Russia grappled with a tragedy on Sept. 18, 2018, after Syria, its ally, 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 spy plane went down, its defense ministry quickly blamed Israel, which had attacked Syria with low-flying jets evading and jamming radar during a prolonged missile strike.
Syria’s missile defenses, unable to get a fix on the Israeli fighters, had instead spotted a large, slower-moving Russian spy plane flying overhead, locked on, and fired, killing 15 Russians with a Russian-made missile.
“With so much congestion in the Syrian air, it’s not surprising at all,” Anna Borshchevskaya, a Russia expert with the Washington Institute for 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, attributed no blame, and did not promise 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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 had promised to crush him.
Russian missile defenses protected him, and service members all but ensured the US wouldn’t raise a finger against the Syrian president, 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 has become isolated and weak. Russia has lost nine fixed-wing aircraft and an untold number of helicopters in Syria. In early 2018 the US devastated a column of Russian mercenaries who approached its position in Syria, killing as many as 300 with superior air power.
Recently, when the US threatened Syria with further punishment for what it says are chemical-weapons attacks, Russia threatened to hit US forces in Syria. The US responded with live-fire exercises, and Russia soon backed down.
After US strikes on Syria in both April 2017 and April 2018, Russia threatened retaliation or cutting communication with the US. And both times, nothing happened.
Putin has time and time again asserted himself as a powerful figure 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,” Borshchevskaya said. “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 legitimately scared off a determined foe. Putin masterfully played off a lack of US political will in order 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,” Borshchevskaya said. “That was never going to happen. They don’t want to fight a war with us. They know they can’t win it.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia’s strong and weak at the same time
While Russia projects strength with a raggedy aircraft carrier in Syria and a three-year military campaign that has managed to secure a status quo without definitively beating pockets of unsophisticated rebels, its own people felt the hurt.
Putin’s aggressiveness in dealing with Syria and Ukraine and his links to international instances of Kremlin critics being poisoned have led to sanctions and isolation for Russia, harming its economy.
In August 2018, Putin broke his 2005 promise not to raise the retirement age, reminding many Russians that, because of lower national life expectancies, they could die before seeing a dime of their pensions but had lived to see that money spent in Syria and Ukraine. Mass demonstrations broke out across Russia.
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 of Putin failing his people, Borshchevskaya said.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.