The downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 is awkward timing. Signs of a rapprochement in tensions between the West and Russia looked like genuine cooperation was underway in Syria. Russia had stepped up hits directed at ISIS and related infrastructure, and Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the Russian navy to treat France like an 'ally' in Syria following the Paris attacks. Further conflict escalation relating to disagreements peripheral to the Syria crisis is in no one’s interests, as highlighted by NATO Secretary General’s call for 'diplomacy and de-escalation' as important to resolving the situation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at press conference this week. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Getty Images)
The incident did show that Russia has an international competitor that is willing to act as boldly to defend its national interests as Russia has done in its own foreign policy over recent years. Turkey’s actions were not completely without warning. Turkey has previously shot down two Syrian Air Force fighter jets for violating Turkish airspace, showing how seriously the government takes such activity. In October Turkey warned it 'cannot endure' Russian violations after a Su-30 illegally entered Turkish airspace, supposedly by accident. Turkey’s reaction to Russia’s failure to heed warnings marked an unprecedented, and many would argue over-the-top, use of force by any NATO country since NATO-Russia relations plummeted against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis.
This incident is unlikely to escalate into a broader NATO versus Russia conflict. Russia has of course criticised NATO heavily, particularly on its failure to offer condolences for Russia’s loss. Despite comments from Sergei Rybakov, deputy head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that Russia 'does not expect objectivity' from NATO in its probing of what happened, Russia is willing to engage on a de-conflicting agreement with NATO to avoid such incidents in future.
Russia’s reactions have already been mainly directed at Turkey bilaterally and are likely to continue in this manner. Energy relations are likely to suffer, with Russia being Turkey’s largest gas supplier. The Turkish Stream energy project, which replaced South Stream after Russia abandoned it a year ago due to tense relations with Europe, may now be under threat. A 2010 deal for Russia's national nuclear corporation Rosatom to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant worth over $20 billion may now be put on hold. Russia’s state tourism agency Rostourism recommended the suspension of flights to Turkey , with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying the threat of terrorism there was 'no less' than in Egypt, where a commercial Russian airline, carrying mainly Russian tourists, was shot down by a group affiliated with ISIS on 31 October.
Russia has also cancelled military cooperation with Turkey, and it is possible that Russia will increase strikes against rebel groups close to Turkey, such as the Syrian Turkmens, which was already a significant contributing factor to Turkey’s concerns around Russia’s intervention in Syria.
NATO has endorsed support for Turkey on the basis that it has information from both Turkey and other NATO allies that indicate Russia did indeed violate Turkey’s airspace.
At a press conference at the White House, President Obama reiterated the view that the downing of the plane was an inevitable result of the way in which Russia operates in Syria, and if Russia concentrated its airstrikes on ISIS, such mistakes would be 'less likely to occur'. This is somewhat hypocritical given Turkey’s propensity to target Kurdish fighters. Turkey has not escaped criticism, however, highlighting a view within NATO that it overreacted. NATO officials said that they believed Turkey should have shown more restraint and could have escorted Russian planes out of the airspace. There are also worrying question marks over the decision-making process by which Turkish authorities authorised the strike.
On the other hand, Russia should be able to see how its repeated refusal to acknowledge any responsibility for its actions, and its purposefully defensive contradictory response, have undermined its position in this situation: and in this case genuinely to its own detriment. Criticism for Turkey might have been vocally stronger if Russia had not reacted in a manner that has become increasingly typical in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. It would be reasonable to say that shooting down a plane of a nation that has shared counter-terrorism objectives in Syria for a 17 second airspace violation is a disproportionate response. Even if in reality the picture is far more complex given that Turkey and Russia, as with many other countries, are clearly pursuing their own national interests through the groups they are supporting and targeting in Syria.
Instead, Russia went into plausible deniability mode, at first claiming the plane was hit from the ground. This is unlikely given that the plane was flying at 6000 metres and that the Turkish government announced that two of its F-16s had targeted the Russian plane. Russia’s Ministry of Defence quickly produced counter-'evidence' to that of Turkey, trying to dispel radar image tracking that showed Russia entering Turkish airspace. Given Russia’s reaction to the downing of MH17, and the fact that it had violated Turkish airspace on previous occasions, it is hardly surprising this was met with scepticism.
Another challenge for Turkey is that if it had indeed escorted the Russian plane out of its airspace instead of shooting it down, the airspace violations would continue. By meeting Russian actions with an overly-forceful response, Turkey has potentially genuinely deterred Russia from doing something it feels violates its sovereignty. This is not a policy Western European nations should necessarily endorse, but it does reflect the use of 'strength' often called for over Russia’s behaviour. Syria is not Ukraine, and Russia needs to adapt its way of thinking given the number of complex players, and the wider variety of rules of engagement that they are playing by.
Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images