Tuesday was filled with conflicting news about the fate of the Russian pilots shot down by Turkish forces over Syria. At various points during the day, it was said that both had been killed – possibly riddled with bullets by Syrian rebels as they came down in their parachutes – and that both were alive, and in enemy hands.
It turns out that the navigator of the Su-24 warplane, Captain Konstantin V. Murakhtin, survived, and was rescued by Russian special forces who suffered a casualty of their own during the operation, a Marine named Aleksander M. Pozynich. Pozynich was reportedly killed when his Mi-8 search-and-rescue helicopter came under fire from insurgent ground forces.
The pilot of the Su-24, Lt. Col. Oleg A. Peshkov, was killed, apparently by small arms fire from Turkmen rebels on the ground, according to the UK Guardian.
The video posted by Syrian rebels of their fighters taking potshots at a Russian parachutist appear to be genuine, as does the video of rebel fighters celebrating with a dead pilot’s body. The Wall Street Journal speculates that the video of Syrian rebels shouting “Allahu akbar!” as they use an American TOW missile to destroy a helicopter might have shown the final destruction of the damaged Mi-8 after it was forced to land and abandoned. (The rebels appearing in the video certainly seem to be in no particular hurry to launch that missile.)
The Kremlin announced that both Murakhtin and Pozynich would receive the Order of Courage, as reported by CNN, while Peshkov was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation for “heroism, courage, and valor in the performance of military duty.” Pozynich and Peshkov are being described as the first casualties of Russia’s intervention in Syria.
The Guardian quotes Russian and Syrian sources describing a tense joint operation to recover Murakhtin from insurgent territory:
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said there had been a 12-hour special operation to rescue the navigator, which ended at 3.40am Moscow time.
“The operation was concluded successfully. The [navigator] has arrived at our base and is alive and well,” Shoigu told a ministry of defence meeting. He thanked “all our guys, who worked through the night at huge risk to themselves”.
The Russian agency LifeNews said the airman was found by an 18-man Syrian special forces team acting together with six members of an elite Hezbollah unit. It said he had hidden for many hours after landing, and was found by a radio signal.
A military source from the Syrian government said: “Special operations units from the Syrian Arab army conducted last night a special operation in which it penetrated areas where the terrorists are present and was able to rescue one of the pilots of the Russian plane.”
After his rescue, Captain Murakhtin was interviewed by Russian television from Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in Syria. He insisted that his plane did not cross into Turkish airspace.
“There were no warnings. Not via the radio, not visually. There was no contact whatsoever,” said Murakhtin, according to the UK Independent’s translation of his remarks. “That’s why we were keeping our combat course as usual. You have to understand what the cruising speed of a bomber is compared to an F-16. If they wanted to warn us, they could have shown themselves by heading on a parallel course. But there was nothing. And the rocket hit our tail completely unexpectedly. We didn’t even see it in time to take evasive maneuvers.”
This testimony runs contrary to Turkey’s claim that ten radio warnings were issued to the Russian fighter as it approached their border, a claim that has been generally supported by the U.S. military. However, the BBC notes that Turkey has conceded the Su-24’s penetration of their airspace lasted only 17 seconds. The Russians and Turks are currently arguing about whether some of the plane’s wreckage landed on Turkish soil.
There seems to be no question that the Russian plane came very close to the Turkish border, and when dealing with fast-moving jet fighters carrying ordnance with considerable range, a few seconds can mean the difference between provocative behavior and a significant military threat. The Russians, of course, maintain that their plane had no intention of attacking targets in Turkey, while the Turks point out that they’ve complained about numerous Russian violations of their airspace since the Syrian bombing campaign began.
It seems unlikely that Murakhtin’s plane could have missed all ten warning messages broadcast on the GUARD frequency by Turkey, but they might not have taken those warnings seriously enough, assuming they would also receive the sort of warning from Turkey’s F-16s that Murakhtin described. The Turks, tired of playing softball and/or spoiling for a fight, gave them no such final ultimatum.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his government had “serious doubts” the downing of its plane was an “unpremeditated act.” He said it looked “very much like a planned provocation,” according to CNN.
There is also the question of exactly what the Su-24 was doing when it crossed the Turkish border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily denied Russian claims that the plane was carrying out operations against the Islamic State. “There is no Daesh!” he thundered about the area where the Su-24 was flying, using another name for ISIS. “Do not deceive us! We know the locations of Daesh!”
CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force colonel, agreed that none of Russia’s targets in the area “had anything to do with ISIS.” Instead, he said “those were all Turkmen groups.”
Turkey has vowed to protect the Turkmen, with Erdogan describing them as “our brothers and sisters,” while Russia tends to view them as a national security threat.