Behind the scenes on Russia’s Syrian base

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Our Moscow correspondent took a tour of the Hemeimeem Air Base near Latakia, Syria, receiving a glimpse of the lives of soldiers and the people of nearby communities.

When Russia launched its airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, The Associated Press’ Moscow bureau immediately sent a letter to the Defense Ministry seeking permission to visit the Hemeimeem Air Base where Russian jets were based. On Oct. 21, a phone rang at AP’s Moscow bureau and a Russian Defense Ministry press officer offered an invite to the Russian base in Syria.

Cameraman Vladimir Kondrashov and I boarded a Russian Air Force Tu-154 jet at a base outside of Moscow. We were the only representatives of a U.S.-headquartered media organization on the trip, which included journalists from China, Germany, France, Japan and Serbia.

Vladimir Isachenkov stands in front of a Russian jet at Hemeimeem Air Base in Syria, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (Photo by Vladimir Isachenkov)

The plane made a stopover at an air base in Mozdok in Russia’s North Caucasus to pick up a senior general, then followed a long flight path over the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq. Russian aircraft flying to Syria use this particular route to avoid Turkey and other NATO members, which have banned Russian military planes from their airspace. At dawn, the big jet (similar to a Boeing 727) landed at Hemeimeem, just as Russian bombers were taxiing out for another wave of raids.

Without a break, we all went across the field to film Sukhoi jets being readied for combat missions. Kondrashov and I took video footage and stills as ground crews were refueling planes and attaching bombs and missiles. Reporters were allowed to spend several hours at the edge of the runway to see the jets take off and land, then were escorted to field kitchens to see cooks prepare food.

After being treated to a fish soup and chicken with rice, we toured the base’s living facilities. One of the officers invited us to a cabin he shares with three other men — a sparse but pristinely clean place with air conditioning. At a nearby coffee shop, soldiers were sipping espresso and relishing ice cream delivered from Russia, while an army store offered clothes and souvenirs with patriotic images and slogans along with cosmetics. The Russian military were visibly proud about the carefully planned operations and the base’s layout.

One thing that was sorely missing, though, was a working Internet connection for us to transmit video and photos. I used a moment when a Wi-Fi connection in a press room was briefly functional to send stills of base operations we had made, while Kondrashov went live, using a Russian TV satellite dish. Soon, the print story, stills and video reached AP customers.

As night fell, we headed back to the runway to see warplanes taking off for night missions. It was almost midnight when a bus escorted by a vehicle carrying Syrian security service officers brought us to a hotel in Latakia, an oasis of calm amid Syria’s devastating civil war. It was the end of a 40-hour workday for us. Early the next morning, we headed to a camp in Latakia where civilians displaced by the war welcomed Russian raids and children chanted “Thank you, Putin!”

Following the camp visit, we were driven back to the air base to observe more sorties and see other facilities. That evening, all of us were flown back to Moscow. On board the plane, I wrote a bigger story describing the base operations in the context of Russian military reform and it hit the wire the next morning. AP stories were widely used by customers around the world, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the AP video was a hit with clients worldwide.

APTN camera operator Vladimir Kondrashov stands by a Russian jet at Hemeimeem Air Base in Syria, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. (Photo by Vladimir Isachenkov)

Vladimir Isachenkov

Vladimir is a ‎correspondent based in Moscow for The Associated Press.