The Geopolitics That Allowed Turkey to Down a Russian Jet

NATO has Turkey’s back, but its brazenness surely raises doubts in Western capitals.

A Russian military jet lands at Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, November 7
A Russian military jet lands at Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, November 7 (Russian Ministry of Defense)

If it had been accident, we wouldn’t be talking about it. If the Turks had misfired, if they hadn’t understood the target, hell, if they had outright denied doing it, today’s article would be quite different.

But a NATO state shot down a Russian fighter. On purpose. And no apology seems forthcoming.

Why? When you know your enemy has nuclear weapons, when you know to antagonize them could spiral into Armageddon, why take that kind of risk?

Here now are the geopolitical conditions that allowed Turkey to shoot down a Russian fighter jet — and why things didn’t spiral into World War III.

The cliff notes

  • Turkey has exploited its position as a NATO member now to the hilt, using the shield of the alliance to send a direct message to the Russians in a very aggressive bid to expand Turkish influence in the Arab world.
  • What message is that? One is rather direct: don’t violate Turkish airspace. But the other seems more murderous: Turkey will kill Russians to secure its interests in Syria.
  • But all of this is causing a very serious backlash against Turkey’s NATO position and is highlighting the costs and benefits of Turkey as a member. That is not in Turkey’s interests, since key NATO allies do not share Ankara’s views on Syria and the last thing Turkey wants is for its allies to talk about how little they have in common strategically.
  • Finally, the Russians can’t respond with hard power, but they will utilize what soft power they can to both harm the Turks and to rattle NATO, with the ultimate goal of rendering the alliance fractured.

So, why would Turkey shoot down a Russian jet?

The basic reason: because they could. It appears that the jet was in Turkish territory; that’s cause enough. The Turks are as immune as anyone can be from Russian hard power. If the Russians retaliate, Ankara could go to NATO and invoke Article 5, the mutual defense clause. It wouldn’t be many steps then to Mutually Assured Destruction.

Since this was deliberate, the Turkish government wanted to send a message to the Russians in a clear and obvious form. The basic message is that Russia must be careful not to even appear to violate Turkish air space: that secures Turkey from Russian spying and makes the Turkish government look strong to its own citizens.

But the deeper message is darker: Turkey will act violently to secure its interests in Syria against the Russians. Since 2011, Turkey has sought to oust Bashar al-Assad. That’s partially religious: many of the rebels are fellow Sunnis. It’s partially humanitarian: Turks are horrified by the scale of the slaughter. But neither of those are enough to motivate a state like Turkey’s to dance with nuclear fire.

Turkey occupies geographically and demographically powerful Anatolia, the seat of Roman power in Asia in ancient times and the heartland of the once-grand Ottoman Empire. Historically, Anatolia has often ended up dominating its neighbors in Syria and Mesopotamia, since those are borderlands against other naturally powerful states based in Egypt and Iran.

But after defeat in World War I, Turkish elites have had their power kept in check. First it was the British and French in Syria and Iraq. Then the politics of the Cold War forced Turkey to join NATO and combine against a very real Soviet encroachment.

But the limits on Turkish power are weaker now than they’ve been in a century. Both Iraq and Syria are in chaos; the Russians no longer have a land border with Turkey and being part of NATO means Europe as well as the United States are not threats to Turkey.

It doesn’t take much to convince a Turkish statesmen that now is the time to rebuild Turkish influence in the shattered Middle East.

Installing a friendly government in Damascus is to secure much of Turkey’s southern flank. That’s good enough for any state, but Turkey also has a powerful, armed transnational secessionist movement that could take up to 40 percent of the country should it ever gain independence. (Turkish Kurdistan is around 118,000 square miles; the whole country is a bit more than 302,000 square miles.)

But the Kurds aren’t limited only to Turkey; they have succeeded in carving a fiefdom in Iraq and are very close to getting another in Syria. That’s bad precedent for the Turkish state. Should a Syrian Kurdistan join forces with an Iraqi one, it might well try to unify with Turkish Kurdistan.

The best solution to the Kurdish question is a new, Turkey-friendly regime in Syria; such a regime could work with Ankara to manage the Kurds.

And things were going so well, too

Up until the Russian intervention, Turkish interests were well on their way to being satisfied in Syria. Even the emergence of Daesh, the Islamic State, did not rattle Ankara overtly: Daesh’s enemies were also largely Turkey’s and if Daesh siphoned off Turkish radicals to die in battlefields against Assadists and Kurds, all the better. The lack of antagonism between the two was highlighted when Turkey was able to send forces into Syria itself to extricate soldiers guarding a Turkish enclave earlier this year. Despite being surrounded by Daesh forces, the whole thing went off with nary a hiccup.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davuto─člu answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011
Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davuto─člu answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011 (NATO)

Daesh has its own reasons for not stirring the mighty Turkish army just yet, though ideologically they seek to conquer Ankara as well. Both Turkey and Daesh seem content to ignore one another, with Daesh using Turkey as a conduit for recruits and a place to sell black market oil and Turkey allowing Daesh to kill some of its enemies. Even after Daesh attacks within Turkey, Ankara has shown little inclination to strike back.

But then the Russians came and Vladimir Putin threw down the gauntlet to save the tottering Assad regime. Had the Assad government collapsed and anarchy prevailed, Turkey would have had an opportunity to intervene as a peacemaker, building influence and earning a chance to disarm the increasingly powerful Kurdish factions gaining ground in the anarchy. But with Russian forces on the ground, it looks quite unlikely the Assad regime will fall anytime soon.

