by Ariel Kahana, Lilach Shoval, Erez Linn, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Israeli official: Mini-crisis with Russia will subside in a matter of weeks.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov
speaks at the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow earlier this year
"We believe that the blame for the Russian Il-20 aircraft tragedy lies entirely with the Israeli Air Force," Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Sunday, after days of blame shifting over the downing of a Russian military plane off the Syrian coast last week.
On Sept. 17, a Russian reconnaissance plane carrying 15 crew members was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire responding to an Israeli missile strike on a facility in Latakia. All 15 Russian crew members aboard the aircraft were killed, prompting a strong rebuke from Russia and appearing to cause friction between Israel and Russia.
The Defense Ministry in Moscow initially accused Israel of indirectly causing the incident, charging that an Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. But Russian President Vladimir Putin later called it "a chain of tragic, chance events."
Israel, meanwhile, placed the blame squarely on Syria.
In a detailed account of the events leading up to the incident, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Israel on Sunday of using the Russian aircraft as cover for its attack on a Syrian facility.
In its report, the Russian Defense Ministry revealed previously undisclosed radar data and communications between Russian and Israeli figures, and concluded that "the military leadership of Israel either has no appreciation for the level of relations with Russia, or has no control over individual commands or commanding officers who understood that their actions would lead to tragedy," Russian news network RT reported.
According to Konashenkov, the Israeli Air Force left the Russian aircraft "virtually no time for any safety maneuvers, in a clear violation of the 2015 Russian-Israeli agreements." His remarks rested on claims by Russian officials that Israel provided "less than a minute" of warning before launching its strike. Israeli officials have dismissed this claim, with one official telling Israel Hayom it was "much more than one minute."
In a briefing Sunday, Konashenkov said that the Israeli warning also failed to specify the exact target of the strike, citing only a planned strike on "industrial facilities" in northern Syria. The spokesman called this "misinformation," and said it prompted the Russian command to order its reconnaissance plane back to base, where it came under Syrian fire.
"Once the Syrian air defenses responded to the initial strike, the Israeli jets switched on radar jamming and pulled back, apparently preparing for another attack. One of the jets then approached the Syrian coast – and the Russian plane that was preparing to land," Konashenkov said, explaining that the Russian plane could easily appear to the Syrians as part of the Israeli attack and insisting that the Israeli pilots "must have been well aware" of this.
He went on to say that Israel's "reckless actions" could have also jeopardized "any passenger or transport aircraft that may have happened to be in the area" at the time of the strike.
"This is an extremely ungrateful response to all that has been done by the Russian Federation for Israel and the Israeli people recently," Konashenkov said.
In the coming weeks it will become clearer whether Israel's run-in with Russia will curtail its freedom to maneuver in Syria.
Israel says its jets targeted a Syrian facility that held weapons for the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, noting it alerted Russia ahead of time as per deconfliction agreements.
Earlier Sunday, an Israeli government official estimated that the "mini-crisis" with Russia would subside within a matter of weeks. According to the official, the countries' respective interests in Syria had not changed and therefore relations would return to normal over the long term.
"The Russians understand we don't want and didn't want to harm them and they also understand Israel's need to act in Syria," the official said, "which is why they have permitted the coordination mechanism until now."
In that vein, an IDF official said the army's deconfliction line of communication with Russia, designed to coordinate the two countries' respective air force activities in Syria, would be streamlined following the incident.
In accordance with protocol, the IDF official spoke anonymously Friday after an Israeli delegation returned from Moscow where they briefed officials.
The delegation, led by air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, presented Moscow with its findings on the incident, "including recordings of the conversations between the Israeli Air Force and the Russian Air Force component in Syria," said the official.
"We proved how the reckless Syrian anti-aircraft fire was the direct cause of the hit on the Russian aircraft. They fired quite recklessly and irresponsibly and unprofessionally into the air long after our planes were no longer there," the official said.
More than 20 Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were fired during the incident, the official said.
"Our Russian counterparts had a few questions, those questions were answered," the official added. "Our impression is that the discussions were professional and that the information was well received.
"We acted in accordance with the standard operating procedures that are in place with the Russian military. But our freedom of movement is paramount. ... The IDF will continue to implement our strategic interests."
Ariel Kahana, Lilach Shoval, Erez Linn, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter