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By John Helmer, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin has announced a change of Russian policy in Syria after disclosing it to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  when they met in Paris on November 11. Netanyahu has reported in Israel that what Putin said was “very important”.

With Netanyahu, Putin was not accompanied by Russian officials and the interpreter was an Israeli. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the meeting was a “short talk”, but  gave no other detail. The Kremlin website did not report it at all. The Kremlin press office refuses to clarify why Putin and Netanyahu met with only Netanyahu’s interpreter present.

The next day,  on the president’s return to Moscow, the Kremlin website reported that Putin informed the members of the Security Council “about several of his brief meetings on the sidelines of the events in Paris”.  The Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior officials had not accompanied Putin to Paris, so the Monday meeting was their first opportunity to hear what had been said.  

In Paris on November 11, left to right: President Vladimir Putin, Israeli interpreter, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The presence of the interpreter signals that Putin was speaking in Russian to make substantive points, not small talk in which he is able to speak in English with Netanyahu, who is fluent in English. Photo: https://www.jpost.com/ The Kremlin press office has been asked to identify the interpreter; it refuses. 

In Moscow on November 12, visible from left to right: Sergei Ivanov; Sergei Naryshkin; Sergei Lavrov; Nikolai Patrushev; President Putin; Valentina Matviyenko; Anton Vaino;  Vladimir Kolokoltsev; and Sergei Shoigu. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/

From Moscow Putin flew to Singapore for a state visit, and for a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  There he also held bilateral meetings with most of the major leaders attending the summit (except for Australia). On the last day, November 15, Putin gave an informal briefing to Russian journalists. One of them asked: “Did you discuss an opportunity for a more detailed meeting during your short contact with Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris? Is it possible to hold such a meeting in the next few months?”

Putin’s report of what had been discussed with Netanyahu was published on the Kremlin website;  in Tass and RIA-Novosti; and published by Vzglyad. No Russian commentaries have followed in the press.

Putin answered that he and Netanyahu “did speak about the tragedy that took place in Syria. I am referring to the loss of our aircraft and the death of our people, our servicemen. Israel’s position is known and understandable. They believe they are not responsible for this tragedy. Naturally, we talked about this and some other issues linked with bilateral relations, the situation in the region as a whole and in Syria in particular.  Specific dates for a potential bilateral meeting were not discussed.”

The telltale words are “tragedy” (repeated); “understandable”; and Putin’s repetition of the Israeli “[belief] they are not responsible…”

Accompanying Putin in Singapore were his spokesman Peskov; foreign affairs advisor Yury Ushakov; and Maxim Oreshkin, Minister of Economic Development.  Again, as in Paris, Shoigu and Lavrov were not with Putin. Their absence, particularly Shoigu’s, is significant because Putin’s report of what he had discussed with Netanyahu reveals that Putin had returned to the interpretation he had given after the downing of the Ilyushin-20 during an Israeli attack on Syria on September 17; all fifteen Russian crew on the electronic surveillance plane were killed.  Putin’s  interpretation was  explicitly dismissed by Shoigu and the Defence Ministry – with strategic consequences for Israel.

Putin’s first response to the loss of the Il-20 had been to hold the Israelis harmless and to describe what had happened as a “tragedy”. “When people die, especially in such unfortunate circumstances,” Putin said at a Kremlin press conference  the next day, “it is always a tragedy”.

“It is always a tragedy,” Putin went on – “a tragedy for all of us, for the nation and for the families of our people who lost their lives… In this case, it is more a chain of tragic circumstances because an Israeli fighter did not down our aircraft. It goes without saying that we must get to the bottom of this. Our attitude towards this tragedy is set forth in a statement by our Defence Ministry, and has been fully coordinated with me. As for reciprocal action, this will be primarily aimed at ensuring additional security for our military and our facilities in the Syrian Arab Republic. These steps will be seen by everyone.”

The facts of the Israeli attack were quite different, and the Defence Ministry took unprecedented steps to explain what they were. These included three detailed briefings by the Defence Ministry — on September 18, September 23, and September 24. They were accompanied by a categorical statement of Israel’s culpability by Defence Minister Shoigu on September 18. “The responsibility for the downing of the Russian aircraft and the death of its crew lies solely with Israel. .. we reserve the right to take retaliatory steps.” 

