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How Russia tried to cover up death of Putin’s best helicopter ace in Syria

Putin personally awarding the 393rd air force base for helicopter gunships in Korenevsk in southern Russia with an Order of Kutuzov on the 100th anniversary of the Russian air force. Killed in Syria Col. Khabibullin was the base's commander. (Image:
Article by: Yuriy Butusov
Translated by: A. N.
Absolutely no losses“: One of Russia’s best pilots — Colonel Ryafagat Khabibullin, Commander of its 393th Air Force Base, which is the most combat-ready part of the army aviation of the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RF AF) deployed against Ukraine — was destroyed in Syria.

The Russian helicopter shot down in combat on 8 July 2016 near Palmyra turned into a widely-covered informational event. Firstly, one of the most prominent Russian pilots and the commanders of the army aviation was destroyed. Secondly, this is an example of blatant lies of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, a good example demonstrating the methods of work of the Russian propaganda. They use the same methods to conceal the losses of the Russian army in the war against Ukraine.

On the 8th of July, Syrian militants claimed of the destruction of a Russian helicopter gunship.

On the same day, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (RF MoD) issued a formal statement:

All Russian combat helicopters in the Syrian Arab Republic, after the completion of the planned tasks safely returned to the airfields. Absolutely no losses of Russian aircraft.

On the morning of July 9th RF MoD provided more detail:

In the area of Palmyra, militants downed a MI-24 attack helicopter of the Syrian government army, a Syrian military source informed Interfax on Friday. It was shot down by the terrorists from the ground,” – said a Syrian military source. According to the source, the fate of the crew is unknown to him.

Very soon, however, it has become clear — the militants, as always, included a video operator in the composition of their combat group, and they have [video – Ed.] evidence. So, a new verbiage was produced — the Russian Federation is forced to recognize its casualties:

The helicopter with Russian pilots in Syria downed using American weapons:

Syrian MI-25 helicopter with a Russian crew was shot down by fighters of ISIS (terrorist group prohibited in the Russian Federation) near Palmyra from an American heavy anti-tank rocket complex TOW [stands for Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile – Ed.], a Russian military source informed Interfax on Saturday.

“According to the available information, the terrorists used an American TOW. The gunship after spending its ammunition, was returning at the treetop altitude,” – the source said.

According to the MoD, our pilots-instructors Ryafagat Khabibulin and Evgeniy Dolgin performed a test flight of a Syrian MI-25 helicopter (the export version of the MI-24 helicopter) with ammunition in Homs province.

The crew had received a request from the Syrian ground command to destroy advancing fighters. The Russian pilots attacked the terrorists and disrupted their offensive. However, as it was turning for a return course the gunship was hit by fire from the ground and fell in the area controlled by the Syrian government army. The crew of the helicopter was killed. At the time, its ammunition was spent.

So, at the outset, as usual, it is “#YouAllAreLying” and “#TheyAreNotThere,” but, as they start realizing that their opponents have evidence, their version [of events] keeps on changing.

And it was then when the combat video operator of the militants struck a smashing blow across the entire machine of Russian state propaganda by posting the video the fight with the helicopter gunship, which was rapidly picked up by many accounts on social networks.

It shows clearly how a couple of Russian helicopter gunships attacked targets at low altitude, the leading the helicopter was firing from its cannon and, at this point, there was an explosion – the tail beam of the helicopter broke into pieces. The helicopter fell down like a stone and exploded.

And so, it turns out that the RF MoD again didn’t say a word of truth about what happened, and the circumstances are the highly scandalous, because the video leads to the following conclusions:

1. The downed helicopter – it’s not an old MI-25 of the Syrian Army, procured long ago during the times of the Soviet Union. This is the latest attack helicopter gunship of the Russian Federation Airspace Forces in Syria of the MI-35M type. It’s very easy to identify – with almost the same silhouette as MI-24, MI-35M is clearly distinguished by it x-shaped tail rotor and non-retractable chassis. These helicopters were adopted by the Russian military force in Syria at the end of the year 2015. In this photo, the silhouette of the MI-35M is clearly visible:

Russian attack helicopter gunship MI-35M (Image:

Up to eight MI-35 helicopters were stationed at the 393nd Air Force Base commanded by the killed Russian pilot Col. Khabibullin.

