Putin’s third front. A Turkish oneThe Syrian conflict has entered a new phase. Nobody seemed to have wanted it, but the things got inevitably escalated nevertheless.
A Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian bomber. According to Ankara, that plane had violated Turkish airspace and had not responded to the warnings, after which a rocket was fired at it. Some reports say that a helicopter, sent to search for the crew, was also shot down. The latter had to make an emergency landing in a neutral territory. At least one of the marines in the helicopter was killed.
Moscow categorically denies any violation of Turkish airspace by the aircraft. During a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein, Vladimir Putin referred to the incident with the Russian Su-24 as “a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices.”
The Syrian conflict has entered a new phase. Nobody seemed to have wanted it, but the things got inevitably escalated nevertheless.
Keir Giles, expert on the Russian army at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House, believes that the attack on the Russian Su-24 by Turkey was “more or less inevitable... given the fact that Russia has a habit of disregarding another countries’ airspace. Such violations occur regularly at the other end of Europe, Russian planes are regularly spotted over the borders of the Baltic States and countries of Northern Europe.”
Aside from the military and technical components of the incident, a political aspect raises quite a natural question: why now? After all, the protests, including the official notes by Ankara, have been voiced frequently. Turkish officials were speaking to the Russian ambassador, sending notes; President Erdogan was issuing statements, etc. Apparently, the Kremlin has regarded the Turkish protests as some kind of a ritual, and did not pay a major attention to them. Who even dares threaten Russia rising from its knees, whose bombers from Murmansk are flying around Europe to bomb the targets in Syria? Apparently, the huge country has no other airfields closer to the destination.
This was one of the reasons why the conflict had to move to a more escalated phase, it was in the air. Recently, an unmanned aerial vehicle was shot down on Turkish territory, which later has been identified as a Russian one, though Moscow denied it.
Politically, the escalation happened because of the following two events.
Firstly, Syrian Turkmens, being under the auspices of Turkey, are fighting both against the Islamic State and the forces of al-Assad. The latter was the reason they have been repeatedly bombed by Russian aircrafts. Time and again, Ankara has issued demand to stop the bombing, to which no attention was paid by Moscow. It seems that the downed Russian bomber was returning to base after an operation against the Turkmen, and that became the last straw for the Turkish leaders.
Secondly, Vladimir Putin has just completed his visit to Iran. Anti-Turkish trend was clearly visible in the policy of the two states. From Ankara’s perspective, a dramatic action was needed to show the real possibilities of the country to defend itself. Moreover, NATO membership guarantees the military power of the whole alliance behind Turkey, which is not something to be ignored by Russia and its newfound ally of Iran.
For a while, the reports of the downed plane were followed by quite restrained comments from Moscow. Everyone awaited the decision of the head of the Russian state. And it came, followed by hysterical demands to punish, denounce, terminate any civil aircraft operation, and cease trade and economic relations. In general, we have seen a mandatory set of demagoguery by Russian patriots seeking to appear more patriotic than Putin himself.
The relations between Russia and Turkey have entered into quite a hostile phase. Economic projects are stalled, and one can forget about the Turkish Stream for the long term. Something else has to come up in the Kremlin in order to punish Turkey economically and financially. They do not have to think from where the citizens of their country should import fruit, vegetables, and clothes; they are busy with geopolitics.
From a political point of view, the enmity between Turkey and Russia will have a direct impact in the South Caucasus – first of all, in Azerbaijan, and to some extent in Georgia. Baku will have to keep a distance, which will not be appreciated in both capitals. A potential axis of Moscow-Ankara-Baku will definitely not come to life.
Regarding the Ukrainian issue, Turkey will adopt a clearer position in favor of Kyiv. At the same time, the support for the Crimean Tatars will be strengthened. Until recently, the Turkish officials preferred to act only with eloquent words. Now, other approaches are possible.
The fresh losses among Russian troops in Syria, for whatever reason, pose quite a challenge for Putin. He will either get more involved in the Syrian adventure and raise the stakes up to the ground operation involving Russian troops, or initiate a gradual pullback.
If he chooses the former, he risks opening the Turkish front along with Ukrainian and Syrian. Will Russia be able to handle another one?