MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has provided air cover to a leading Western-backed opposition group in Syria, President Vladimir Putin said Friday, calling for closer coordination with the U.S.-allied coalition — comments that may reflect Moscow's desire to narrow differences with the West over the Syrian crisis.
At the same time, Putin vowed to further modernize Russia's military and said its forces in Syria will "immediately destroy" any target threatening them, a strong warning to Turkey following its downing of a Russian warplane at the Syrian border.
Speaking at a meeting with top Defense Ministry officials, Putin said while supporting the Syrian government forces, Russia also has provided air cover, weapons and supplies to some units of the Free Syrian Army, a Western-backed opposition group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's army.
Several hours later, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov refuted the president's statement that Russia is sending weapons and supplies to the FSA. Peskov told reporters that Putin meant to say that Russia is sending weapons and supplies to Syrian government forces but also provides air cover to the FSA.
Moscow has been accused by the West of striking moderate rebels to back up Assad instead of its declared goal, the Islamic State group.
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian warplanes have flown 4,000 combat sorties in Syria since Moscow launched its air campaign on Sept. 30, destroying 8,000 "terrorist" targets. He added that Russia moved 214,000 metric tons of supplies to support the military action in Syria and helped restore a tank repair factory in the Syrian province of Homs.
Without naming Turkey, Putin said the military should respond in full force to any further "provocations." He said the Russian military base in Syria has been beefed up with additional aircraft and air defense weapons.
"I order you to act in the toughest way," Putin said. "Any targets threatening the Russian groups of forces or our land infrastructure should be immediately destroyed."
At the same time, he said the military should "develop cooperation with all countries, which have a real interest in destroying terrorists," specifically mentioning the need to coordinate with the U.S.-led coalition and Israel to ensure flight safety.
Speaking on a visit to Rome, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a rare praise for the U.S.-led coalition, saying Moscow is glad to see it has "intensified its activities," targeting oil facilities and trucks in IS-controlled territories. He emphasized the need to shut the Syrian border with Turkey, saying that Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane amounted to a "cover-up of terrorists."
The downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter jet on Nov. 24, the first time a NATO member shot down a Russian plane in more than half a century, has badly strained the relations between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkey said it downed the Russian plane after it violated its airspace for 17 seconds despite repeated warnings, while Russia has insisted the plane had remained in Syrian airspace. Putin has denounced the Turkish action as a "treacherous stab in the back" and ordered the deployment of S-400 long-range air defense missile systems to a Russian base in Syria. Russia also has introduced a slew of economic sanctions against Turkey.
Turkey's foreign minister said Friday his country is refraining from responding to Russian efforts to hit back at Turkey over the plane's downing, but added the country's patience has limits. "If we are not responding to all that they have done until now, it is not because we are afraid or because of any psychology of guilt," Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV television.
Putin said the Russian military action in Syria is essential for protecting Russia from extremists based there. He has previously said between 5,000 and 7,000 citizens of Russia and other ex-Soviet nations have joined the Islamic State group.
"Our action there hasn't been prompted by some abstract geopolitical interests or a desire to train and test new weapons systems, which is important too," Putin said. "The main thing is to avert a threat to the Russian Federation."
Putin named "strengthening of the combat potential of strategic nuclear forces and the implementation of space defense programs" as a key priority.
Russia's ambitious arms modernization program has continued at full pace this year, even though low oil prices and Western sanctions drove the economy into recession this year.
Shoigu said the military has received 35 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, 243 aircraft, 90 air defense systems and 1,172 tanks and other armored vehicles so far this year.
He added that the navy received two new nuclear-powered submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles, two general-purpose submarines and eight surface warships so far this year.
The military also expanded its presence in the Arctic, building several new bases and other military facilities there.