The Russian military has named the pilot shot down Saturday in Syria, opening an unusual window into Russian military casualties in the country.
In a statement released Monday, the Russian Ministry of Defense said the aviator, Maj. Roman Filipov, managed to eject from his Su-25 ground-attack aircraft after it was hit by a surface-to-air missile in the northwest province of Idlib.
After struggling to keep the plane in the air, Filipov bailed out in the vicinity of Tell Debes, a settlement held by Syrian militants fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, the statement said.
It said that Filipov held his ground as the militant fighters approached, exchanging fire with his sidearm. After being wounded, the statement said, Filipov blew himself up with a hand grenade as the fighters closed in on his position.
Filipov – described by the Russian military as an “experienced pilot” with previous service in Syria – was not the first Russian aviator to be shot down since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent warplanes to back the Syrian government in September 2015. In November that year, a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft near the Syria-Turkey border, sparking a confrontation between Moscow and Ankara.
Russian casualties cloaked in secrecy
The Russian government does not always disclose its casualties in Syria, sensitive to public reaction in the runup to Putin’s bid for re-election in March.
Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group that collects open-source information on Russia’s military involvement in Syria, said Russian military officials will announce the death of a pilot, but may not always announce the names of Russian troops that are on the ground supporting military operations.
The deaths of Russian military contractors – widely reported to be on the ground in Syria, but not officially acknowledged – are also not disclosed, he added. The Kremlin often downplays its ground presence in Syria, preferring to present its intervention as a largely bloodless air war.
“Russian military officials selectively announce Syria casualties, often withholding names or giving them only after the media do so,” Leviev said. “Private military contractor casualties are never admitted by the MoD.”
Much about Russian casualties in Syria appears obscured by military secrecy. Unlike the US Department of Defense, which releases the names of servicemembers who die in combat after next of kin are notified, the Russian government has not published a comprehensive list of its casualties in Syria.
Estimates suggest that the figures run into the dozens, but accurate numbers are hard to come by. In December, the respected Russian business newspaper Vedomosti tried to extrapolate active-duty casualty figures based on insurance claims related to the deaths of service members. Those claims include combat- and non-combat deaths: In the case of Filipov, the Russian Ministry of Defense said it would “provide all the necessary support and help to the parents and family of the heroic deceased.”