Russia, Turkey, Deconfliction and Distrust

Su24shootdown2I have promised myself to do no work tomorrow, Thanksgiving, so before I retreat into recreational seclusion, just a few thoughts on how the Su-24 shootdown crisis is shaping.

1. The Russians gave the Turks the opportunity to show their teeth – but the Turks were waiting for it. Even taking Ankara’s account at face value, the Su-24 was in their airspace for just 17 seconds before being attacked, and was making no hostile moves against the Turks. Incursions, even if usually in less politically-tense contexts, happen all the time, and generally you’d expect warning shots fired and then attempts to force the intruder to leave national airspace or to land. That the Turks fired and did so with such speed – and Turkish PM Erdogan says he gave the orders to fire himself, which in 17 seconds is pretty quick on the draw – to me very strongly suggests they were waiting for a Russian plan to come into or close enough to Turkish airspace with the aim of delivering a pretty pyrotechnic message.

In this respect, unusually enough, I find myself agreeing with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov when he called it a “provocation” and an “ambush.” Let’s be clear, Moscow was foolish to let its planes stray so close to the border, doubly foolish if its rules of engagement allowed pilots to dip into Turkish airspace when it was operationally useful (and I suspect the latter was true). But Turkey’s response went way beyond the usual practice. Don’t believe me? In 2012, the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet which had entered its airspace, and Erdogan’s furious response at the time was that “a short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.”

(At the time, incidentally, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called it “another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms.” Somehow I don’t expect a similar critique of Ankara.)

2. No one wants this to escalate, and both Ankara and Moscow are working to that end. Presumably Erdogan feels satisfied the point has been made, and presumably Moscow, while no doubt harboring its grudges, is aware it has a great deal of lost diplomatic ground to make up and wants to be able to strike a deal with the West over Syria and Ukraine. To this end, while Putin was angry (“a stab in the back”) and Erdogan mulish (“everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders”), their respective foreign ministers are doing what foreign ministers do and trying to bring things back to the diplomatic track.

Pavel Felgenhauer has conjured the specter that “further dogfights are possible during which Russian planes will attack Turkish planes in order to protect our bombers. Sea battles between the Turkish and Russian fleets are possible.” But in fact, the mechanisms in place to control conflict remain robust. NATO is aware that Turkey is an ally, but is not piling in to increase the tension; Russia knows that at present it may have a certain moral authority in this incident, but if it turns to military pressure then NATO must back its maverick ally.

3. There are striking similarities between Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia, not least their ability and propensity to move conflicts into the covert arena. I’ve written elsewhere (not least in this Wikistrat report) about the cynical intent behind Russia’s intervention into Syria. However, the Turks are acting in support of their national interests in Syria with equal ruthlessness, often neglecting attacking ISIS for hitting the Kurds (who are in so many ways the most effective force against the jihadists), smuggling weapons in the guide of humanitarian convoys (something we saw the Russians doing in Ukraine), and being willing to support groups which are often jihadist in their own terms, too. MIT, Turkish military intelligence, is every bit as cynically opportunist as the Russian GRU, and Erdogan every bit as erratic, brutal and ambitious as Putin.

But this is not just a problem because, as Fiona Hill and Kemal Kirişci have put it, “the personalities and political styles of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to complement if not mirror each other” such that these “similarities … have now come into play in a dramatic way.” It is also a problem because while the overt clashes may be headed off by the usual machinery of diplomacy, both countries – with large, extensive, secretive and brutal intelligence apparatuses and a history of working with both gangsters and terrorists – may well instead simply transfer these tensions to the covert arena. I would expect that in Syria itself, the Russians will put greater emphasis on hammering those groups under Ankara’s patronage. Today’s reported strike on a Turkish aid convoy – or should that be “aid convoy”? – may be the first manifestation of this. Meanwhile, the Turks will presumably arm and encourage those groups most able to give the Russians a bloody nose. What wasn’t really a proxy war before is likely to become one. Meanwhile, Moscow may put greater emphasis on countering Turkey’s efforts to establish regional influence (Azerbaijan is an obvious place of contention) and could support problematic non-state actors inside Turkey, from Kurds to criminals (those criminals not already tied to the Turkish state…).

