On February 3, for the first time in Russia’s military campaign in Syria, Moscow lost a Su-25 ground-attack aircraft. Militants linked to the al-Nusra Front terrorist group, which is currently at war with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, shot down the Russian aircraft with a shoulder-launched missile. Pilot Roman Filipov ejected, but blew himself up after he reached the ground, in order to keep himself from enemy hands.
The Su-25 was downed at a low altitude: The aircraft had been on patrol in the Idlib Province and was returning to Russia’s Khmeimim Airbase. As the aircraft was maneuvering at an altitude of around 4,000 meters (more than 13,000 feet), a shoulder-fired missile hit the plane’s engine.
The Defense Ministry has confirmed that the pilot was Roman Filipov, who’d recently been stationed in Vladivostok. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported initially (and apparently erroneously) that Filipov had previously served in Ukraine.
The magazine RBC learned that Roman Filipov was from Voronezh; like his father Nikolai, he graduated from the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School's Armavir Center and became a professional pilot. Until 2014, the aircraft Filipov was piloting in Syria had been attached to an air regiment in the Krasnodar Krai. Later, the jet was based in Crimea.
After graduating, Filipov served in the Far East and rose to the rank of deputy squadron commander. He had several tours of duty in Syria and had flown several dozen combat missions. The pilot's friends told RBC that he was married with children.
According to the newspaper Kommersant, Filipov tried to keep the Su-25 airborne after the missile hit his engine, but the control systems began to fail. He ejected, landed, and reported the situation to the Khmeimim Airbase. The insurgents spotted him as he was coming down and began shooting (and missing) at his parachute. They encircled him once he was on the ground, and Filipov returned fire with his Stechkin pistol, before killing himself with a hand grenade.
A Telegram channel associated with Syrian insurgents posted footage of Filipov’s suicide, where you can clearly hear him scream the words “This is payback for our guys!” before detonating his grenade.
Russian Defense Ministry officials say Filipov killed himself because he was badly wounded. A photograph shared online by the citizen-journalists at the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) shows that Filipov had three magazines for his Stechkin: one had been fully discharged, and the other two were half-empty.
CIT's researchers say it’s unlikely that the Su-25 was shot down during a patrol operation, pointing out that the aircraft was carrying ammunition. The Russian military has special reconnaissance planes for patrol missions, CIT points out, also noting that video footage of Filipov being shot down shows his plane launching an attack shortly before the missile hit his engine. This could be evidence that Filipov was actually flying a combat mission in Idlib.
Roman Filipov has been posthumously nominated for the Hero of Russia title, and the Russian government says it will provide assistance to his family. According to Kommersant, rescue squads have been dispatched to find the pilot's body.
Update: Filipov's body was recovered in Syria and returned to an airbase in Moscow on February 5, according to the magazine RBC. He will be buried in Voronezh on February 8.