Alex Carpenter is Forward Observer’s Geopolitical Analyst and has extensive knowledge of NATO and Russia. This is an initial assessment of what to expect between Russia and Turkey following Turkey’s decision on 24 November to target a Russian aircraft in Turkish airpsace.
For the first time since the the 1950s, a NATO country has shot down a Russian aircraft, a bomber designated the Su-24. Two responding Russian MI-8 helicopters involved with rescuing the downed pilots were subsequently attacked with small arms fire by Syrian Turkmen rebels resulting in one downed MI-8, which was later destroyed by the Free Syrian Army with a U.S.-made TOW missile. Does this mean that Russia will retaliate? Should we expect war to erupt between NATO and Russia? Not quite.
Both Russia and Turkey’s qualms over Syria aren’t necessarily a resuscitation of the Cold War, but rather a continuation of a power struggle over old empires prior to World War I: when the Ottoman Empire was pitted against the Russian Empire, a conflict made more complex at times by the British Empire and even the Persians. Whoever would control lands south or east of the Ottomans or south of the Russian Empire controlled the power and economics of the world.
The 24 November event was bound to happen, as soon as Russian President Vladimir Putin was given authorization to deploy troops and air weapons in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Asad. In the weeks preceding, there had already been several near-misses between Russian and U.S. aircraft, as well as Russian incursions into Turkish airspace. 24 November marked the incursion that broke the Turkish camel’s back. The nearly five-year civil war in Syria between government troops and various rebel groups, supported by a myriad of coalitions, meant there was a geopolitical tinderbox with too much complexity for any Ivy League graduate to understand.
Russia wants to maintain military dominance and be seen as powerful global player. Turkey desires to be respected and boast a society in control of a bridge between east and west, north and south. It sits at the crossroads of civilizations past and present, and has become a significant economic player throughout the world, while culturally showcasing a mix of ethnic and religious tolerance in a majority Muslim nation. Turkey controls the largest contingent of NATO troops just after the U.S., and as a founding NATO member has always remained steadfast in the alliance.
President Putin has never faced a serious military challenge since he came to power. He has poked, prodded, and seen what he can get away with since 1999, and so far that’s been everything. Chechnya. South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia. Crimea and Ukraine. His greatest perceived threat is NATO, yet every time he’s been threatened, no military reaction ensued. The U.S. government was involved in attempting to topple Asad for four and a half years, and Putin knew his own entry into Syria would go unchallenged. Putin is a political man, and wants a political settlement in Syria. The use of the Russian military is a means to expedite political solvency. Ultimately, Russia does not have a strategic plan to topple the Islamic State (IS), but only operational and tactical support for the Syrian government. Yes, Putin and the Russian military wants IS defeated in Syria before the Russians have to fight them in the motherland. But right now Putin is backing Asad. Therefore, all rebels of Asad are rebels of Russia; and Putin will put continue supporting the government of Asad.
The downing of the Russian aircraft was a tactical decision. Military leaders made their quick decision based on training and lessons learned from past mistakes. Turkey has communicated through multiple channels over the years that it will not tolerate violations of airspace. The decision to target the Russian Su-24 was not a strategic decision made during a 17 second overflight of its air space, but Turkey’s powerful leaders fully back their military’s tactical use of force and sovereign protection in those 17 seconds.
At the strategic level, Russia needs the continued economic trade deals with Turkey. The $20 billion dollar nuclear power plant Turkey is having built by Russian companies will likely continue. Oil and gas deals like the South Stream pipeline will likely go through, albeit delayed. As strong as Russia is militarily, its economy is teetering on the brink of disaster. Words at high levels will be exchanged, threats and rhetoric will be thrown (rhetorical practice is a national pastime for both nations). Ambassadors may be recalled and defense attaches may be declared persona non grata, but open war is unlikely between NATO and Russia.
In the end, it’s money that matters, and money that will even make Putin blink. He will still be seen as the “strongman” and as Russia’s leader, but even he won’t let his own coffers go bankrupt. Western sanctions have already nearly accomplished that. Military blunders with the West are the quickest way for Puting to end up on the losing side, and we can assume that even he remembers economic warfare policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The $100 billion dollars in trade expected to exchange Turkish and Russian banks by 2023 won’t be stopped over the downing of a single aircraft.
We’re unlikely to see WWIII erupt between NATO nations and Russia. Russians and Turks have clashed for millennium, and neither will be quick to escalate now. In war, there is no substitute for victory, but in 2015 Russia there is no substitute for that all powerful money.