What are the implications for Moscow-Ankara relations after the Russian military jet was shot down by Turkey?

Russia's Sukhoi Su-24 at the Hmeymim airbase. Photo: TASS

The Turkish F-16 pilot who shot down a Russian Su-24, with one shot, wiped out Russian-Turkish relations, which in spite of the different points of view on the situation in Syria, were developing quite positively. Historically, there have been many cases in peacetime when one country shoots down the aircraft of another country over neutral waters or over its own territory – and each time this has been done for an important reason.

Such actions of pilots are not possible without the approval of senior leadership of the country, as one shot can turn peace into war. In Ankara, they surely understand this. The downed Su-24 has already added to the victim tally. According to the Russian General Staff, during the search operation to rescue the pilots, a helicopter was damaged and one Russian marine was killed. Why did the Turks pursue this action, which, in any event, would considerably complicate their relations with Russia?

Moscow and Ankara have different points of view on the situation. According to the Kremlin, the Russian bomber was shot down over Syria, one kilometer from the Turkish border, making this an undeserved act of aggression. Turkish authorities are saying the opposite. According to them, the Russian pilots had violated Turkish airspace and, after numerous warnings, the Turks opened fire.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that a pair of Su-24s had been flying over Turkish territory for about 5 minutes, but in a letter that Ankara sent to the UN Security Council, a different time was indicated – only about 17 seconds. This time is not sufficient to be able to issue 10 warnings, radio their home base for permission and receive approval from the commander to open fire. Does that mean that the Turkish pilots were already flying on a mission, with orders to open fire on any Russian planes approaching their borders?

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Undeclared war in the sky through the lens of history

Undeclared war in the air, at one time was one of the components of the Cold War. During this era, almost a dozen aircraft of NATO countries and their allies were shot down over the ground and maritime territories of the U.S.S.R. The Soviet Union also suffered losses, even though Soviet pilots mostly operated near the country’s own borders.

A number of these air incidents were very controversial in nature. Thus, on June 13, 1952, a reconnaissance plane from neutral Sweden was shot down over the Baltic Sea, and to this day, it has not been determined whether it had actually crossed into Soviet airspace.

In May 1954 an American Stratojet reconnaissance plane was engaged in a battle with Russian MIGs over Finland. Then, in August 1976, a Turkish F-100 fighter jet was shot down after invading Soviet airspace.

It must be said that, in almost all such cases, explanations of what happened differed according to Moscow and the West. Both the Kremlin and the White House took responsibility in only a few cases, where it was almost impossible to refute their guilt.

Such risky games were deemed necessary by NATO to test the defense capabilities of the U.S.S.R., the territory of which, incidentally, until the emergence of new anti-aircraft missile systems, was quite vulnerable to penetration by reconnaissance aircraft, coming from the south up to the Ural Mountains.

One such aircraft – the high-altitude reconnaissance plane U-2C was hit by an S-75 missile over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960, which put an end to such flights, as they became too dangerous for American pilots.

For its part, the Soviet Union, through its tough responses to any encroachments into its airspace, clearly demonstrated the high degree of combat capability of its air force and anti-aircraft systems, as well as preparedness to react quickly to any threat coming from the air.

However, starting in the early 1970s, the number of such incidents decreased, and all decisions to open fire could only be made by “top” Soviet military officials. Another significant reason for the reduced number of air incidents was that reconnaissance aircraft were mostly replaced by spy satellites.

Aerial incidents between Russia and Western countries resumed in the mid-2000s. The Baltic States and Scandinavian countries have repeatedly made statements about frequent violations of their airspaces, and NATO fighter jets scrambled to intercept and accompany Russian aircraft patrolling their borders.

However, there was never any question of opening fire. Moreover, the “victims” themselves admitted that any boundary violations were very minor in nature.

What does the downing of this Russian jet by Turkey mean?

Against this background, the launching of an air-to-air missile against a Russian bomber appears to be a blatantly aggressive gesture. We should not forget that on October 17, it was reported that Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to shoot down any Russian planes invading his country’s airspace.

At the same time, it appears to be obvious that Russian aerospace forces (ASF) operating in Syria had no intentions of carrying out any hostile actions against Turkey. Moreover, Russian military commanders themselves had previously stated that Turkish airspace might be violated in case of certain adverse weather conditions during the landing of aircraft involved in operations in Syria. Moscow has always acknowledged any violations and apologized for them.  

The most important thing to note, is that this Russian military operation would be of great benefit to Turkey. To bring back under control of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the territories currently occupied by radical Islamists, and the partial stabilization of the situation in the country, would allow tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, now living in camps in Turkey, to return back home.

The defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) would remove the threat coming from the south-eastern borders of Turkey. Despite all this, the Turkish Air Force had actually issued a direct order to look for any opportunity to shoot down a Russian airplane. After that, the situation grows rather stranger.

Judging by the first statements issued by the Russian Defense Ministry, it seems that the search and rescue group, sent to try and save the pilots, was also ambushed. It is possible that this was a coordinated operation between the Turkish authorities and the Syrian rebels, which have recently been supported by Ankara.

One rather unusual version put forward by experts immediately after the Russian Su-24 was downed – was the desire of Ankara to “punish” Russia for its massive air strikes on oil refineries and columns of ISIS fuel tankers transporting oil products into Turkey.

After all, Ankara, while claiming to be supporting the NATO operation against ISIS, was in fact buying oil, at dumping prices, coming from areas controlled by radical Islamists. If indeed this flow was significantly large, then of course it was extremely beneficial for the state authorities of Turkey, and possibly for a number of senior officials and military personnel in President Erdogan’s entourage. It is not surprising that the actions of Russian bomber pilots made them panic.

In addition, it is clear that Turkey is making every effort to remove Assad and bring to power the country’s disparate “moderate” Islamist factions. Naturally, at the emergency meeting convened on Nov. 24, NATO had no choice but to voice support for its ally, Turkey, which in the short term could negate all Moscow’s efforts to coordinate its activities in Syria with the North Atlantic Alliance.

Also read: "How Syria divided Russia and Turkey"

How will the Kremlin respond?

Regardless of the reasons behind Ankara’s decision to shoot down the Russian plane, it is clear that Moscow will have no choice but to take retaliatory actions. Many experts have expressed surprise at the Kremlin’s quite soft position on the downed bomber.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the actions by Turkey a “stab in the back,” but did not talk about any specific responses. However, Moscow holds enough aces in its hand that it doesn’t need to make any loud statements to “put Ankara in its place.” Some of their options include supplying anti-aircraft missile defense systems to the Kurds, who are fighting against ISIS and occasionally suffering from attacks by Turkish aircraft. This would greatly reduce the possibility of Ankara putting pressure on its separatists for many years to come.

Then there is the refusal to cooperate with Turkey in the field of tourism, as happened recently with Egypt. This would strike a significant blow to the Turkish state budget. Of course, this step would hurt many Russian travel agencies, already on the brink of collapse following the measures taken after the Russian airliner was blown up over the Sinai Peninsula.

In addition, no one could prevent the Syrian military from shooting down another Turkish aircraft near the border areas (such precedent was set two years ago) as a “symmetrical response.” Incidentally, the Russian General Staff has announced that “all targets, representing a potential threat” to aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces will be destroyed.

How radical Moscow’s answer will be, will become clear in the coming days. However, it is certain that by shooting down a Russian plane, Ankara has done itself a great disservice and destroyed the shaky agreement on military operations against the Islamic State, recently put into place between Russia and NATO.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.