At the end of that day Shoigu repeated his message so that the Israelis would understand the difference between what Putin was telling them and what the Stavka, the Russian Defence Ministry and General Staff, had decided, overruling the President.   “It’s clear to any specialist,” Shoigu was emphatic, that “the strike was delivered using our Ilyushin-20 as cover, because they [the Israelis] thought the Syrian air defence systems would not act in that direction… We have informed today our Israeli colleagues, and I have also informed personally the Israeli Defense Minister [then Avigdor Lieberman], that such actions will not be left unanswered by us.”

The same day the Foreign Ministry also issued this statement: “[the Foreign Ministry has] regarded as irresponsible and unfriendly the actions of the Air Force of Israel, as a result of which under a strike by the Syrian air defenses the Russian Il-20 plane has been downed, and 15 Russian servicemen have died.  It has been noted that the Russian side will take all necessary measures to stop the threat to life and safety of the Russian military rendering assistance to the Syrian people in the fight against terrorism.”

For details of the Israeli attack and the Russian reaction, click to read this   and this.  

Taking Israel’s side, Putin had tried to dissemble, concealing the conflict with his ministers and the General Staff.  He did not call his Security Council into session for a consensus discussion; he also  avoided meeting Shoigu and Lavrov. The outcome was the Stavka’s initiative — implementation by Russia of a no-fly zone for fresh Israel Air Force attacks on Syria at the range of the combination of Russian and Syrian S-300 and S-400 missile batteries. Together, their defensive and missile interception range is more than 400 kilometres.


The red zone is the maximum strike range of the S-400s based at Khmeimim; the blue zone is the maximum zone of detection by the Russian radars and other sensors on the ground at Khmeimim. The Tartous base is on the coast 60 kilometres due south. Both ranges can of course be extended by reconnaissance and strike aircraft flying out of Khmeimim; the operations centre at Tartous coordinating Russian Navy deployments; and additional Russian aircraft flying out of Iran. Source: http://warnewsupdates.blogspot.com

“The Syrian Armed Forces”, Shoigu had declared on September 18, “will be supplied with the advanced S-300 air defense missile system within two weeks.  It is capable of intercepting air threats at a range of more than 250 kilometers and simultaneously hitting several aerial targets… Command posts of the Syrian troops and military air defense units will be equipped with [the] automatic control systems, which have been supplied only to the Russian Armed Forces. This will ensure the centralized management of all Syrian air defense forces and facilities, monitoring of the situation in the airspace and prompt target designation.”

Shoigu intended the double reference to the range of the S-300 and to centralized command-and-control. He meant that the S-400 radars already installed for the defence of the Russian air base at Khmeimim and the naval base at Tartous would extend Syrian air defence to a range of more than 400 kilometres. Shoigu also announced what the Israeli Air Force should expect if they attempted to enter this zone: “Russia will jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communication systems of combat aircraft, which attack targets in the Syrian territory,   in the regions over the waters of the Mediterranean Sea bordering with Syria.”

This Russian no-fly zone transformed Israeli’s freedom of military operations in the region; the effect was not only to stop them against Syrian targets, but also over Lebanon. It also transformed US aerial operations in and out of Iraq, Jordan and the Al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria.  The Stavka’s move announced by Shoigu was an unprecedented shift in the balance of power in the region.

Netanyahu sought a direct meeting with Putin in an attempt to overcome the new obstacle and to restore the status quo ante. Shoigu, Lavrov and the Stavka were able to frustrate that. As Putin told the Russian press in Singapore, “we have not planned [meeting with Netanyahu] so far… Specific dates for a potential bilateral meeting were not discussed.”

By meeting Netanyahu in Paris, Putin was able to sidestep the Stavka, and give Netanyahu what he was asking for. Putin gave him the assurance that Russian air defences in Syria will not enforce a no-fly zone for the Israel Air Force so long as it sticks to Syrian and Iranian targets and promises not to repeat its ambush of the Il-20.


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