Why did they lie about the model of the helicopter? In order not to embarrass their latest and expensive equipment. The export price of a MI-35 is 35 million US dollars! The Russian Federation is afraid of losing the market, which will see the ineffectiveness of its defense systems from MANPADS [Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles – Ed.]. Allegedly [the gunship] was shot in the back from an ambush, not from MANPADS, so jamming setting system could not work, the helicopter was destroyed by a manual control from the ground – well, just got unlucky.

Actually, it wasn’t manual targeting. MI-35M was struck by a self-guided missile because the defense system of the costly helicopter didn’t work.

2. The RF MoD completely distorted the circumstances of the battle. Khabibullin did not conduct a flight test, he flew in a pair, conducting attacks with unguided missiles at some objects near Palmyra defended by an air defense team of the militants.

Why was this fairy tale invented?

A search for survivors at a site hit in December 2015 by Russian airstrikes in Idlib, Syria. “Some Russian airstrikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program. Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where ISIS does not have a strong presence. (Image: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)
A search for survivors at a site hit in December 2015 by Russian airstrikes in Idlib, Syria. “Some Russian airstrikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program. Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where ISIS does not have a strong presence. (Image: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

Judging from the video, “instructor” Khabibullin flew in a pair on a combat mission in as part of Assad’s troops. That means he fought as a mercenary. Moonlighted. That means, Assad’s regime has no crews left, and it is Russian pilots who fly Syrian equipment to bomb the [Syrian] cities and fight Assad’s opponents.

Probably, he was just another “volunteer” who on his vacation went to defend the “Russian world” in Syria.

3. Judging from the explosion, the MI-35M was hit by a missile from a man-portable air-defense system of the militants. It’s not an American missile “TOW-2“. This is clearly visible from the nature of the hit of the gunship. It is a clear shot at the extremity of the tail beam, so the tail rotor flew off.

The MI-35M was not turning around for a return flight and was not flying at the treetop altitude. Instead, it attacked.

The explanation that it was just a lucky shot from behind at the treetop altitude by an anti-tank missile with manual targeting fully removes the responsibility from the designers of the anti-missile defense system of the helicopter. How lucky. Actually they were not so lucky. The helicopter was hit by a surface-to-air missile, and the crew of the helicopter wasn’t warned, didn’t get a chance to react to the attack, and had not been able to suppress the homing system of the missile.

Russian pilot checking bombs before a bombing in Syria (Image: Vedomosti)
Russian pilot checking bombs before another bombing raid in Syria (Image: Vedomosti)

Why were they lying about the Americans? In order to emphasize that the militants are able to inflict losses [on the Russians] only due to the supply of American weapons to the terrorists. To show that they are fighting with the Americans. It is necessary for the domestic propaganda.

What kind of questions to the RF MoD arise after watching the video?

  1. Who was being instructed by the two Russian pilots, if there were no Syrian students with them?
  2. Why was the flight test, which conducted to test the readiness of equipment, flown not over the well-protected Khmeimim Air Base, but right at the front near Palmyra and with the full ammunition load?
  3. To whose armed forces does the second gunship, which can be seen in the video and was Khabibullin’s wingman, belong to?

It is clear that the answers to these questions indicate one fact: the Russian armed forces are keeping Assad’s regime in power by the force of their bayonets, while their losses are great.

During the combat in Syria, Russia has already lost three helicopters – a rescue MI-8, a MI-28 gunship, which, according to the official version, also was destroyed because of an accident, and the MI-35M.

