that its emergency infrastructure was in high gear to cope with a massive terrorist attack. Deployed to the scene of the crash was an army of 3,000 rescue personnel, including 100 divers, who were rushed in from all parts of Russia, along with 32 ships and submarines and scores of helicopters and drones – all engaged in gathering every scrap of debris and human remains for a complete picture of the disaster.
While world attention remains focused on the wave of terror overtaking Europe, Islamist terrorists including ISIS, are clearly placing Russia firmly in their sights, especially since its intensified military intervention in Syria last September.
Still registered on the collective Russian consciousness is the tragic downing of the Metrojet Airbus on Oct. 31 2015 over Egyptian Sinai, after taking off from Sharm El-Sheikh, then a favorite Russian tourist resort. None of the 217 passengers and crew survived.
Still ringing in Russian ears is the voice of the Turkish assassin yelling: “Remember Syria! Remember Aleppo!” six days earlier, after he shot Andrew Karlov, 62, the Russian ambassador to Ankara. The video of the crime played out on TV screens across the world.
So far, President Vladimir Putin has managed to minimize the casualties of Russian military personnel involved in the Syrian war. But the number of fatalities building up from terrorism under the shadow of that war may have just jumped to an ominous level to 310 – not counting soldiers.
The Black Sea crash, if an act of terror is proven, will demonstrate that Russia has become a central target for Islamic terrorists, especially ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, and is paying a cruel price for its role in the Syrian conflict.
The doomed Tupolev was carrying more than one popular national symbol: 64 singers of the Red Army Choir, known as the Alexandrov Ensemble, a troupe of dancers, and Yelizaveta Glinka, known popularly as “Doctor Liza,” beloved leader of an organization for aiding victims in Russian combat zones. Nine reporters were also on the plane. Putin declared Monday a day of national mourning.
They were all flying to the Russian Hmemim airbase in Latakia with a shipment of medicines. A concert for the troops was booked for the New Year
Terrorists have for years had their eye on the celebrated Black Sea resort of Sochi, venue of international summits and favorite winter getaway location for Russian rulers, including Putin, who maintains a holiday residence there. An assault on Sochi is therefore a poke in the eye for the Russian president and the Russian military and security agencies battling terrorism.