Russia’s payback against Turkey over shoot-down may turn deadly

December 15, 2015
Russia's diesel-electric submarine Rostov-on-Don sets sail in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2015. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Russia’s diesel-electric submarine Rostov-on-Don sets sail in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2015. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

It was a clash with ominous Cold War overtones. Turkey’s recent destruction of a Russian Su-24 jet was the first time in 63 years a NATO jet shot down a Russian one. Although Ankara claimed the jet was in Turkish territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of a “stab in the back”and being “accomplices of terrorists.”

Putin subsequently cancelled Russian energy projects in Turkey, and also banned the import of Turkish fruit and vegetables. What Putin said next, though, should send chills down Turkish spines.

In comments during his annual state of the nation speech, Putin implied Russia might use force against Turkey: “We shall remind them many a time what they have done and they will more than once feel regret what they have done,” said Putin. “Our armed forces, secret services and law enforcement agencies have been mobilized to give a rebuff to the terrorist threat.”

While Putin uses bluster for effect — once promising Chechen terrorists Russia would “rub them out in the outhouse” — he does have a legitimate beef with Turkey. Even if the Russian jet was in Turkish territory, it was there for merely 17 seconds, and the Turkish jet fired no warning shots at the Russian one. That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasted he himself gave the order to fire only made things worse.

In a sign of escalating tension, on Sunday a Russian destroyer fired warning shots at a Turkish fishing vessel. If Putin chooses to further up the ante against Turkey, he’s got a number of cards he could play.

First, Putin could order the Russian military to shoot down a Turkish plane with air-to-ground missiles. The Russian military just deployed its advanced S-400 air defense missile system to the Syrian airbase of Hmeimim, only 18 miles from the Turkish border. This is a military game changer, with even a senior Israeli officer describing its deployment as his country’s “worst nightmare.” With a radius of 250 miles and the ability to target up to 36 aircraft or cruise missiles simultaneously, Russia now possesses the capability to take down a Turkish plane any time it wishes. It also eliminates the possibility that the West could establish a no-fly zone over northern Syria — a step long demanded by Ankara.

Putin also ordered Russian air-to-air fighter jets to accompany its bombers on all flights over Syrian airspace. That’s dangerous because Russia could theoretically shoot down a Turkish jet on the Turkish-Syrian border, and then assert, after the fact, that it was close to attacking a Russian plane. True or not, the Kremlin’s mastery of disinformation could allow the Russians just enough leeway to claim it was self-defense.

Putin could also use the Kurds as a weapon against Turkey. Turkey’s highest priority has always been its fight against Kurdish separatism in Turkey itself, and more broadly to halt the creation of an independent Kurdistan, a state that would theoretically incorporate areas of Iraq, Syria and parts of southeast Turkey.

As part of its anti-Kurdish policy, Ankara opposes the main Kurdish force in Syria, the Peoples’ Protection Units or YPG, as Ankara desperately wishes to avoid the establishment of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish entity akin to Iraqi Kurdistan. For this reason, Turkey recently struck Kurdish positions in northern Syria, and Ankara constantly warns the Syrian Kurds not to scoop up more territory in the area.

Putin could therefore strike a serious blow at Turkey’s geopolitical interests by ordering delivery of more advanced Russian weaponry to the Kurds, some of which would be aimed at Turkey. Syrian Kurds control two enclaves in northern Syria along the Turkish border, and wish to capture the final 60 miles needed to link these two territories together. Although Turkey repeatedly warns it will use force to prevent this scenario, Russian support and encouragement could motivate Syria’s Kurds to take the plunge. This would establish a 400-mile-long anti-Turkish cordon along Turkey’s southern border, which would be nothing short of a disaster in the minds of Turkish leaders.