This is a conflict that Ankara triggered, and while it is being managed, it is not going to go away. Nor is it just going to become another chapter in the histories of Russo-Ottoman rivalry. (There’s an excellent digest in the Independent here.) Instead, expect to see this play out in snide, deniable, but nonetheless bitter actions for months to come.








Turkey shoots down a Russian jet and we return to the 19th century


Su24shootdownIs 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.

A Tale of Two Cities and their security conferences

 This has been definitely the week of Central European security, with both the Warsaw Security Forum and the Riga Conference. I was delighted and honored to be invited to attend and speak at both, a chance to do the usual networking, hear a variety of interesting perspectives, pontificate, and also to see Warsaw for (to my shame) the first time and renew my acquaintanceship with Riga (always a pleasure). At the WSF, I participated in the opening panel on ‘The Rise of the West in a post-Western World’ alongside two former presidents (Saakashvili of Georgia and Landsbergis of Lithuania) and a former foreign minister (Jeremič of Serbia) ably chaired by Katarzyna Pisarska.  Am not sure whether or not the session will be made available on line (I’ll update this blog with a link, if so), but the event also provided an opportunity for Brian Whitnore of RFE/RL and me to record an episode of The Power Vertical podcast face to face, for a change.
In Riga, I was speaking at the panel on ‘Quo Vadis 21st Century Russia?’ and again in exalted company: President Toomas Ilves of Estonia, Celeste Wallander (Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the US National Security Council) and Prof. Anton Malgin (Vice-Rector, MGIMO). The session is available at the LATO YouTube channel – my opening (and overlong) remarks start at around 24 minutes in. I also gave TV interviews for Latvian TV and also Ukraine’s Hromadske internet channel (update: this is available on the Hromadske YouTube channel here; my segment starts at around minute 45). This ended up in many ways divided between a focus on the here and now and Russia’s activities abroad and the longer term and Russia’s development at home. Prof. Malgin, who unfortunately but inevitably ended up being the proxy target for the room’s concerns with and angers towards Russia, tried to present Moscow’s role as positive and constructive, but overall — and given that this was in a Baltic state bordering on Russia, this is hardly surprising — the mood was critical and even alarmed.

There were differences between the two events. The WSF was closer to an official summit: more of the participants were current or former senior officials, and so the discussion from the podium tended to be at once more authoritative and more formal. RC, held in the splendid National Library of Latvia, was more informal and as a result the discussion felt more free and inclined to iconoclasm.

However, what was striking were rather the common ground between the events. There was a clear fear of Russia — not just a concern, or an irritation, but a fear, born presumably of the fact that both countries border Russia and have recent and painful memory of Soviet invasion and occupation. The prospect of direct Russian military action, while not seen as likely, was nonetheless considered to be sufficiently possible to merit serious discussion.

Given that the threat is not just military, though, there was also much discussion about societal security, about how to reduce the scope for Russian manipulation, part of what I have called “hybrid defense” and something that is much more advanced (again, for obvious reasons) in Scandinavia and the Baltic region than elsewhere. I’d still rather see more emphasis yet on the risks from organized crime and dirty money (Latvia, I’m looking especially at you here), but nonetheless very encouraging.

Overall, though,  perception of Russia seemed very starkly negative, again which shouldn’t surprise (although the region has some excellent scholars of the country) but which I found a bit less uplifting. I felt my pretty limited attempts to introduce some nuance and scale — for example, suggesting we should see Russia not simply as a rapacious kleptocracy, and driven as much by weakness and insecurity as some kind of imperialist agenda — fell in some cases on quite stony ground.

I was delighted to attend both events. Excellent discussions, a chance to meet old friends and make new ones, and how many conferences have their own ‘branded’ apples (Warsaw) or give copper sundials as gifts (Riga)? In particular, as next year I spend more time exploring not just Russian perspectives of the current crisis and their hybrid/full-spectrum/nonlinear/whatever-we-end-up-calling-it war approach, especially as relates to non-military means, from crooks and spooks to banks and think tanks, I plan also to tap the first-rate and practical expertise so evident in Central Europe, the Baltic and Nordic states.

The Early Autumn Publications Roundup

For the next instalment of my kinda-regular roundups, here are (to the best of my knowledge) all my publications from mid-August to the end of October 2015, linked where possible.

