Is the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 ‘Fencer’ bomber by a Turkish fighter – the first direct NATO vs Russia combat incident – a big deal or not? My first thoughts are that the answer is probably not, at least not in the long term, but we can expect a fair amount of overt sound and fury on the one hand, and probably some covert retribution from Moscow, too. WW3 is not, however, on the cards.
The Russians are saying it was on the Syrian side of the border, the Turks say the plane was on theirs. I have no idea at this stage which is true, although it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the Russian jet had intruded. Putting aside the (remote) possibility of pilot error, Moscow has been willing to cross into NATO airspace in the past and may even had an operational reason for doing so, perhaps trying to set up an attack run on a rebel convoy or facility on the Turkish border. After all, let’s not forget that Ankara is playing an active role in the Syrian civil war, and in its eagerness to hammer Kurds, wherever they may be, arguably supporting some pretty toxic elements.
Moscow may well have been assuming the Turks would be as restrained as other NATO members, which was an undoubted mistake. Putting aside any cultural stereotypes, Ankara is not only embarked in a campaign to assert itself as a regional power, it also sees Moscow as a sometimes partner-of-convenience, but also local rival. Russian intelligence officers have assassinated Chechen fundraisers in Turkey, and generally the Kremlin has shown little signs of seeing in Ankara a serious ally, partner or player, even in the days when Putin and Erdogan were getting along. Only this Friday, Russia’s ambassador had been given a dressing down about the bombing of Turkish-backed rebels. It may well be that Ankara leapt at the opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and also show that it was a serious player.
Putin’s immediate response has been mordant and tough, accusing Turkey of stabbing Russia in the back, of in effect protecting ISIS, and running to its NATO powers as if it has been one of its own aircraft that had been shot down. We can expect some kind of retaliation on the political-economic front (maybe stopping Turkish airliners coming to Russian airports?) and maybe also some unloading of additional serious ordnance on Turkish-backed elements in Syria. However, I suspect neither Moscow nor, at the very least, the other European NATO powers will want to let this go too far. Russia cannot fight hot diplomatic wars on too many fronts, and Europe clearly wants Moscow to be part of the solution in Syria and maybe Ukraine, too. And, frankly, there is in many capitals concern about Turkey, its agenda and its role in the region. Much will depend on where Washington falls, of course, but if Moscow can get even a crumb of contrition from Ankara or sympathy from Europe, then we can expect this to be splashed on Russian TV and allow the Kremlin to let this slide a little.
But even in this best-case scenario, I don’t imagine that will be the end to it. Moscow has already been willing to operate inside Turkey covertly, and is engaged in political tussles over influence in the South Caucasus as well as Middle East. I would expect some uptick in ‘mischief’ – perhaps some support for the Kurds or other violent extreme movements, for example – as well as a more assiduous campaign to push back and stymie Turkish regional ambitions.
It’s often said, with good reason, that Putin really wants a return to 19th century geopolitics, when might made right and realpolitik was all. Let’s not forget that one of the defining 19th century conflicts was that between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which were sometimes openly at war, sometimes ostensibly at peace, but never anything than enemies. Here we go again.