Arming the Kurds would be a provocative escalation by Moscow, but the strategy still provides the Kremlin plausible deniability — Syria is awash with weapons, after all — and therefore fits Russia’s “hybrid war” doctrine. Russia could also claim that by arming the Kurds it actually cooperates with the West in its fight against Islamic State, since the United States sees Syria’s Kurds as the key local force able to take on the militant group. Indeed, the Kremlin may be laying the groundwork for this approach, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly wondered why Turkey bombs Syria’s Kurds against Washington’s wishes. Putin also suggested that Syria’s Kurds unite with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fight Islamic State, an alliance that would upend the entire game in Syria.

Third, Putin could also act to wipe out Turkey’s key allies in northern Syria, such as the Turkmen forces the Russian military started bombing after its jet was shot down. Putin’s vindictiveness towards the Turkmens is clear, as they killed one of the Russian pilots as he parachuted down, and then released a video showing them cheering and yelling “Allahu Akbar” as they found the body. Turkey, though, counts on allies like the Turkmen to secure itself a seat at the table when negotiations between Assad and opposition forces sit down to discuss Syria’s future early next year, so the Russian destruction of Turkmen forces would be another strategic setback for Ankara.

Finally, Putin could make mischief for Ankara within Turkey itself. Russian agents have previously killed alleged terrorists in Turkey, and appear to have done so again just last month. This continues a broader pattern where anti-Russian figures from the North Caucasus are executed in Turkey. In a worst case scenario, Russia could further escalate within Turkey by providing support directly to the Turkish PKK, which has been fighting against Ankara’s forces in southeastern Turkey for decades.

While Russia certainly could hurt Turkey, Ankara has cards of its own. In particular, it could close the Turkish Straits. Russian ships have traversed the Straits unimpeded for decades, but under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is allowed to close the Straits in a war with Russia or if it considers itself to be “threatened with imminent danger of war.” This would bottle up Russian ships in the Black Sea, and significantly increase the difficulty for Moscow to resupply its forces in Syria. Turkey has already created “delays” for Russian cargo ships travelling through the Straits — a clear warning from Erdogan.

To be sure, calmer heads may still prevail, and Moscow-Ankara tensions will likely subside over time. Given that the Turks have fought and lost 17 wars against Russia since the 15th century, Ankara likely hopes this is the case.


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Turkey’s ability to maneuver depends directly on the willingness of the other NATO members to look the other way while Turkey is misbehaving. But shooting down a Russian warplane goes way beyond the usual mischief. And if (or when) this situation escalates into nasty proxy wars in Syria, Iraq or Caucasus, NATO countries should really think hard if piling up behind Turkey to save them from the imminent disaster is a smart thing to do. And if they are shortsighted enough to let the Turks to drag them into a direct war with Russia, that would certainly be a disaster for us all.

Posted by aramix | Report as abusive

A rather naive article. Turkey closing Russia’s path to the Black Sea trumps all of the authors points. Also the Russian’s do not want to be involved in Kurdish Nation building because the U.S. has already doing that for many years. When Syria and Iraq wake to these Kurdish State efforts at their expense another conflict will start in the Middle East.

Posted by demiboone | Report as abusive

Obama genius foreign policy at work. Worst President Ever.

Posted by laurel1 | Report as abusive

“First, Putin could order the Russian military to shoot down a Turkish plane with air-to-ground missiles.”

Really? air-to-ground missiles to shoot down a plane? Poor editing.

Posted by maddog2 | Report as abusive

Erdogan needs to be taught a lesson. He has been openly flirting with DAESH hoping to eventually replace El Baghdadi and reinstate the Caliphate. He craves to eradicate the “Sick Man of Europe” Turkey was known as.
By messing with Russia he could end up involving NATO into a confrontation with Russia. Much like a bully kid who invokes the help of his big brother.
He is a vile man of intense Islamist leanings and needs to be dealt at arms length. His failure to court Europe still rankles. But Europe and the US should remember the old saying: ” If you sup with the devil use a long spoon.”

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

Turkey supports both AlQeda and Isis in Iraq and Syria, buys their Oil and was, together with the US and their allies (the Arab dictator/monarchies) among the ones who fomented the Syrian civil war from the start.