Russian helicopter ace Col. Khabibullin (Image:
Russian helicopter ace Col. Khabibullin (Image:

And now about the destroyed Russian mercenary. Col. Ryafagatʹ Khabibullin, born in 1965, one of the most experienced pilots of the Russian Federation. He participated in the Russian military invasion in Georgia in the 1993-1994, then in the war in Chechnya in the 1994-2002. In Chechnya, his MI-24 was shot down from DShK machine gun, he was the only one of the crew who survived, although with with severe injuries. Then he participated in the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Syria became his last war. He was considered to be one of the best existing pilots and the best acting commander of the Russian Army Aviation. According to the data for the year 2008, he had flown 3200 hours, including 2800 hours in combat. He flew over 2000 combat missions. He had the qualification of “Pilot-sniper.”

Khabibullin commanded an elite military part of the 393th Air Force Base located in Korenovsk of Krasnodar region of the Russian Federation [Putin personally visited the base in 2012 to award it with an Order of Kutuzov on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Air Force – Ed.]. It is this unit who gets first the latest Russian combat helicopters and who receives the largest investments to develop the aerodrome complex and infrastructure.

Three years in a row, the 393th Air Force Base under the command of Khabibullin was recognized as the best helicopter unit of the Russian Federation Air Force.

Putin inspecting the helicopter gunships of the 393rd air force base in Korenevsk in southern Russia. Killed in Syria Col. Khabibullin was the base's commander. (Image:
Putin inspecting the helicopter gunships of the 393rd air force base in Korenevsk in southern Russia. Killed in Syria Col. Khabibullin was the base’s commander. (Image:

Here are two articles about Khabibullin in the Russian press:

Here is how a Russian military media outlet described the importance of the 393nd base. Interestingly, it did not conceal that its objective is to fight against Ukraine:

The work to modernize the air force base in Korenovsk started on 14 March 2013, during a visit of the Chief Commander of the Russian Air Force V. Bondarev. The main work on the airfield lasted over 2 years, with the participation of the most highly skilled professionals. Pouring concrete for the airstrip, construction of new helicopter sites, installation of navigational landing systems, the construction of the supporting infrastructure and new hangars cost the budget nearly 7 billion rubles.

On 8 June 2015, it became known that most of the work was accomplished and no more than six months remained until the delivery of the object of the Russian Air Force. The new airstrip has a length of 2600 meters, and the constructed hangars will accommodate no fewer than 70 attack and transport helicopters MI-24, MI-35, MI-28N, etc. The estimated time frame for the airbase to fill with new gunships is 1.5 to 2 years. The deployment of helicopter units equipped with MI-28 n and KA-52 gunships is a very important part for strengthening the combat power of the Southern Military Region.

Such gunships can lead fighting against armored vehicles of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine in Transdniestria, attack the strongholds of ISIS militants in the Caucasus, defend from the penetration into the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by illegal military groups from the Georgian territory. Currently, the 393th helicopter air base is equipped with 16 KA-52 and 12 MI-28N. After the launch of the new infrastructure, the total quantity of these gunships may exceed 50.

Presumably, Col. Khabibullin was involved in the combat against Ukraine in 2014 year. Ukrainian soldiers have repeatedly documented violations of the state borders of Ukraine by the most modern Russian helicopter gunships Kamov KA-52 “Alligator” and MI-28. On 25 August 2014, near the village of Krasna Talivka, a unit of the Ukrainian state border guard has entered the battle with a Russian tactical group with armored vehicles, which crossed the state border. In the midst of the battle, two Russian combat helicopters attacked our positions and four Ukrainian warriors were killed.

Thus, it is obvious that Russia’s 393th Air Force Base, as a part of Assad’s troops, is actively fighting in Syria. If these MI-35M do not belong to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, but belong to the Syrians instead, that means Col. Khabibullin moonlighted for Assad as a mercenary.

Translated by: A. N.
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