Known for being relatively pragmatic in their bilateral relations, Turkey and Russia are unlikely to let the diplomatic scandal spiral into long-term tensions.
December 1, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin, second left, and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second right, before the meeting of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council in Ankara. Photo: RIA
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, on Nov. 24 a Russian Su-24m bomber was performing a routine combat task in northern Syria against terrorist targets when it was shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet at 10:24 a.m. Moscow time.
It is fair to say that here the Russian and Turkish versions of the incident start diverging significantly.
Turkey claims that a Russian jet violated its airspace for 17 seconds during which, according to the Turks, they warned the Russian jet’s crew of the violation no fewer than 10 times, following which they shot down the plane.
The Russian Ministry of Defense and President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, stated that the Su-24m bomber had not violated Turkish airspace and did not receive any warning messages from the Turkish military. The Russian General Staff and Defense Ministry confirmed that the two pilots managed to eject from the plane, which was hit 0.6 miles from the Turkish border, though one of them was killed during descent as a result of gunfire from the ground by militants.
Therefore Nov. 24 was marked by the first combat casualty the Russian military has suffered during its smooth air campaign in Syria. The incident also brought to the end the widespread perception that the Russian air campaign in Syria is almost cost-free and revealed the unpreparedness of the Russian military group in Syria to avoid such incidents. This apart, the deterioration of the relationship with once reliable partner Turkey is almost inevitable as a result of the incident.
Putin issued a statement on the incident following bilateral talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Sochi on Nov. 24. During their joint press conference Putin gave his vision of the incident, in which he basically accused Turkey of protecting and supporting Islamic State (ISIS) by engaging in illegal oil trading with them and described Turkey’s action as “stabbing us in the back by hitting our planes that are fighting terrorism.”
“Instead of immediately establishing contacts with us, as far as we know Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident. As if we had hit their plane and not the other way around,” said Putin.
In response to the downing of the plane, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled his visit to Turkey, due on Nov. 25. This almost certainly indicates that diplomacy will be the primary tool with which Moscow and Ankara intend to influence each other. As the stakes and risks are equally high the parties are going to be very cautious in their further moves.
However, while Putin’s initial reaction appears quite tough, the overall actions Russia plans to take in response do not look that harsh and have a defensive character. Russia’s Ministry of Defense has released a three-step plan which aims at improving the security of the Russian air base in Syria to avoid any similar incident in the future.
Firstly, all combat sorties of attack aviation will be carried out only under the cover of fighter aircraft.
Secondly, the air defense of the Russian air base and the surrounding area is to be reinforced. For this purpose the cruiser Moskva, equipped with the ‘Fort’ air defense system (equivalent to the S-300), is to be deployed off the cost of Latakia.
Thirdly, military ties with Ankara will be terminated.
And lastly, on Nov. 25 Russian Ministry of Defense announced its plans to deploy Russia's most advanced missile defense system S-400 to Khmeimim airbase in Syria. It will ensure its air defense using long- and medium-range missiles that can hit aerial targets at ranges up to 400 kilometers.
Those who hoped that such incidents as the bombing of the Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula or the shooting down of a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border would cause the Kremlin to change its policy in Syria must be disappointed: The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed that air strikes against what it says are terrorist targets in Syria will be continued.
What is likely to change in Russia’s behavior in Syria is that it may become more cautions while conducting sorties near the Turkish border. And it is quite likely that Russia will wait for a moment when Erdogan’s air forces make a slip and then punish them for that.
In another move, the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism has issued a warning not to travel to Turkey amidst the growing terrorist threat and recommended tourist companies to stop advertising and selling package tours to Turkey. According to the official data in 2014 alone, 4.5 million Russian tourists visited Turkey, bringing in about $4 billion in revenue. Russian tourists account for 11.5 percent of the total number of visitors to Turkey.
Why escalation is unlikely
Nonetheless, Russia and Turkey are unlikely to allow tensions to escalate over the shooting down of the aircraft. Firstly the two countries have very solid and strong economic ties: trade, construction, real estate, tourism. Despite the big volumes of bilateral trade and the huge flow of Russian tourists to Turkey it also should be highlighted that Turkey buys about 55 percent of the gas and about 30 percent of the oil it consumes from Russia, which makes energy cooperation a main pillar of the bilateral relations between the two.
Secondly, being quite pragmatic, both the Russian and Turkish presidents are unlikely to sacrifice the level of the economic cooperation they have already achieved in the last decade.
Thirdly, judging by the extraordinary NATO council meeting called by Turkey on Nov. 24, the alliance is distancing itself from the incident and portraying it as a bilateral issue between Ankara and Moscow that should be resolved between them. So, Turkey is unlikely to escalate tensions. The same holds true for Russia because in the current international situation it is not to the advantage of Moscow to sever relations completely with anyone.
Thus, while the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey is a very unpleasant and irritating issue, it is unlikely to become a game-changer in Russia’s or Turkey’s approach to Syria. Keeping in mind that the stakes as well as risks are high for all parties involved in the Syrian puzzle, we should not expect any major escalation between Russia and Turkey.
This makes diplomacy the most likely instrument for both Moscow and Ankara and each of them will use it to get maximum advantage from the current situation. But it is clear that relations between Russia and Turkey have suffered a huge blow, which will take uncertain time to recover from.