This has now brought millions of desperate refugees to Europe.

This is only the last of ill thought adventures like Iraq, Libys, and Ukrain (and also Kosovo, Yugoslavia etc.)

Europeans should dump Nato, Turkey and the US and ally with Russia

Posted by JohnnyKnows | Report as abusive

Russia doesn’t have problem with Turkey but with the criminal Erdogan clan that is using the Turkish Army to protect its family business, the same army that kept Turkey a secular state. Unfortunately all secular army generals have been jailed by the same Khazar criminal gang.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

“Given that the Turks have fought and lost 17 wars against Russia…” – no more. It’s NATO against Russia now. Period.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

From a poor chess player, the most likely move by Russia would be to back Kurdish and Armenian minorities, including the PKK, against Erdogan’s racist regime. Easier if the Syrian/Russian forces reclaim territory along the Turkish border. Avoids direct dilemma for NATO. Not sure what the NATO treaty says if a single member unilaterally blockades maritime passages – Turkey to the Black Sea, Denmark to the Baltic, Spain to the Mediterranean, etc.
Looks like a catastrophic black hole that can suck in everything. Recommend “37 Days: The Countdown to World War 1″ available from the BBC. For some unknown reason the DVD/BR are region locked, so also available via bittorrent if you know how.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Remember Vladdy, Turkey’s NATO. Unless you’re ready for general war (that will ultimately result in a nuclear escalation) you might want to keep that little thing in your pants.

Posted by IndridCold | Report as abusive

yep…an Obama friend trying to start WWIII why is the US arming terrorists in Syria?

Posted by laurel1 | Report as abusive

This story references Russia’s warship firing on a Turkish vessel, but fails to mention the Russian ship was at anchor, and the crew of the Turkish trawler failed to respond to radio and visual communication to change course and avoid collision. Does this writer remember what happened to the USS Cole in Yemen?

And the shots were near, not on the vessel – which prudently changed course only 540 meters from disaster.

Posted by okfine777 | Report as abusive

Turkey can close the Straits if there is a declared war. If there is a declared war Istanbul will be a big parking lot. Stupid writer.

Posted by MedicareMan | Report as abusive

This is a disaster.

Russia now has a military fortress directly in the middle of the chaos and the ability to shoot down any neighboring EU airplanes that travel near Turkey.

They will be there for decades while Putin reestablishes his empire.

Posted by tralalalalalala | Report as abusive

Why would they use an air-to-ground missile to shoot down a Turkish plane? They have an S-400 system there and jets with air-to-air missiles. Perhaps downing a jet with an air-to-ground missile would provide “style points?”

Posted by Stubbley | Report as abusive

Putin implied Russia might use force against Turkey: “We shall remind them many a time what they have done and they will more than once feel regret what they have done,”

Classic Western lies.
The phrase does not mean the “use force” against Turkey.
Putin spoke about economic sanctions.

Posted by Ivan_Terrible | Report as abusive

Russian passenger jet downed by ISIS, killing all 250 civilians on board: Putin looks at his feet and says “we’ll never know who did this.”

One russian pilot killed in a war that Russia chose to be in: “This is the start of World War 3!!!”

Putin is incompetent.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

cohen is forever missing the point

Posted by TPJ94 | Report as abusive

Putin means what he says and says what he means – then he follows through. Erdogan and his government believe they have NATO for protection, but how many of the member countries really want another war? Of course the US president will back Erdogan, no matter what he does but the US citizens and Congress just might have a say in any of Obama’s decisions.

Erdogan has bitten off more than he can chew – and he should think twice about baiting the Russian bear. Putin is patient and does not act in a hurried fashion – but he will act.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

The Turks controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. If they close the narrow passage to Russian ships, Putin’s Syrian base is history.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Putin should arm the Kurds,help them estb, a Kurdistan

Posted by comradestalin | Report as abusive

arm the Kuds Putin

Posted by comradestalin | Report as abusive