It is the first time that a NATO member state shoots down a Russian military aircraft. As relations between Moscow and the Alliance have been sufficiently tense even before the incident on the Turkish-Syrian border, few dare to make predictions about how it might end.
Russia has deployed several dozen military planes in Syria, including the Soviet-design Su-24s. Russians have been targeting Syrian rebel and ISIS forces for almost two months now.
This is the first time that Russia lost an aircraft since the beginning of its Syrian campaign. However, one could hardly call the incident unexpected. Over the last two months, Russian military planes have approached and crossed into Turkey’s airspace several times. On October 16, Turkey shot down a drone over its territory.
Turkey has previously warned it would not tolerate such violations of its airspace, sending its own F-16 fighters to patrol its borders with Syria.
It was one of these fighters, Turkey says, that shot down Russia’s Su-24 on Tuesday, after having sent numerous warnings to Russian pilots to change the course. Russia, in turn, insists that its plane was flying over Syria. Both sides are likely to look for evidence to support their versions of events, but we can already start guessing how it might end, since Russia will have to react in one way or another to the loss of its military aircraft and, possibly, pilots.
Scenario 1: Russia will be indignant, but brush it under a rug
If it turns out that Turkey shot down the Russian plane in its own territory, which is likely, Russia will have to swallow a bitter pill.
Despite loud demonization of Turkey and warmongering on Russian media and social networks, the Kremlin might not want to escalate the situation. Russia knows that any attempt at revenge – e.g., shooting down a Turkish aircraft – might lead to confrontation not just with Turkey, but with entire NATO. It is therefore likely that Russia will make some noise and then simply bring back its pilots and be more careful in the future.
Scenario 2: Russia will respond with provocation
Russia maintains peculiar rapport with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pragmatic relations between Vladimir Putin and Erdogan range from friendly agreements to bellicose exchanges.
Russia’s involvement in Syria was not something that Turkey wanted. Ankara, which has its own agenda in the Syrian civil war, supports some groups of rebels against the government, but its main target is the Kurds. Having engaged in decades-long confrontation with various Kurdish factions, Ankara has not wasted opportunities to bomb Kurdish positions both in its own territory and in Syria or Iraq. Even though at the moment the Kurds are the most efficient rebel group genuinely fighting ISIS on land.
The Kurds have received support from the United States and several European governments. There have already been much speculations that Russia might pressure Turkey by offering weapons and ammunition to Kurds and maybe even political recognition of Kurdistan. After Tuesday’s incident, Moscow might remind these threats and get back at Ankara by arming Kurds under the pretext of fighting ISIS.
Russia could also beef up its patrol on the Turkish-Syrian border or deploy its S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Syria. These would do more for deterrence than real military action. After identifying Russian S-300/400 radars, Turkish fighter planes would have to make a choice: either back down, or launch an attack on Russia’s anti-aircraft systems in Syria. In Moscow, such an attack would most definitely be seen as an act of war.
However, there is little chance that Russia will choose to respond thus, provided that Moscow is indeed interested in avoiding escalation with Turkey and NATO. Deploying fighter planes or anti-aircraft systems would increase the risk of unpredictability and things going south. Unpredictable situations can soon slip out of everyone’s control and lead to actual war.
By contrast, Russia has indicated it wants to build a coalition with NATO following Paris attacks. Moscow seems to have convinced at least one Alliance member, France. Dividing NATO has been and remains a chief goal of the Kremlin, so it won’t risk rallying NATO around Turkey.
Scenario 3: Russia will escalate conflict with NATO
Optimistic predictions about the Kremlin refraining from further provocations are based on the assumption that Russia is, after all, a rational player that shuns excessive risk-taking and stand-offs with a much more powerful opponent.
On the other hand, Russia has surprised the West many times before with its unpredictable and seemingly illogical behaviour. Moreover, NATO intelligence has noted that Russia is shoring up its military power as if before a big war.
Whether it will wage this war against NATO is still a subject of much debate. In its rhetoric, however, Moscow has been quite unambiguous that it sees NATO as an adversary. And its most likely war front will be the Baltic states, which is why Washington has recently been paying so much attention to security in the Baltics.
Still, Russia has proven many times throughout its history that it is a master of distraction. By arresting everyone’s attention on the campaign in Syria, Moscow might be after several strategic goals.
First, it wants to draw attention away from Ukraine and the Baltic states, hoping that NATO will redeploy its diplomatic and military resources to Turkey’s defence. And even if it doesn’t, all the better, as this way Moscow will prove NATO’s weakness and undermine its unity and trustworthiness. On the other hand, Moscow is a fan of the sticks-and-carrots approach, so it will always be able to back down and make peace with war-weary Western powers, including Turkey.
Risk-prone Putin often pushes until he runs into resolute resistance – and then he backs down, expecting (often quite reasonably) concessions from the Western powers. The latter are always happy about any steps away from a confrontation with a nuclear power. Therefore Moscow could score some victories by merely imitating confrontation, especially now that oil prices are plummeting and Russia, dependent on selling its natural resources, has little to lose.