Is Russia Ready to Fire at U.S. Military Jets in Syria?

Hmeymim base, Russia in Syria
Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria, on June 18, 2016. Russia made a vaguely worded threat toward U.S. military aircraft in Syria after the downing of a Syrian regime plane. Russian Defense Ministry/Vadim Savitsky/Reuters

Russia has warned that it will now consider American jets in western Syria "air targets," after a U.S. Navy aircraft shot down a Syrian regime jet on Monday. Russia and the U.S. are both active in the Syrian civil war, but Moscow backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while Washington supports anti-regime rebels.

The Russian ministries of defense and foreign affairs both threatened to sharpen their response to U.S. military actions in Syria after Monday's downing by "tracking" U.S. jets and severing communication channels with American forces operating in Syria. However, Russia experts are skeptical as to whether Moscow will take action or is relying more on harsh rhetoric to appear stronger.

Cutting contact

First, the threat to sever communications is not a new one. In April, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened to close the lines of communication set up in 2015 to avoid air collisions. This reaction was to the U.S. striking of a Syrian airfield that was allegedly used to launch a chemical attack.

Sarah Lain, research fellow at London-based defense think tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says it is not only apparent that the threat was not carried out then but that Russia will probably not sever communications now, either.

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"Russia is unlikely to, in reality, cut the de-confliction hotline, as it is not in its interests to do so," Lain says. "This is not just about managing the actions of Russia and its allies, but also now the greater uncertainty over U.S. responses to tensions in the conflict."

According to Lain, under the previous U.S. administration, Moscow quickly became a major military player in the Syrian conflict "based on a calculation that the U.S.-led coalition will not respond in a confrontational manner."

Under President Donald Trump's administration, "the U.S. military has clearly been given the space to act more boldly in its campaign in Syria," she says. "This limits some of Russia's room for movement."

Keir Giles, Russian military expert at British foreign policy think tank Chatham House, highlights that even if Russia stopped using the hotline, other avenues of military-to-military communication exist. Even if the foreign ministry has made good on its threat on the second time of asking, Giles says this "doesn't necessarily mean that they are not communicating about de-confliction through other means."

Communication between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Russian command may continue. According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford, the two countries' operation centers were still in touch, CNN reported.

Shooting down U.S. jets

The more dramatic response seemed to come from Russia's Defense Ministry, which issued threats of a kinetic response against U.S. jets west of the Euphrates in Syria, referring to them as "air targets." The statement stopped short of drawing a red line about the circumstances under which Russia's anti-aircraft systems in Syria would fire on U.S. military aviation.

"The Ministry of Defense's response that Russian air defense systems will follow all 'flying objects' west of the Euphrates as targets indicates an attempt to deter further confrontations through territorial demarcation," Lain says. The vague threat with no promise of action is one of the few cards Russia can play in this state of affairs.

"They have to respond with something immediately," Lain says, pointing out that beside pulling out of the de-conflicting agreement, the second most immediate consequence they can threaten is hinting at shooting down a U.S. plane. While they may threaten it, "they cannot go as far as shooting down a U.S. plane in retaliation," says Lain, "as that would not serve any purpose and could provoke a live proxy war in Syria."

Giles notes that the Defense Ministry's statement is comfortably vague on exactly how it will follow U.S. jets—it appears to be taking action, and from the perspective of Russian media, it avoids looking weak in the face of U.S. provocation.

"The Russians have to be seen to be doing something," he says. "A strongly worded response, even if…it is a relatively meaningless one, will play well in Russia," he says.

Yet even there the wording of the threat was unclear: Tracking alone could be as simple as following the movements of U.S. aircraft via radar, with little intention to shoot.

"It is really not clear from the public Russian statements," he says. "It's hard to say if that is a deliberately confusing policy in order to create uncertainty among coalition partners, or a lack of coordination within the Russian military and civilian authorities. Stating that coalition aircraft within a certain region of the country will be 'tracked' could be read as anything from just monitoring their movements, which Russia will be doing anyway, up to far more hostile measures like locking on with fire control radars."

That is not to say that Russia's refusal to draw a red line for opening fire means its rhetoric is harmless, however. Giles notes that even a vague but bold-sounding move fits with the Russian military's overall approach of intimidatory rhetoric, "intended to be threatening but unclear, in an attempt to make the adversary uncertain and apprehensive."

"It has already been effective, as Australia has suspended air operations as a result," he says. "Whether they have more specific information about Russian intentions, directly or via the U.S., or if they are simply responding to the lack of certainty—either way this has proved an effective tactic for Russia in removing at least some coalition aircraft from the skies over Syria."