The Kremlin recognizes the risks of the Syria campaign, especially the potential for capture of Russian pilots carrying out the ISIS bombing campaign. So how will Russia respond to casualties in Syria?

Russian ground crew prepare fighter jets for combat sorties at Hemeimeem airbase, Syria. Photo: AP

There are no wars without casualties, and the Russian authorities were definitely aware of that as they made the decision to launch the military operation in Syria. Any strategic misstep would compromise Russia, immediately providing the Western media that is against Russian involvement in Syria with something to talk about and boosting the cause of Muslim extremists.

Moscow claims that it will not alter the scope of its current involvement regardless of the circumstances. However, there is one serious scenario that would push the Russian military to step up the use of its army and air force: Russian pilots or any other servicemen being captured in Syria.

For the longest time, captives have been a part of information warfare. Back in the times of the Roman Empire, noble captives were marched into a city behind a triumphant victor. During World War II, Nazi propaganda officers flew hydroplanes and picked up PQ-17 convoy survivors to parade them before “victorious Germany.” [PQ-17 was the code name of an Allied World War II convoy in the Arctic Ocean, which suffered a serious defeat, losing 24 of its 35 merchant ships as a result of a weeklong attack – Editor’s note]. In July 1944, the U.S.S.R. held a captives parade in Moscow for the Soviet people to see their enemies’ faces. However, in modern warfare captives are sparse, which makes them that much more valuable.

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Famous Hollywood filmmaker Barry Levinson presented a fine example of modern information warfare in his movie “Wag the Dog,” a story about spin doctors who help their presidential candidate win the election by saving one American “captive” who is actually safely tucked away at an insane asylum. Modern media have the ability to sensationalize a confirmed casualty or speculate about an unconfirmed capture, putting it in the spotlight. 

In Syria, a major challenge for Russian Aerospace Forces is to avoid confirmed losses and, even more importantly, not let the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) take any captives. These are both tasks rather common for the military. For example, during the Korean conflict, Soviet pilots were expressly forbidden from crossing front lines, and in 1999 the U.S. worked hard on locating and saving pilots that were shot down over Yugoslavia to prevent them from making the news on Serbian TV.

A brief historical guide to POW rescues

The idea of devising a methodology for the rescue of downed pilots originated in Great Britain during World War II. Once massive bombings of Germany started, Great Britain formed a special force that produced equipment for pilots that were shot down and tried to rescue them from prisoner-of-war (POW) camps.

World War II pilots were equipped with detailed maps of areas that they were bombing, compasses, and some money in case they got captured and escaped. Maps were disguised as handkerchiefs, gold coins were safely tucked away, and the simplest navigation device could be concealed in a signet ring.

Moreover, British intelligence agencies cooperated with French partisans on assisting POWs that escaped from Nazi camps and devised secret passages from Switzerland to Portugal. Captured pilots received special Red Cross packages that contained miniature files and other devices that facilitated their escape. Every success story was widely publicized by the British and American media and instilled surety that all Royal Air Force pilots were cared for and had nothing to fear.

However, experienced pilots knew what could be lying in wait on the ground after massive bombings that destroyed entire towns. Quite frequently, against all rules and wartime regulations, the crew of a downed bomber was shot on the spot.

The development of electronics and invention of helicopters further simplified pilot rescue. In his memoirs, one of the most successful Russian fighter pilots, Chief Marshal of Aviation Ivan Kozhedub, who was in charge of the Soviet Air Force in Korea, noted with a certain degree of jealousy that Americans excelled at pilot rescue operations, while Soviet pilots often landed under enemy fire and on rough terrain in an attempt to rescue their fellow pilots during World War II. Still, Soviet pilots’ readiness to sacrifice themselves in order to save their fellow fighters was greatly admired by the allies and helped shape contemporary rescue programs throughout the world.

The U.S. devised its own rescue program. One or more helicopters protected by fighter jets or attack bombers moved into the sector where a plane was thought to have been shot down. A special task force then combed the territory and retrieved the pilot. Pilots were wearing jackets with notes in multiple languages that promised a reward for assistance. They were also given gold coins to compensate the locals for their help.

Even though the Vietnamese, Koreans, and Yugoslavians were aware of this program and often used pilots as bait, Americans adhered to the No Man Left Behind principle and, thus, set an example for the rest of the world. However, in major conflicts, some men were indeed left behind. For example, U.S. senator and former POW John McCain spent more than five years in Vietnamese camps and prisons, even though he came from a family of high-ranking military officers.

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The situation changed, though, because McCain served in the military when there was no Internet, YouTube, or other easily accessible sources of information. Nowadays, they are everywhere and spread on the news 24/7. For example, the execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh by ISIS was posted online in early 2015 and made international headlines.

Dealing with the potential for enemy capture of Russian pilots

If a Russian pilot were captured in Syria, he could be beaten, or he could be drugged and executed, and millions would see the gruesome death of a man who served his country. Of course, the stereotypical extremist text of “My name is Ivan Ivanov; I am a Captain in the Russian Army, and now I will be executed for my crimes against Allah” is not going to be perceived as proof of Russia’s defeat. However, the Internet will pick up “the execution of a Russian pilot,” and all hate mongers might use it as a weapon in information warfare against Russia.

The first confirmed casualty is now a fact. According to Russian military authorities, it is the noncombatant death of Vadim Kostenko, who was serving on contract and commited suicide. However, his friends and relatives reject these claims, strongly supported by the Russian Defense Ministry. So, it remains unclear if this soldier has really been killed by Muslim extremists. At any rate, he was laid to rest back in his homeland, and neither Al-Jazeera nor numerous pro-ISIS Internet channels can boast of the exclusive footage of the death of an infidel.

It is clear that any downed Russian pilot is in danger of starring in one of those videos, especially since Russian involvement in Syria made ISIS and its allies prioritize the upgrade of their air defense systems. Russian General Staff officers definitely recognize the threat, and, most likely, that is why Russian forces in Syria added Mi-17 helicopters, marines, and airborne units.

Such military units are most useful in pilot rescue operations. It is irrelevant whether such an operation is classified as ground, air, or mixed; the important part is depriving extremists of an opportunity to record and broadcast the execution or interrogation of a Russian pilot. Here is a telling fact: all proclamations of extremists’ success made by ISIS officers or anti-Russian officials in Ukraine so far have been false.

There is also no evidence of unsuccessful pilot rescue operations, but we can rest assured that those operations will take place, for the Kremlin will not stand to see its pilots executed. Still, after the statements made by Anton Geraschenko, a Counselor of the Ministry of Internal Affair of Ukraine, we can reasonably expect to see constantly shifting narratives in the Syrian information war.

Doubtless, when Russian authorities decided to take part in the Syrian conflict they recognized the inevitability of casualties, whether they be noncombatant, friendly fire, force majeure, etc. However, to this day, those who are fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies have not been able to come up with an efficient response to Russian Aerospace Forces operations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.