By Mehmet Yegin
The Russian Federation has a typical way of dealing with NATO member countries in security confrontations. Moscow does not directly and openly confront these countries but rather abuses the gray area in which certain encroachments are too insufficient as to require the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Within this gray area, Russia commits a violation and then propagandizes to other NATO member countries not to regard the matter as a serious threat that would necessitate NATO involvement. Thus, using salami tactics, Russia expands its influence on the ground without directly confronting NATO all the while pushing ahead to attain its goals.
As it relates to Russia’s encounters with Turkey, Ankara had indeed enjoyed closer relations with Moscow, especially compared to its other NATO counterparts in Eastern Europe that are more familiar with Russia’s tactics. In fact, Turkey’s gradually developing relations with Russia, primarily on the basis of economic and energy cooperation, even became subject to criticism from Turkey’s Western allies. Turkey also chose to disregard its differences with Russia when it came to Syria and attempted to solve Russia’s minor violations with an appeasement policy.
Nonetheless, these cordial relations ended with Russia’s bold move to intervene in Syria in line with Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah. With this move, Russia showed its intention to choose strategic influence in the Middle East over its cordial relations with Turkey. This came to constitute a breaking point not only because the two countries’ differences in Syria peaked, but also because of Turkey’s eventual reception of Russia’s support for the PYD along with its violation of Turkish airspace as inimical. Considering such developments, Russian President Putin’s “stab in the back” rhetoric is indeed implausible.
Why did Turkey shoot down the Russian jet?
Following the downing of the jet, some experts evaluated the incident in terms of an overreaction on the part of Turkey. Certain contentions were voiced employing a line of argument that an airspace violation which only took seconds should not be reason for such a strong reaction. There was also news about NATO members suggesting that the Russian jet should have been escorted out of Turkish airspace as a softer alternative. Nonetheless, the issue is not about the duration of this single Russian violation; rather it is about the nature and prospects of Russian violations.
This is not the first and only time that Russia violated Turkish airspace. It had also done so last month. Turkey has already escorted Russian jets out of its airspace not only at the Syrian border but also above the Black Sea – in March this year. Russian missile systems have also harassed Turkish air forces in the past. In this way, it can be seen that Russian violations have come to exhibit an iterative and expanding quality that can be regarded as designed to test the limits. At some point Turkey had to stop this. Otherwise, Russia would continue to commit ever invasive violations.
After the crisis, further escalation would be between Russia and NATO rather than Russia and Turkey seeing that the latter took the matter to Brussels and provided solid evidence that the Russian aircraft indeed violated Turkey’s airspace. From this point on, NATO’s acquiescence of further Russian violations directed at Turkey would severely damage its deterrence capability. Thus, it is of low probability that Russia escalate tension to an all-out confrontation with NATO. In this sense, it is certain that diplomatic attempts to de-escalate the tension will take place. Such is rational and should be welcomed by all parties involved.
As Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul stated, Russia’s reaction will probably come in an asymmetric way. In terms of political reactions, Russia will focus on fighting ISIS in order to rally others against Turkey. Here, a growing international consensus that ISIS is the main target in Syria has become more apparent after the attacks in Beirut and Paris and the plane explosion in Sinai. Expectations for a united coalition against ISIS have even come to the fore. Thus, Russia will probably attempt to ride this wave in an attempt to drive Turkey into a corner. As Putin made certain accusations of Turkey’s relationship with ISIS after the event, it may be expected that this policy will deepen. Besides, Turkey may be accused of harming the possibility of Russian cooperation with West against ISIS. Russia will also probably push for Turkey’s isolation in the Syria talks, and increase its support for Assad and the PYD. Nonetheless, Russia has already more or less walked this line up until now.