Russian Mi-35M Shot Down in Syria

A fairly high-quality video from Syria shows an Mi-24VM, or its export version Mi-35M, identified by the non-retractable landing gear, sustaining an explosion near it's tail rotor, sending the helicopter into an uncontrollable spin. A sizable object can be seen tumbling toward the ground on a ballistic trajectory away from the aircraft. The object may be the tail rotor. The Mi-35M uses the same twin two-blade scissored tail rotor design as the Mi-28. The incident occurred as the helicopter was firing what look like under-wing gun pods. A second helicopter - an Mi-24P (with its gear retracted) - passes by seconds after the explosion.

The initial statement by the Russian military spokesperson was that all Russian helicopters have returned to base that day. The later statement indicated that the downed helicopter was a Syrian Army Mi-25 piloted by a Russian instructor and a Syrian pilot. It was finally acknowledged that the lost helicopter was Russian and was piloted by two Russian officers on a training mission that developed into an impromptu combat operation.

The semi-official story in the Russian media suggests the aircraft was downed by a US-made TOW missile. Barring some new computerized targeting system optimized for low-flying aircraft, a TOW hit like that would have required considerable skill and much luck. Talking about a lucky shot, another explanation may be a hit from a high-caliber anti-aircraft gun. A portable SAM is almost out of the question: these heat-seeking missiles aim for the engine exhaust and are equipped with proximity fuzes designed to detonate near the aircraft.

A theory has been advanced by a group of armchair admirals that the lead helicopter was downed by friendly fire from the following Mi-24. Analysis of the video does not support this theory. The separation between the aircraft was about 800 meters, the speed was around 75 m/s, the unguided rocket launch angle would have been -3 deg and rocket would have passed about 40 meters below the lead aircraft. Having said that, the standard flying formation calls for at least 100 meters separation between the flight vectors.

I think the key to figuring out this mystery is the loss of the tail rotor: something knocked it off the aircraft, without causing any visible damage to the rest of the tail section. As if something hit the tail rotor directly. Some say that if this was an anti-tank missile, the resulting explosion would have ripped the helicopter apart. True, but only if the warhead detonated. TOW missiles are designed for detonating after impacting heavily armored targets. A missile like that could have sliced through a helicopter's tail rotor blades without detonating. The relatively small explosion we see could have been caused by the missile's motor.

The video still above shows an upward-bound plume of smoke emanating from the aircraft's tail section. In my view this lends credence to both TOW and AAA theories. Still, a lucky shot, but "unlikely" should never be mistaken for "impossible". The incident occurred near the airfield, allowing for a possibility of a carefully-prepared ambush, making such a shot more likely.

At the time of the explosion the helicopter was firing unguided rockets. A mechanical malfunction could have sent one of those rockets tumbling out of the launch tube, bouncing off the wing or fuselage and hitting the tail rotor. Even as the lead helicopter is spinning out of control, the second helicopter continues flying in a perfectly straight line. This would not have been the case if the pair was under fire from the ground. The second helicopter had several seconds to initiate an evasive maneuver.

Aerial Encounters

The Times asks "Why Do Chinese and Russian Fighters Keep Buzzing U.S. Spy Planes". A question that is followed by two pages of largely irrelevant amateur analysis of military matters that seem to escape the author's grasp of reality. A much better question would be: why do US spy planes keep buzzing China and Russia? I can certainly understand the indignation if the Russians and the Chinese were flying their fighter jets off the coast of California. But they are not. We're talking about the Baltic Sea and the South China Sea: a long way from Los Angeles for sure.

An unarmed Russian Su-24 tactical bomber buzzing a US Navy destroyer near Russia's Baltic Sea coast.

Responding to the Meldonium Scandal

In case you haven't been following the news, as of the beginning of this year, Meldonium - a Latvian-made anti-ischemia medication - has been declared a banned performance-enhancing substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Meldonium has been used chiefly by Eastern-European athletes to counteract muscle tissue damage resulting from strenuous physical activity.

The USADA spent millions of dollars looking for traces of Meldonium in urine samples primarily of Russian athletes and later lobbied WADA to ban the previously-legal substance. As a result, over a hundred athletes from Russia and several other countries who tested positive for traces of the substance that two months ago was perfectly legal are now facing disqualification.

According to medical experts interviewed by the Russian media, each test for Meldonium conducted by USADA costs 400-500 USD and the agency conducted over 15,000 such tests. Keep in mind that the testing has been done when Meldonium was not on the list of banned substances, calling into question the agency's motives: why spend millions of dollars testing for traces of a legal medication?

This was clearly a well-financed attack on Russian athletes by the US anti-doping agency and it deserves a response. Russia should not be shy about spending the necessary rubles to re-test the samples. Given the volume of initial tests by USADA and questionable reliability of the third-party labs used for this purpose, at least procedural mistakes are likely. Considering that most testing has been performed by the same personnel, any such mistakes would cast doubt on the entire undertaking.

As a separate effort, Russia should challenge WADA to substantiate its decision to designate Meldonium as a performance-enhancing substance. WADA itself conducted no pertinent research and its decision was based entirely on USADA conclusions. Russia has the necessary capabilities to question these conclusions on a scientific level.

Finally, at least based on statements by Sharapova, it would appear WADA's procedure for notifying athletes, medical personnel and relevant sports authorities is inconsistent and capricious. Email should not be WADA's sole method of communication with the world of sports, and "as of now" hardly seems a reasonable advance warning.

The bottom line is Russia should fight this tooth and nail. Washington is clearly using anti-doping bodies to get ahead in a political fight with Moscow and the athletes deserve to be insulated from such unbecoming tactics.

Why Turkey Wants Assad Gone

This is something I didn't know. Norman Stone of the Financial Times revealed the personal reason behind Erdogan's dislike for Assad and it's hilarious:

High-level gossip in Ankara has it that there is a personal element to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Back in the days when Syria and Turkey had close relations, the Assads went on holiday with the Erdogans.

It is said that afterwards, Mr Assad's wife, Asma, sent an email to her husband pleading never to be asked to do that again: this was a couple with no languages, she is alleged to have said - he a thug who has read only one book, she a frump interested only in shopping. The email came to the attention of Turkish intelligence, and the rest is history.

And this is what Putin has to put up with...

Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma

American Khodorkovsky

Ex-Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon died in a car crash - an apparent suicide - less than 24 hours after he was indicted on conspiracy charges. Early reports suggest Mr. McClendon drove his SUV into a concrete wall at high speed while wearing no seat belt.

A few years ago McClendon got into a feud with an "activist shareholder" (aka "corporate raider") and Donald Trump's pick for treasury secretary Carl Icahn. This confrontation with the politically well-connected billionaire-investor earned Mr. McClendon a federal fraud indictment.

Russian business establishment would be well-advised to take close interest in this case as a likely counterpoint to the Magnitsky Act and the Khodorkovsky controversy. The McClendon case is a typical but rarely publicized example of government-sponsored persecution of inconvenient business leaders in the US.