After two Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24, which Turkey claimed violated its airspace, the Russians have been put in a difficult strategic position. On the one hand, it is vital for the Russians to prove to the world that its forces are potent and that its support is meaningful. Not responding would make the Russians look weak, even though one of the goals of Russia’s involvement in Syria is to demonstrate strength. On the other hand, Russia’s deployment in Syria ultimately pales in comparison to the kind of force that Turkey could bring to bear if it was so inclined. Therefore, the Russian retaliation for the downing of its fighter should be measured, or else risk antagonizing the Turks even more.
Russia’s response is already becoming clear and now places the ball back in Turkey’s court. In public statements, Moscow is emphasizing that it believes Turkey is to some degree in league with the Islamic State and that Turkey’s moves reflect this. In terms of military readiness, the Russians announced they will deploy air-defense systems in the area. Lastly, Russia is ignoring the Turkish warning and continuing to support the Bashar al-Assad regime’s offensive against the Turkmen-inhabited borderland between Syria and Turkey, where the Russian Su-24 crashed yesterday.
Russia has made it a point to repeatedly emphasize a link between Turkey and IS in response to the downing of its aircraft. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Nov. 24 that those who had carried out the attack on the Russian Su-24 were “the accomplices of terrorists.” Speaking to Russian Channel One TV on Nov. 25, Putin re-emphasized this point, accusing the Turkish government of supporting a radical branch of Islam that was detrimental to regional stability. In a statement on Nov. 25, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Turkish actions amounted to “de facto protection of Islamic State,” adding that Russia was considering sanctions against Turkey because of financial interests held by Turkish officials in Islamic State. This is an embarrassing situation for Turkey, one that puts it on the wrong side of a growing agreement to increase the fight against IS among major powers with military assets on the Turkish border.
The Russians are adding some bark to their bite as well. Immediately after its Su-24 was downed, a spokesman for the Russian military General Staff announced that its Moskva missile cruiser, currently deployed in the eastern Mediterranean, would move to the coast off of Latakia in Syria. The cruiser is outfitted with a Fort aid defense system, the naval version of Russia’s S-300 anti-aircraft land-based missile system. On Nov. 25, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin had authorized the deployment of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system at the Hmeimim military base from which Russia has been operating many of its sorties in Syria. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper reported on Nov 12. that the S-400 had already been deployed in Syria, but this was denied by a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, who said journalists had misidentified what they had seen on the airbase.
It remains to be seen whether the Russians will in the end deploy the S-400s – it would not be the first time that the Russians would use the threat of moving S-400s to accomplish a political goal. But if it follows through, this would be a significant military move. It is obviously problematic for the Turks because the Russians have cut off military contact with Turkey and Turkey can no longer assume it can fly near Latakia without a Russian response. But this is also an issue between Russia and the United States, and indeed any country, including France or Israel, that might undertake aerial operations in Syria. The Russians can use the provocation to legitimate this move without seeming overly aggressive.
The third and perhaps most crucial thing to note is that the Russians are ignoring Turkey’s warning shot. Even in the Turkish version of events, the Su-24 only violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. Indeed, this move was actually a response to the Russian-backed Assad offensive in the Turkmen-inhabited region on Turkey’s border with Syria near the southern tip of Hatay province. Al-Jazeera reported yesterday after the Su-24 went down that Russia and Syria had reduced their bombardment activities after the incident. The Turkish news website Internet Haber reported that Turkmen rebel groups took advantage of this situation and pushed Assad regime forces back to the town of Kesep and out of the strategic hill of Kizildag. On the morning of Nov. 25, however, reports surfaced that Russian planes had continued their bombing campaign against Turkmen positions in Kizildag and that Assad regime forces followed this up by pounding the Turkmen positions with artillery.
The Russian-backed Assad offensive has had success already – Assad forces control the strategic village of Gimam and much of the Turkmendagi region. If Assad’s forces can retake Kizildag, they will be in an advantageous position to gain further ground in this entire border area. The Turks now must decide what they are going to do in response. Shooting down the Su-24 has not resulted in worldwide support for its position and it has not stopped the Russian-backed Assad advance against the Turkmen buffer zone that provoked Turkey to act in the first place. Thus far, Turkey seems to be downplaying the incident – both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have made conciliatory statements. Erdogan stress his lack of desire for escalation and Davutoglu insisted that Russian-Turkish relations should not evaporate simply because of a communications failure. Either way, Russia is making its move. With its slap on the wrist having failed to change Russian behavior, Turkey must now decide if it is willing to do more.