By Patricia H Kushlis
The Turkish military’s downing of a Russian SU-24 was no accident but neither was the Kremlin’s overflight of Turkish territory nor its attacks on Turkmen living in regions of Syria close to the Turkish border.
Russian violations of Turkish airspace have been multiple. The Turkish government has issued numerous warnings to the Kremlin privately and publicly including ten to the SU-24 – corroborated by US military intelligence soon after the Turkish announcement that one of its F-16s had shot down a Russian fighter jet – before firing the missile that downed the plane.
The Turks’ response should not have come as a surprise. Turks tend to anger slowly but watch out when they reach that boiling point. This time Moscow pushed that envelope too far.
Were there other alternatives?
Especially since the SU-24 reportedly flew over Turkey’s Hatay Province for only 17 seconds? Erdogan – after cooling off - now suggests there may have been.
But what were Turkey’s options since Moscow had consistently ignored its neighbor’s repeated warnings?
With Russia a permanent member on the UN Security Council and wielding veto power over resolutions what chance would the Turks have had there? The OSCE of which both are members is too weak an arms control organization to consider or enforce a decision of this import. And invoking Article 5 of the NATO Charter would have simply been too drastic an action.
More of Putin's improvisational geopolitics
Although New Yorker columnist and foreign affairs expert Steve Coll described Vladimir Putin’s shaping of geopolitics as “improvisational” this season in the November 30, 2015 edition of the magazine, he did not so likewise characterize Erdogan's. Could the Turkish downing of the jet have simply been meant as a “shot across the bow,” so to speak, but the heat seeking missile was just too accurate and the F-16 too fast for the much slower SU-24 designed for low altitude ground attacks? Doubtful.
Russia’s response – to bar Russian tourists from visiting Turkey and Turkish produce from entering the country will hurt the Turkish economy but it will also decrease the importation of yet more foreign food from entering Russia just as the winter bites – as a part of Putin’s bizarre anti-foreign and support domestic agriculture campaign?
Much of what the Turks import to Russia is fresh produce – and Turkey has a much longer growing season that Russia does. The Kremlin’s edict will also deprive Russian middle classes of sun, sand and mud treatments at Turkish resorts near and on the Mediterranean but it is already getting late in the season for that. (photo above left: Russian mudbathers at Sultaniye (near Dalian) by PHKushlis, 2006)
The Kremlin’s denials of wrong doing – including its near immediate release of the SU-24’s supposed flight plan that steered clear of Turkish airspace was all too true to form as was the later denial by the navigator - after rescue by the Russians - of even hearing one warning.
More Russian disinformation that stretches credibility beyond the limits
But here’s the problem: Moscow’s terrible credibility record. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly used alternative history as a signature of the Kremlin’s multiple disinformation campaigns, a kind of information warfare aimed mostly at the West but also his domestic audience that has been spinning at record speed at least since Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
The Russians now say that they will accompany their SU-24s (ground attack planes and no match for F-16s) with fighter jets to protect them - but maybe the Kremlin should consider striking ISIS targets and steer away from bombing non-ISIS groups supported by the Turks, US and others that oppose Bashir Assad.
It was, after all, an ISIS affiliated group – not Turkmen – that blew up the Russian passenger plane filled with mostly Russian families returning from Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheik on October 31. Yet the Russian air war appears still appears to be focused on protecting the Assad regime come hell or high water.
Actually, it would be easy for the Russians to keep their two bases on the Mediterranean if that's their bottom line - as it should be. However, it would mean a focus on real ISIS targets while dropping their fealty to Assad (and other dictators) in return for retention of those bases. Moreover, Moscow could offer Assad and family a safe haven somewhere in Russia – complete with a luxurious villa on a coast – and turn its military's attention and fire power to its real enemy - and I don't mean Ukraine.