As a military analyst for CNN, I’ve found the anchors often ask tough questions regarding tactics, battlefield operations, strategy and political maneuvering associated with conflict. But Sunday morning, I was asked: “What is the protocol for the transfer of remains of the Russian pilot whose plane was shot down over Turkey?”
That may be the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked.
Watching an escorted fallen soldier returning home to family and friends is something I have experienced far too often. I keep a box with photos of 257 soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice under my command, and every day those pictures remind me of their service to country and of a life which ended too abruptly. That’s why I became emotional commenting on the final flight of Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov.
No matter your thoughts on Russian, Turkish or U.S. national strategy regarding the civil war in Syria and the fight against the terrorists of ISIS, Peshkov was a simple soldier — a bomber pilot — serving his state, and he deserves to be honored.
Unfortunately, given the circumstances, there really aren’t any protocols. But we’ve learned Peshkov’s body was prepared by an Orthodox priest near where he fell, and then taken on a flight from Hatay, Turkey, near where the body was recovered, to the capital, Ankara. Accompanied by a Russian military attache (who was likely a Russian colonel), he was met by the Russian ambassador to Turkey and the Russian Embassy staff upon landing in Ankara.
The flight will quickly leave Turkey for Russia, and I suspect Peshkov’s family will meet him wherever he lands. There will likely be a bevy of media and scores of Russian politicians present. This is certainly not the same protocol afforded the hundreds of Russians soldiers who have fallen in Ukraine, because those are battlefield casualties that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want publicly honored, or even known, by his fellow citizens.
Peshkov’s arrival will certainly generate more anti-Turkish fervor, more Russian nationalism and continued support by Putin of Syria’s Assad regime. The level of those emotions will be fueled by the factors associated with not just the shoot-down of the aircraft, but Peshkov’s combat death.
Peshkov was the unfortunate pilot of an aircraft that served as the final straw for Turkey’s patience. While there had been multiple incursions by Russian aircraft in Turkish airspace, and multiple warnings to desist, this Su-24 bomber would become the example for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to show he was serious about Turkish territorial integrity. The flight and shoot-down have become the center of a political firestorm.
But it was what happened after the shoot-down that will contribute to complications between these two countries.
After successfully bailing out of his damaged aircraft, Peshkov was killed. According to video distributed on social media by a Syrian rebel group, Turkmen freedom fighters shot at the ejected pilots as they were landing on the border between Turkey and Syria. (CNN couldn’t immediately confirm the video’s claim.)
If the facts back up the video, they committed a war crime in their actions. Firing on an unarmed, parachuting pilot is an unmistakable violation of the law of land warfare.
There have been hundreds of political and military disputes between Russia and Turkey over the years. Some have been casus belli — justifications for possible war — while others have contributed to strained relations. The circumstances of Peshkov’s death will certainly contribute to tension between Turkey’s and Russia’s bellicose and mercurial leaders. We’ll likely see it played out in public this week in Paris.
But today is a day to separate the warrior from the war. On Sunday, Peshkov will return home to his loved ones and to the Russian motherland. For his family’s sake, I hope for a dignified transfer of remains, and for his sake, I pray he rests in peace. Because that is what a fellow soldier does.