Russian bear should be more cuddly, less snarly,’ Moscow Times, 12 August

Why Russia is not an existential threat for the West,’ Russia! magazine, 18 August

Museums show Russia’s big security problem,’ Moscow Times, 25 August

Boozing through the Soviet Afghan war was more horrifying than you can imagine,’ War On The Rocks, 5 September

Kremlin’s “shadow power” tarnishes its image,’ Moscow Times, 6 September

STOLYPIN: Can Putin really be syrious?‘, Business New Europe, 7 September

Yakunin and the Systemic Virtues of a Generous Retirement‘, Russia! magazine, 16 September

Book Review: Global gangs: street violence across the world. Edited by Jennifer Hazen and Dennis Rodgers‘, International Affairs, 16 September

Putin and Trump have a lot in common,’ Moscow Times, 22 September

Russia to defend core Syrian government areas,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, 22 September (with Jonathan Spyrer: he wrote the stuff from Damascus’s perspective, I wrote the Russian material)

Zaslon — Russia’s ultra-secretive special ops in Syria,’ War Is Boring, 5 October (not technically by me, but essentially recycling my findings)

Russia in Syria: Putin’s hard sell of quick victory against Isis could come back to haunt him,‘ International Business Times, 6 October

West must play it cool with Putin,’ Moscow Times, 6 October

Wikistrat Report: Russia in Syria — tactical masterstroke, strategic risk,’ Wikistrat, 7 October

STOLYPIN: The limits of Russia’s “patriotic mobilization”‘Business New Europe, 12 October

Crime, Kleptocracy, and Politics: Developments in Modern Russia‘, videocast talk at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative, 13 October

West has lost the right to lecture Putin,’ Moscow Times, 20 October

Most of Russia’s military still “rubbish” despite Ukraine, Syria deployments‘, Reuters, 20 October — connects to podcast I recorded for the War College series, playable through this page or available on iTunes.

‘Russia: Economics may dent Russian police reform,’ Oxford Analytica, 26 October

‘Putin’s Spies and Security Men: His Strongest Allies, His Greatest Weakness’, Russian Analytical Digest No. 173: Russia and Regime Security, October

Crime, Kleptocracy, and Politics: Developments in Modern Russia

20151013_imageI was delighted to be able to discuss Russia, crime, corruption, politics, geopolitics and kleptocracy — all subjects close to my heart — yesterday at the Hudson Institute under the auspices of its Kleptocracy Initiative. The event was livestreamed and is now available through the Hudson’s YouTube channel here. The central point? That Russia is a kleptocracy in many ways but certainly not just a kleptocracy. There is also a rational state and people who want to do their jobs on one side, and a state-building project on the other, and what is distinctive about Russia today is:

  • the way that kleptocracy has been harnessed by the state as an instrument for both domestic and international purposes; and
  • the interconnected, post-ideological world in which Russia operates.

Is Ukraine being thrown off the bus? Not really, but France and Germany are right

Hollande-Merkel-PoroshenkoPoroshenko was in bullish form at the UN General Assembly but was apparently very worried about the Putin-Obama handshake, worrying that Washington would make some deal over Syria at Ukraine’s expense. Perhaps he should have been looking at Europe, instead. The ever-perceptive Leonid Bershidsky has an interesting piece in Bloomberg where he suggests that France and Germany have in effect told Ukrainian President Poroshenko that he has to make peace with the separatists, through pushing through a new election law for the Donbas and an amnesty for separatist leaders to allow them to contest the vote:

The way Merkel and Hollande see it, Poroshenko should be interested in working to reintegrate the rebel-held areas into Ukraine, which would mean contesting the election and, in case of an almost certain defeat, working with the winners. That’s the European way of doing things; trying to enlist outside support to defeat the separatists is not, especially when Europe has plenty of problems of its own.

Inevitably, Kiev’s partisans will see this as a betrayal and playing into Putin’s hands, as the new plan puts the onus on Poroshenko to get the law through his recalcitrant legislature. In the process, what seemed almost certain – that at year’s end, while Kiev comes into for some criticism, Moscow and the Donbas rebels get the lion’s share of the blame for the (inevitable) failure of Minsk-2 – now looks much less clear. After all, the burden is on Poroshenko and Minsk-2 implicitly just history.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,410 other followers

%d bloggers like this: