At some point in the last 48 hours, the fallout from the Russian Il-20 plane disaster has evolved into hostile steps by Moscow against Israel, as reported by DEBKAfile.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Friday, Sept. 28 that Russia had already handed over advanced S-300 missile defense systems to Syria. This was a day after Russian National Security Adviser Nikolai Patrushev met in Tehran with his counterpart Ali Shamkhani. A tradeoff was to have been offered at that meeting, whereby Israeli would call off its air strikes in Syria if Iran stopped sending arms to Hizballah via Syria. Israel was given to understand by Russian officials that this deal would be sealed at an early face-to-face between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Until then. the S-300s would be held in abeyance. However, as Lavrov indicated, either Israel was misled, or Moscow sharply changed course in the last 48 hours. Netanyahu responded to the Russian disclosure by calling the S-300 handover to Syria “irresponsible.”
- Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, commented caustically to Arab media on Friday that Israel should stop noting “our mistakes.” He was referring to disparaging, possibly patronizing, remarks from Israel military sources when they disowned responsibility for the IL-20 crash. Indeed, the IDF’s response to the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s warning of an electronic war was, “Our air force can handle their systems.” Many Israelis used social media to pour contempt on Russia’s military capabilities. This attitude no doubt irked Moscow and contributed to its decision to ratchet up its military stance in Syria against Israel.
- Russian military experts described the new electronic warfare systems – through local media – as already installed in Syria, in line with Shoigu’s pledge, and capable of tracking Israeli planes in Israel and Europe when they were still on the ground.
As one Russian expert put it: “Once a plane is spotted at an airdrome, the reinforced radio-electronic warfare system automatically assigns a target number to it,” for Russian and Syrian air defenses.
- In addition to the S-300 and enhanced EW systems, the Russians are working overtime to install a new, short-range, Pechora M2 anti-missile system, for boosting the defenses of Damascus. Also known as Neva S-125, this weapon was upgraded in the last two years for intercepting low-flying aircraft, cruise missiles and combat helicopters, which manage to bypass the S-300 and S-400 missile belts protecting the Syrian capital.
The Russian president finds it hard to contend with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s staunch determination to drive Iranian forces from Syria and his constantly escalating anti-Tehran rhetoric. Putin believes Netanyahu’s goal to be unrealistic. That view is also shared by a part of the Trump administration. The US president’s new adviser on Syria, James Jeffrey, said on Friday, Sept. 28 at UN Center. “We are not going to force Iranians out of Syria. We don’t even think the Russians can force the Iranians out of Syria because force implies force, military action.”
So can Israel, without active US or Russian military support, achieve Netanyahu’s goal on its own?
For now, Russia is not only becoming increasingly obstructive, say DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources, but hostile: The new air defense and electronic warfare measures Moscow is delivering to Syria indicate that the Russian military is digging in for a war of attrition against Israel. Those systems may be followed by squadrons of advanced Russian warplanes.
In many ways, history is repeating itself: In the years 1969-70, Israel fought back against a Soviet-backed Egyptian war of attrition by enclosing a 30-km deep security zone inside the Egyptian border where its air force could operate freely – that is, until Russia installed a line of SA-3 anti-air missiles around the Aswan Dam, Cairo and Alexandria. Israeli air strikes deep inside Egypt were blocked. Moscow then followed up with the deployment of four squadrons of Mig-21 fighters and its most advanced Mig-25s. Israeli warplanes were pushed back with heavy casualties in aircraft and air crews. The US then stepped in and brokered a Russian-Israeli ceasefire which was concluded in Aug. 1970.
Both Russian and Israeli capabilities have changed unrecognizably in the last 48 years. Nevertheless, the Israel Air Force has carefully abstained from raids over Syria since the dispute with Moscow erupted over Il-20 spy plane disaster.