The Kremlin on Wednesday denied an Israeli report that Russian officials rebuffed Jerusalem’s offer to dispatch a high-level government representative to Moscow last week following the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike.
“This is not true. The newspaper [Haaretz] provides incorrect information,” press secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists, according to Russia’s state-run Sputnik news outlet. “From the very beginning, there was a proposal by the Israeli prime minister to send a military delegation headed by the commander of the air force, which was done.”
The Russian spy plane was downed while Israeli fighter jets were conducting an airstrike last Monday night on a weapons facility in the coastal city of Latakia, which the IDF said was going to provide weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and other Iranian proxies. It was shot down during a counterattack by Syrian air defenses.
Since the downing of the IL-20 spy plane, Israel’s relationship with Moscow has rapidly deteriorated.
Israel initially sought to send a delegation led by its national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, along with air force officials, the Haaretz newspaper reported late Tuesday. The government was also considered having Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman personally visit Moscow to try and tamp down the spiraling diplomatic crisis between the two countries over the deadly incident.
However according to the daily, Russia spurned the offers, preferring that the explanations over the downing of the plane be left to military officials.
An Israeli delegation of air force officials was ultimately sent to brief their Russian counterparts on the incident and persuade them the Syrian operators were at fault.
The delegation returned with impression that Moscow had accepted their explanations. But Russian defense officials afterward publicly rejected the Israeli account, and, in a devastating critique, blamed Israel for the plane being downed and for the deaths of the 15 Russian servicemen on board.
The Haaretz report also underlined the Russian Defense Ministry’s decision to blame the Israeli military, rather than the government, for the Russian casualties, suggesting the wording was predicated on the Russian military officials’ belief that the Israeli government was being misled by its “unprofessional” air force.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin told Netanyahu in a call last Tuesday he blamed the incident on a “tragic chain of accidental circumstances,” Moscow has since accused Israel of failing to provide adequate warning time ahead of the attack and failing to accurately specify the location of the targeted area, and said one of the Israeli pilots used the Russian reconnaissance plane as a shield after the attack, hiding behind it to avoid being hit by the Syrian surface-to-air missile.
On Monday, the Kremlin issued a devastating critique of Israel over the plane incident, accusing Israel’s air force of “premeditated actions,” and warning that the incident would harm relations between the two countries.
“According to information of our military experts, the reason (behind the downing) were premeditated actions by Israeli pilots which certainly cannot but harm our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov produced data that he said had been collected by Russian air defense systems in Syria purportedly indicating that one of the Israeli F-16 fighter jets was flying close to the much larger Russian plane. When the F-16 was targeted by a Syrian missile it suddenly veered off, resulting in the missile homing in on the bigger target.
Konashenkov also said that data showed that the Israeli jets remained over the Mediterranean Sea off Syria’s coast after the Russian plane was downed, though Israel has said its fighters were long gone by the time the Syrian missiles were launched.
Israel has repeatedly denied these allegations. It maintains that it notified the Russians 12 minutes before the attack.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday before boarding a flight to New York, Netanyahu said Israeli and Russian military officials were scheduled to meet in order to address the growing rift between the two countries.
Netanyahu added that Israel would continue to fight Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. “We will do whatever is necessary to protect Israel’s security,” he said.
The security cabinet, which met Tuesday morning, released a statement around the same time with a similar message.
“The security cabinet has instructed the IDF to continue to take action against attempts by Iran to establish a military presence in Syria while continuing the security coordination with Russia,” the statement read, echoing comments made by Israeli defense officials over the past week.
Netanyahu said he spoke twice with Putin in the wake of the incident and expressed his “sincere” condolences over the Russian servicemen who died in the “tragic event.”
In the three years since Jerusalem and Moscow agreed to establish a so-called deconfliction mechanism to avoid clashes over Syrian skies, Israel has been “very successful” in thwarting Iran’s effort to entrench itself in Syria and provide advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group, Netanyahu said.
“That doesn’t mean there weren’t exceptions, but by and large it has been a great success,” he said.
This crisis has threatened the coordination between the countries’ militaries, with potentially serious implications for the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to fight Iran in Syria.
On Monday, both Jerusalem and Washington warned Moscow against its declared intention to provide the Syrian military with the advanced S-300 air defense system within two weeks and to establish electronic warfare equipment along the Syria coast, which could jam Israeli radars and communication equipment, saying the move would further destabilize the region and increase already high tensions.
Putin informed Netanyahu of the decision to provide Syria with the S-300 system in a phone call Sunday.
In response, according to a statement by Netanyahu’s office, “the prime minister said providing advanced weapons systems to irresponsible actors will magnify dangers in the region, and that Israel will continue to defend itself and its interests.”
Concurrently, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said Russia’s decision was a “major mistake” that would cause a “significant escalation” of tensions. He urged Moscow to reconsider.
Russia had originally agreed to sell the system to Syria in 2010, but scrapped the plan at Israel’s behest. However, the Syrian military has already received training on use of the system.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the measures were “not directed against third countries but towards defending our own military.”
However, Syria’s Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said following the announcement that Damascus required the S-300 “in order to defend Syrian land from Israel’s aggressive actions.”
Russia already has its own S-300 air defense system in Syria, along with the more advanced S-400 system.
Judah Ari Gross and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.