Turkey's recent downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber could spell disaster, not just for Turkey and Russia, but for Turkey's Western allies, including the United States. Luckily, Russian President Vladimir Putin has refrained from military retaliation in the face of a Turkish foe, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who can be just as bold and arrogant as Putin himself.
The bottom line is undisputed: A Russian fighter jet en route from a mission in Syria was shot down by the Turkish Air Force on November 24, 2015. One of the Russian pilots lived, but the other died, along with a Russian marine who was attempting a rescue operation. This engagement between Turkey and Russia marks the first case of a separate conflagration between the outside powers active in Syria’s civil war.
From there, accounts diverge. According to Russian officials, the plane was flying squarely in Syrian territory following an anti-ISIS mission, when it was shot from the sky without warning— a “planned provocation” by “terrorist accomplices,” according to Putin. Turkey disputes this version of events and insists that the plane, whose nationality it claims it did not know, received 10 warnings to leave Turkish airspace before being hit. The surviving pilot maintains that no warning calls came in, while the Turkish military has released audio recordings as evidence.
The U.S. State Department has backed Turkey's claim that the Russian bomber infringed on Turkish territory and, along with NATO, iterated Turkey's right to defend its airspace from interlopers (though both are also pressuring Turkey and Russia to bury the hatchet).
Only those involved know the truth. But the rest of the world must grapple with the fallout, both between Turkey and Russia, and in Syria.
Of immediate concern is the prospect of outright military conflict between Russia and Turkey. Putin was quick to insist to audiences at home and abroad that Turkey would face “tragic consequences” for its “huge mistake.” It's not histrionic to wonder if the man who invaded Georgia in 2008 on the eve of the country's admittance to NATO under the guise of defending the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—and who still denies sending Russian troops into Ukraine—would resort to violence in Turkey, too (though at least Turkey, unlike Georgia and Ukraine, is not in Russia’s so-called “sphere of influence”). After all, there has been no love lost between Turkey and Russia, given their historic clashes over the Black Sea, Turkey's violent repression of pro-Soviet communist movements in the 1970s, and more recent polar-opposite views on the Syrian regime. (To think that only a year ago Erdogan and Putin were hashing out energy deals in private summits.)
Meanwhile, the Western world is anxious that any outbreak of violence would, through Turkey's alliance with NATO, draw Western allies like the United States into a full-on military confrontation with Russia.
With so many world powers potentially involved, observers have asked: Could we really be that close to World War III?
The answer, thankfully, is no. And surprisingly, Putin has been the one defusing the powder keg.
Perhaps the similarities between Putin and his firebrand counterpart, Erdogan, have lent Putin insight into the dangerous game of chicken he would be playing if he escalated tensions with Turkey. Putin and Erdogan have shared troubling similarities for a long time: changing government rules to maintain their own power when term limits threatened to force them out; purging political opponents from the military and police; and meeting their respective countries' oppressed minorities with force rather than reconciliation. The fact that Turkey was willing to shoot down a foreign plane (whether or not Turkish officials indeed knew that it was Russian at the time) is itself evidence enough that Turkey is not a pushover who shies from a fight.
Perhaps, then, Putin understands his adversary—or at least has a healthy respect for the second-largest army in NATO. Either way, Russia’s retaliation thus far has been diplomatic and economic, not military.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev codified economic sanctions against Turkish agricultural goods—not a toothless gesture, since Russia is Turkey's second-largest trade partner, to the tune of several billion dollars annually—as well as restrictions on Turkish companies in Russia and Turkish people working for Russian companies. The Russian Foreign Minister advised Russian tourists to avoid Turkey due to the risk of terrorism and announced an end (starting in January 2016) to Turkish citizens' visa-free travel to Russia. The closest Putin came to military force was Russia's deployment of anti-aircraft missiles to a Syrian airbase, from where they have sufficient range to hit Turkey.
These measures are more punitive than escalatory. When compared to what initial fears portended, Putin’s responses seem downright deliberate and restrained.
However, just because Turkey and Russia aren’t on the brink of war doesn’t mean they face smooth sailing. Tensions may endure, since a formal Turkish apology could be years away—or may never come. Turkey has a track record of long grudges in diplomatic scuffles. Following Israeli commandos' killing of eight Turkish nationals aboard a Turkish aid ship intent on breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010, Turkey insisted that Israel apologize and maintained icy relations for nearly three years, until U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a hard-won breakthrough, in 2013, in which the Israeli Prime Minister apologized to Erdogan. In the current incident, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu emphasizes that Turkey will not apologize for “doing our duty.”
Overall, Russian-Turkish relations are likely to simmer rather than boil over. Already Erdogan has danced around an outright apology with repeated expressions of “sadness” and insisted that Turkey has “no intention of escalating this incident.” U.S. officials are practically begging both countries to soothe tensions. After enough time has passed for Russia to save face with its strident sanctions, economic ties and tourism may rebound. After all, the sale of Turkish products helps Russians, too—and Russia is hardly in the position to turn down economic boosts.
Unfortunately, even a gradual return to bilateral normalcy won’t change Russia and Turkey’s political differences on Syria and the ISIS problem.
Russia and Turkey both publicize their efforts to fight ISIS in Syria, but each accuses the other of ulterior motives. Turkey (along with other skeptics in the West) complains that Russia targets anti-regime rebel groups rather than ISIS, due to its longtime support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. For its part, Russia resents Turkey's support for anti-Assad rebel groups and argues that Turkey secretly helps ISIS in order to reap the economic rewards of allegedly free-flowing oil from ISIS territory in Syria.
Already the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition is struggling to get Russia fully on board. Now, the coalition members’ man-hours and diplomatic pull are being used to defuse bilateral hostilities. But Turkey and Russia are big players with serious fire power that, if applied sincerely to the anti-ISIS effort, could help severely undermine the grisly group.
Russia and Turkey have every reason to take ISIS seriously: ISIS claims responsibility for the crash of a Russian commercial airliner on October 31 that killed 224 people, and Turkish officials blame ISIS for suicide bombings that killed 33 during a July 20 youth march in Suruc and another 102 at a train station in Ankara on October 10 (not to mention the Paris attacks that killed 130 on November 13).
Both Turkey and Russia may be better off letting the divisive downing of Russia's plane fade into the past. Perhaps they should focus on stabilizing Syria and incapacitating the the death cult threatening the Middle East and, increasingly, the world.