MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered state-of-the art air defence missile systems to be deployed at a Russian air base in Syria following the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey, a move that raised the threat of a military confrontation between the NATO member and Russia.
The S-400 missile systems, which will be sent to the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, located just about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey, are capable of targeting Turkish jets with deadly precision. If Russia shot down a Turkish plane, NATO would be required to intervene.
Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber Tuesday, saying it crossed into its airspace from Syria despite repeated warnings. One of its two pilots was killed by militants after bailing out, while his crewmate was rescued by Syrian army commandos and delivered in good condition to the Russian base.
Putin said the Russian plane remained in Syria’s skies when it was shot down. He described Turkey’s action as a “crime” and a “stab in the back,” warning of serious consequences.
On Wednesday, Putin ordered the military to deploy the S-400s to Hemeimeem and took other measures that “should be sufficient to ensure flight safety.”
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday that the Russian missile cruiser Moskva already has moved closer to shore to protect the Russian aircraft flying missions near Syria’s border with Turkey with its long-range Fort air defence system.
Shoigu also said that from now on all Russian bombers will be escorted by fighters on their combat missions in Syria. He said that his ministry has severed all contacts with the Turkish military.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who cancelled his planned trip to Turkey after the incident, described the shooting down of the Russian plane as a “planned provocation.”
He said the Turkish action came after Russian planes successfully targeted the oil infrastructure used by the Islamic State, alleging that Turkey benefited from the oil trade.
Lavrov also said that Turkish territory was used by “terrorists” to prepare terror attacks in other countries, but offered no details.
He said that Russia “has no intention to go to war with Turkey,” but added that Moscow will re-consider its ties with Ankara.
The Russian Foreign Ministry already has warned Russians against travelling to Turkey, and some leading Russian tourist agencies suspended the sales of tour packages to Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his country does not wish to escalate tensions with Russia over the downing of the plane.
Speaking at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation economy meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan said that Turkey favours “peace, dialogue and diplomacy.” He defended his country’s move to shoot down the plane saying: “no one should expect Turkey to stay silent to border violations or the violation of its rights.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also sought to ease tensions, saying that Russia is Turkey’s “friend and neighbour” and insisting relations cannot be “sacrificed to accidents of communication.”
Davutoglu told his party’s lawmakers on Wednesday that Turkey didn’t know the nationality of the plane that was brought down on Tuesday until Moscow announced it was Russian.
He again defended Turkey’s action, saying Russia was warned on several occasions that Turkey would take action in case its border is violated in line with its military rules of engagement.
Davutoglu also said Russia is an “important partner and tops the list of countries with which we have shown great sensitivity in building ties.”
The Turkish prime minister, however, also criticized Russian and Syrian operations in Syria’s Turkmen region, saying there is “not one single” presence of the Islamic State group there. Davutoglu demanded that operations there stop immediately.
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.