While we don’t yet know which rebel group shot down a Russian military helicopter in Syria today, killing all five on board, photographic and video evidence of the wreckage reveals that what Russia is presenting as a pacific tool of humanitarian aid was in fact an assault craft rigged with rocket pods.
According to General Sergei Rudskoy, the helicopter had been returning to the Russian-operated Hmeemeem Air Base, in the coastal province of Latakia, after delivering food and medical supplies to Aleppo when it was shot down by “ground fire.” He also claimed that the area where the copter crashed, near the city of Saraqeb, is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, the former name of al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria.
Yet no rebel group has yet claimed credit for the downing.
The bodies of two of the crew were abused on camera, being dragged around and stamped on by Syrians surveying the wreckage, according to a video uploaded to YouTube by the Thiqa Agency, which appears to be a Syrian news-gatherer that began covering the war four months ago.
Photos of the passports and other documents belonging to the crew have appeared online, one of them identifying an Oleg Shelamov from Torzhok. This man has been tracked by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of independent Russian investigative bloggers, to a military unit in Klin that operated the type of helicopter that was downed. He was the pilot.
According to General Rudskoy, the two passengers on board were officers from the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria, a Potemkin peace-building initiative meant to lend a gloss of humanitarianism to the Kremlin’s war for Assad.
However, the Russian Defense Ministry’s insistence that this helicopter was not involved in a combat mission, particularly given the Russia Air Force’s punishing campaign in Aleppo, is complicated by the identified make and model. The wreckage reveals a Mil Mi-8AMTSh, according to Joseph Dempsey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the CIT.
The Mil Mi8-AMTSh, nicknamed “the Terminator,” is an assault variant of the veteran transport helicopter, equipped with multiple hard points for carrying missiles and unguided rockets. In several videos of the wreckage we can see a B-8V20A rocket pod.
Nic Jenzen-Jones of Armament Research Services (ARES), an Australia-based weapons monitoring group, told The Daily Beast:
“In this case, the Mi-8 AMTSh appears to have been fitted with two B-8V20A rocket pods, each capable of carrying 20 80 mm S-8 rockets. From the images available so far, it is not clear whether the rocket pods were loaded. The helicopter in question was also equipped with the Prezident-S electronic countermeasures suite, designed to warn and protect the aircraft against anti-aircraft threats emanating from the ground, as well as naval and aerial platforms.”
If the rocket pods were empty, then the helicopter either took off unarmed—rather inadvisable in a war zone—or had fired all of its munitions before crash-landing.
While it’s not uncommon for helicopter gunships to be repurposed for noncombat missions, such as medical evacuations, Moscow says this aircraft was delivering humanitarian cargo. Archival footage shows demonstrably cramped quarters inside the “Terminator” for the transport of crates of food and medicine, even absent two passengers.
Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast, “To a far greater extent than the United States, Russian transport helicopters are designed for dual use in an attack role. The Mi-8 was originally designed as medium-lift utility transport but the Russians use it extensively as an attack helicopter. This particular model may have been selected so that they could portray the mission as humanitarian in nature, but the overwhelming majority of Russian rotary-wing operations in Syria are attack missions.”
Regardless of whether the Russian claim that the helicopter was returning from a humanitarian mission is true, the fact that it was carrying rocket pods meant that it would have been perceived as a real threat from the ground, making it a legitimate target.
As Jenzen-Jones noted, this is not the first of the type to be blown up in Syria.
On November 24, a Mi-8AMTSh was destroyed on the ground by fighters from the First Coastal Division of the Free Syrian Army using a U.S.-made TOW missile, killing one Russian marine. The helicopter had been taking part in the search and rescue effort to recover the navigator from the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber that was shot down by Turkish fighters earlier that day.