Downed Russian Jet Ratchets Tensions Between Ankara and Moscow

Putin and Erdogan

Wiki Commons

November 25, 2015 16:15 EDT

Russia has a number of options open to escalate the situation without taking direct military action.

Turkey’s downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 on November 24, after it had allegedly violated Turkish airspace while carrying out offensive operations over Syria, has resulted in a sharp escalation of tensions between Moscow and Ankara. The plane crashed in an area known as Jabal al-Turkman in the Syrian province of Latakia, which has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent months between Syrian forces backed by Russian warplanes and local Turkmen militia, for whom Ankara has previously expressed solidarity.

Low-level tensions have been simmering since the start of Russia’s intervention in Syria in September, with Turkey having repeatedly complained of airspace violations by Russian jets. The tensions have threatened to spill over into existing areas of cooperation between the two countries, including the major Turkish Stream gas pipeline that is intended to deliver gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine. This sudden and dramatic escalation of tensions has posed concerns for the future of such cooperation.

The crash has prompted fierce rhetoric and contradictory claims by both sides, threatening to escalate the dispute to an ever more dangerous level. In its response to the incident, Ankara claimed it began issuing warnings to the Russian jet when it came within 15 kilometers of the Turkish border and says the firing of the missiles was an “automatic response” once the plane had violated its airspace. Turkish officials released radar images that they say show the flight path of the Russian jet, claiming it passed over its southern province of Hatay, where it was shot down. US officials have since said they believe the Russian jet violated Turkish airspace, but that it was only a matter of “seconds” before it was shot down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a strong rebuttal of the Turkish and American claims, angrily denying allegations of an incursion and warning of “serious consequences” for the relations of the two countries. He went on to describe the incident as a “stab in the back” and to accuse Turkey of providing financial and military assistance to the Islamic State (IS). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has cancelled a planned visit to Turkey and has advised his citizens not to travel to the country, citing the terrorist threat. Russia’s state tourism agency, Rostourism, has also recommended suspending sales of tour packages to Turkey.

The impact on relations

Since Russia began formal military operations in Syria in September, commentators and analysts have issued repeated warnings of the risk of this kind of confrontation, in the absence of military-to-military coordination between Russia, US-led coalition forces and the ground defenses of Syria and neighboring countries. Turkey had already shot down a Russian drone that entered Turkish airspace in October, while in 2012 the Syrian armed forces downed a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet after it violated Syrian airspace. With little likelihood of any improved level of coordination or delineation of areas of operation, there will remain a risk of both accidental and intentional aerial confrontations between the various parties engaged in Syria as the conflict continues.

Unlike previous incidents, however, the downing of a Russian plane by Turkish forces has potentially far wider geopolitical consequences. The incident marks the first time since the 1950s that Russia has publicly acknowledged that one of its planes has been shot down by a NATO member state, and the urgent consultations at NATO and the United Nations reflect the seriousness with which Ankara is treating the situation. Putin’s reputation as an erratic and sometimes aggressive actor on the world stage has evidently drawn serious concerns within Turkey over what sort of hostile reaction they might expect, and there is a degree of unpredictability over how the situation will play over the coming weeks and months.

While making predictions over how the situation will develop is difficult at this stage, it should be noted that it is hardly in Moscow’s interests to escalate the crisis significantly. The Kremlin is already facing strained relations with the West over Ukraine that have led to punitive economic sanctions and efforts to isolate Russia internationally. As a core NATO member state, Turkey poses a far more formidable adversary to Russia than was the case with Ukraine in early 2014.

Moscow is also in no position to sever relations with another country that separates it from its main energy market in Europe. The planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline that will allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine to deliver gas to Europe has already faced difficulties over issues, including the cost charged by Moscow for gas deliveries, which Russia has showed determination in resolving. A serious deterioration in relations could jeopardize this and other strategic energy projects, including a planned Russian-built nuclear power plant in Turkey, with negative consequences for both countries.

Notwithstanding these considerations, Moscow now has a number of options open to escalate the situation without taking direct military action. This could include retaliation against Turkish businesses in Russia in the form of sanctions or more informal types of disruption, such as delays in processing visas or business permits for Turkish companies. More extreme measures could include increasing the price of Russian gas to Turkey, or halting flights by Turkish airlines to Russian airports, as occurred with Egypt following the Sinai plane crash in October. Moscow may also be tempted to retaliate indirectly by increasing support for Kurdish rebel groups in Syria, who are allied to likeminded groups in Turkey, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Russian business interests in Turkey may also face retaliatory discrimination as bilateral tensions rise over the incident. Protests have already taken place outside the Russian Consulate in Istanbul in the hours after the downing of the Russian plane, and worsening public sentiment toward Turkey’s Russian community could influence public tendering of projects to Russian businesses.

Undoubtedly, the incident will have wider consequences for cooperation between Russia and NATO in resolving the Syrian conflict and tackling IS. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, there were hopes in Europe for renewed cooperation with Russia over these issues. For now, however, it is likely that any goodwill that may have emerged from the Paris attacks has been squandered. Any hope of reinvigorating multilateral cooperation on Syria will depend heavily on the reactions of leaders in the US and Europe and their willingness to take a more conciliatory response to help de-escalate the situation.

By moderating their criticisms of Russia, American and European leaders would give Putin the flexibility to let the crisis gradually dissipate over time without losing face in front of his domestic audience.

*[This article is based on a report published by Protection Group International.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Kremlin

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