MOSCOW - Tens of thousands of Russians are trying to return home after Moscow suspended all flights to Egypt, a top tourist destination for millions, on increasing evidence that a bomb caused the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Sinai on October 31. All 224 people on board were killed when the passenger jet disappeared from radar minutes after reaching cruising altitude.
Russia's tourism chief, Oleg Safonov, on Saturday said officials would be dispatched to Egypt to help arrange return travel for the estimated 80,000 Russians there on vacation.
An unexplained noise during the final second of cockpit audio recordings has drawn attention, but Egypt's chief investigator, Ayman al-Muqaddam, said his team could not immediately determine whether it was from an explosion or something else.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the nationwide flight suspension Friday. His Federal Security Service chief had recommended the move as a precaution until the cause of the crash is known.
That recommendation came a day after British Prime Minister David Cameron suspended flights to Sinai, but not other parts of Egypt, saying it was more likely than not that a bomb was to blame. British and U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly intercepted "chatter" from militants that a bomb downed the plane.
Putin spoke with Cameron Thursday night. Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian defense analyst and columnist with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said Russia might have acted on British intelligence. “After it [the phone call],” he said, the Russian authorities began acting, most likely on using the intelligence Putin got from Cameron.” He added, “And, more or less agreeing with it, at least tacitly.”
A Kremlin statement said the two leaders discussed "joint counterterrorism" work, but no details were released.” Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had complained bitterly just hours before about the British not sharing information about the alleged bomb before going public. Russian officials were urging caution in jumping to conclusions before an investigation was complete and said they had no plans to stop flights to Egypt. Russian state media focused on other possible causes, such as technical or pilot error.
Felgenhauer said the Russian turnaround showed a greater acknowledgment that a bomb was a more likely cause of the disaster. “Well, this is not good news,” he said. “And that’s why the Russian authorities were rather dragging their feet to recognizing that this was, or could very much be, a terrorist bomb attack.”
Russian authorities maintained that the flight suspension was just a precaution and that they were not drawing any conclusions until they had firm evidence of the cause. Russia's Interfax news agency on Friday quoted Russia's emergencies minister as saying that swabs taken of the aircraft wreckage, baggage and ground around the crash site to test for trace explosives had arrived in Moscow.
Islamic State militants claimed responsibility almost immediately after the plane went down without offering evidence, saying the attack was carried out in retaliation for Russia’s airstrikes in Syria against Muslims. But the claim was widely dismissed on the ground that IS does not have missiles capable of reaching such high altitudes.
Even if an IS bomb caused the crash, Russian analysts said, Moscow is not likely to scale down its air support for the Syrian army. Knowledge that a bomb was responsible “could strengthen ... the position of those who think that terrorism must be eliminated,” said Viktor Mizin of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
Russia says it is bombing IS and other terrorists in Syria, while a U.S.-led coalition also bombing IS says Moscow is mainly targeting opposition groups fighting its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Thinking about 'payback'
Felgenhauer, the defense analyst, said Russia is not likely to drastically expand its military involvement in Syria. But he said it was likely that officials in the Kremlin and the Russian military and intelligence services "will be thinking about how to hit back, and do so [in a way] that it would be seen by the public as a serious payback.”
Speaking at the Congress of Russian Nationals Living Abroad on Thursday, Putin vowed to protect all Russians in conflict regions. "People who, for whatever reasons, found themselves outside Russia must be absolutely sure,” he said. “We will always be protecting your interests, especially in difficult, critical situations like Libya, Syria or Yemen."
Russian officials have repeatedly promised not to put troops into combat in Syria, fearing it could get bogged down as it did in Afghanistan, where over 15,000 Soviet troops perished in the 1980s.
But the buildup of Russian and Western-allied forces in Syria increases the risk of a proxy war, similar to the Soviet-Afghan war, that could become a wider conflict.
Russia's air force chief this week acknowledged sending anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria. U.S. officials say Russia also sent fighter jets used exclusively for dogfights, which raises questions because IS and other terrorist groups have no aircraft. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced concerns this week of a proxy war after the U.S. announced it would send 50 special forces members to assist Kurdish and Arab forces fighting IS in Syria.
Fears of a spiral
Felgenhauer said the conflict could quickly spiral if opposition fighters, armed by any members of the U.S. coalition, such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, hit Russian military targets.
“If Russian planes begin to come down in Syria,” said Felgenhauer, “if the Russian base [in Latakia, Syria] is attacked ... by the Syrian opposition, Moscow will yell ‘foul play’ and say it’s all the Americans. ... And then we’ll be in a serious crisis.” He added, “If this campaign does not end soon in victory or withdrawal, I believe that’s almost inevitable.”
While Russian public opinion is more divided than it was when Moscow began bombing in September, most Russians still support the Syria strikes and believe that they are fighting terrorists, not the opposition.
“The majority, about 40 percent or 39 percent, they support it,” Mizin said. “And they support the government’s line that it’s the fight not for keeping Assad’s regime in power, but fighting the terrorists of Islamic State.”
If investigators conclude that an IS bomb caused the Metrojet flight to crash, it could have a negative effect on public support, Felgenhauer said.
“And of course the Kremlin doesn’t know for sure how the public is going to react,” he said. “But they’re most apparently bracing themselves for possible negative public reaction.”