MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Tuesday that Israel did not shoot down a Russian military reconnaisance plane with 15 people on board, saying the downing of the plane by Syrian air defenses was a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
“It rather looks like a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” Putin told reporters, rejecting any comparisons with the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in 2015.
“An Israeli jet did not shoot down our plane,” Putin said.
The Russian defense ministry earlier Tuesday had blamed Israel for the incident and warned of reprisals.
Putin said he had signed off on the defense ministry statement. “No doubt we should seriously look into this,” Putin said, speaking at a news conference after talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Putin will speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told the TASS news agency.
It was not clear when the conversation would take place, with Israel observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, from Tuesday evening.
Israel said its deputy ambassador in Moscow Keren Cohen-Gat was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry said there will be no comment on what was discussed.
Putin also said Moscow would beef up security for Russian military personnel in Syria as a priority response. “These will be the steps that everyone will notice,” he said, without providing further details.
He expressed condolences to the families of the victims, calling the incident a “tragedy for us all.”
On Monday Syria accidentally shot down the Russian plane, killing all 15 crew members, when its air defences swung into action against an Israeli strike. The incident was the worst case of friendly fire between the two allies since Russia’s game-changing military intervention in September 2015.
The Russian plane was downed by a Russian-made S-200 air defence supplied to Syria.
The Israeli military on Tuesday acknowledged conducting an airstrike against a Syrian weapons facility the night before and “expressed sorrow” for the deaths of the 15 Russian airmen.
In a statement, however, the Israel Defense Forces denied all responsibility for the downing of the Russian spy plane, saying that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah were the ones at fault.
“Israel expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” the IDF said, and noted that the Russian plane that was hit “was not within the area of the operation.”
The Israeli strike was conducted at approximately 10 p.m. by four F-16 fighter jets, according to the Russian military.
Syrian air defenses opened fire at the incoming missiles, at the attacking aircraft and — according to Israel — at nothing in particular. The Russian Il-20 was shot down in the air battle, along with its 15-person crew.
“The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and, from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air,” the army said.
According to the IDF, the target of its Monday night strike was a Syrian military facility that manufactured “accurate and lethal weapons,” which were “about to be transferred, on behalf of Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
The target of the Israeli strike was identified by Syria as a subsidiary of its defense ministry, known as the Organization for Technical Industries, which has suspected ties to the country’s chemical weapons and missile programs.
“These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it,” the army said.
Though Israeli officials have said, generally, that military conducts operations inside Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, the IDF rarely acknowledges specific airstrikes, preferring instead to adopt a formal policy of neither confirming nor denying the attacks attributed to it.
The military said its initial investigation found that its strike was completed before the Russian plane entered the area of the operation and that the reconnaissance aircraft was shot down after the Israeli fighter jets had returned to Israeli airspace.
“Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident. Israel also holds Iran and the Hezbollah terror organization accountable for this unfortunate incident,” the army added.
This appeared to refute the claim made by Moscow that the Israeli pilots used the surveillance plane as cover for their attack.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also accused Israel of failing to inform the Russian military of its plans, which he said would have been in the “spirit” of Israeli-Russian coordination in Syria. The Russian defense ministry said Israel warned them of the impending strike “less than a minute” before it began, which left them insufficient time to clear their personnel from the area.
The Israeli and Russian militaries maintain what they call a “deconfliction mechanism,” which is meant to coordinate their activities in Syria in order to avoid incidents like this one. Until Monday night, these efforts had largely succeeded in preventing direct or indirect clashes since Russia became more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war three years ago.
The Israeli military said it had coordinated with Russia ahead of the attack, though it did not address Moscow’s specific claims about the amount of time between the notification and the airstrike itself.
The IDF also said it would “share all the relevant information with the Russian Government to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.”