The loss of a Russian plane in Syria reveals how Putin is strangely powerless to protect his own troops
- Russia's ally Syria shot down one of its planes on Tuesday, and it exposes how Russian President Vladimir Putin is strangely powerless to protect his own people or do much more than enforce the status quo.
- Russia has suffered a number of humiliating defeats in Syria while its economy has entered a downward spiral.
- Putin portrays himself as powerful, but he has failed to protect Russians time and time again.
Russia grappled with a tragedy on Tuesday after its ally, Syria, mistakenly shot down one of its planes flying above the Mediterranean, and it shows how Russian President Vladimir Putin is strangely powerless to protect his own people.
After Russia's Il-20 went down on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry quickly blamed Israel for the downing of the jet by a Syrian missile. Israel had attacked Syria with low flying jets evading and jamming radar during a prolonged missiles trike.
Syria missile defenses, unable to get a fix on the Israeli fighters, instead spotted a large, slower-moving Russian spy plane flying overhead, locked on, and killed 15 Russians with a Russian-made missile.
"With so much congestion in the Syrian air, it's not surprising at all," Anna Borschevskaya, a Russia expert with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told Business insider. "This is not the first time when Putin looked like he couldn't protect his people."
After Russian generals blamed Israel and promised "countermeasures" in response, Putin called it a tragic accident and attributed no blame and promised no retaliation.
The skies above Syria remain combative and congested. Russian planes continue their routes. Syrian air defense officers remain jumpy on the trigger, and there's no indication this won't happen again.
Paper tiger Putin
Russia entered the Syrian conflict with a roar in September 2015. Russian air power saved Syrian President Bashar Assad from a backsliding civil war that promised to crush him.
Russian missile defenses protected him and their servicemen all but ensured the US wouldn't raise a finger against the Syrian dictator no matter how badly he battered his own people.
But three years have passed, and though Assad remains in power, Russians are still dying in Syria, and the country itself has become isolated and weak. Russia has lost nine fixed wing aircraft and an untold number of helicopters in Syria. The US devastated a column of Russian mercenaries that approached its position in Syria, killing 300 or so with superior air power.
Recently, when the US threatened Syria with further punishment for chemical weapons attacks, Russia threatened again to hit US forces in Syria. The US responded with live fire drills, and Russia soon backed down off the threat.
After US strikes on Syria in April 2017 and 2018, Russia threatened retaliation or to cut communication with the US both times. Both times, nothing happened.
Putin has time and time again asserted himself as the a powerful figure by exploiting the void left by the US's refusal to engage with Syria's civil war. But time and time again, Putin has failed to protect his own people.
"Putin filled a vacuum in Syria, but he didn't need to be super powerful to do that," said Borshchevskaya. "Presence is often relevance, and that's what happened in Syria."
While Russia has openly taunted the US to intervene in Syria, Putin has merely correctly estimated the US's complacence, rather than having legitimately scared off a determined foe. Putin masterfully played off this lack of US political will to convince many European US allies that the US was scared.
"So many people in the West were so worried of risking a war with Russia over Syria," said Borshchevskaya. "That was never going to happen. They don't want to fight a war with us. They know they can't win it."
Russia strong and weak at the same time
While Russia projects strength with a raggedy aircraft carrier in Syria and a three-year-long military campaign that's managed to secure a status quo without definitively beating pockets of unsophisticated rebels, it's own people felt the hurt.
Putin's aggressiveness in dealing with Syria, Ukraine, and his links to international instances of Kremlin critics being poisoned has led to Russia getting sanctioned and isolated the world over.
In August, Putin broke a 2005 promise not to raise the retirement age, reminding many Russians that due to low national life expectancies, they would die before they saw a dime of their pensions, but had lived to see that money spent in Syria and Ukraine. Mass demonstrations broke out across the country.
Russia has done well to achieve its limited objective of keeping Assad in power in Syria. But when it comes to protecting Russian lives, the loss of the Il-20 points to a "hugely embarrassing" trend for Putin failing his people, said Borshchevskaya.
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