So Turkey needed to find opportunities to make Russia’s intervention as expensive as possible

Nobody disputes that the Russian jet wasn’t aiming at Turkey; the Turks shot it down anyway. With friendly Turkmen militia nearby, this was as close to direct support as Turkey could get away with. Exploiting its odd-shaped border to change the battlefield is a clever way to leverage Ankara’s NATO status.

From a propaganda side of things, shooting down a Russian jet directly has a much bigger effect than merely arming rebels with anti-aircraft weapons. While the long goal of Turkey must be to support factions capable of killing more Russians, this single act highlights Turkey’s displeasure with the Russian intervention more than anything else could

But beyond Turkey, few are cheering for a downed Russian warplane

The Americans, culturally paranoid of war with Russia (and rightly so), are rattled that a NATO member could be so reckless. While the Americans do not want Russia in Syria, such brazen violence against Russia is a far greater threat tinged with mushroom clouds.

Meanwhile, Europeans are even less thrilled. The French are trying to put together an anti-Daesh coalition that could well include the Russians: the enemy of my enemy and so forth. The British, war-weary and preferring to avoid Syria as much as possible, also fear the consequences of an escalation with Moscow.

But at least the French and British agree with Washington that Russian power and influence is something to be limited. The Germans are more mixed on the issue: Germany needs as many export markets as possible and Russia’s raw minerals and energy are critical to Germany’s economic well-being. Further escalation with Russia, especially military in nature, is not in Berlin’s interests.

Moreover, Europe has a deep-seated anti-Turkish bent that goes back to the Ottoman invasions of Europe 500 years ago. Lately, it’s been the anti-migrant movement that’s been giving wind to an old prejudice: Germany is full of Turkish workers. This mobilizes the European right: what’s worse is that Turkey’s own actions also stir up Europe’s left.

Ankara under Erdogan has grown more and more autocratic, curbing individual freedoms while espousing political Islam, actions that win it no friends in Europe’s left of center political scene. Cap that off with a refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman role in the Armenian genocide and it’s easier to understand why many a European Facebook comment calls to throw Turkey out of NATO.

Stirring up the nuclear-armed Russians then strikes most Europeans as stupid at best. To further alienate allied NATO citizens is certainly not a Turkish interest, since without NATO Russia could well be bombing Turkey right now.

But this demonstrates a divergence of interests between Turkey and NATO, revealing a split that was sealed up after World War I

Just a century ago Turkey was a rival to much of Europe. Its defeat in World War I ended that rivalry on the Allies’ terms; the Cold War made it a useful base to the Americans who replaced the great Western European imperialists. But what use is Turkey for NATO these days? That is becoming harder to answer.

NATO’s primary goal remains to keep Europe protected by American military power so that Europeans themselves don’t have to arm themselves too much. This keeps the threat of European unification a distant one: should Europe ever unify, it could well be fatal to America’s worldwide dominance.

Once it was the Soviets who threatened that unification and under those circumstances Turkey, a Soviet border state, made a good deal of sense. So much sense, in fact, that during the Cuban Missile Crisis Turkey became a valuable bargaining chip: Soviet nukes were removed from Cuba in exchange for American nukes withdrawing from Turkey.

But if Turkey seeks to restore some of its influence in the Arab world, and it’s very much acting like it does, such moves are being done beyond the interests of NATO. NATO is not about securing or expanding into the Middle East: that hardly serves the goal of keeping Europe stable and largely disarmed. While NATO does see the region as a security threat, it doesn’t have the ambitions of Ankara to reorder it.

Which means that Turkey using NATO as a shield to advance itself is going to cause division. The more blatant it becomes that Turkey’s interests are not NATO’s, the more the chatter to eject Turkey will grow.

Meanwhile, nobody should expect the Russians to take this sitting down, though they too are limited in what they can do

Like the Americans, the Russians have a well-founded fear of war with NATO: they know they can’t fire back. But war is hardly the only tool in the Russian kit. Russia has already warned its tourists off Turkish beaches; when millions of Russians visit each year, a Russian tourist embargo will hit Turkish wallets.

Russian president Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Voronezh, August 5, 2014
Russian president Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Voronezh, August 5, 2014 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia can also ramp up its war in Syria, targeting and attempting to destroy Turkish proxies. The Turkmen rebels near Hatay will tempt: Russian ground forces aren’t far away in Latakia and there’s very little the Turks could do against a Russian ground force butchering their allies.

Moreover, the Russians, through their formidable propaganda networks, could drive up the chatter regarding Turkey’s ejection from NATO; Moscow’s cyber warfare division is quite advanced. Even minus obvious plants, more than a few English-speaking Facebook commenters and Redditors have fallen for the masculine allure of the Putin propaganda machine: despite the United States bombing Daesh in far greater volume and to larger effect, smaller Russian bombing raids are celebrated like goals in a soccer match. These same forces are helping to drive a public relations crisis between NATO and Turkey.

Finally, the Russians could well dare Turkey to do it again by violating their airspace twice. That’s a risky proposition. The Turks might just shoot down another jet and if they did so, Putin would be hard-pressed by his nationalist base to strike back in some very public way.

If the Russians could achieve a break between European NATO and Turkey, it would be a massive victory, cracking the very foundation of America’s alliance networks and creating space for Russian influence in more than a few areas. It’s for that reason it’s likely the Americans will expend a great deal of energy trying to smooth things over between Turkey and Europe.

A wise NATO would be one to find a solution to the Iraqi and Syrian Civil Wars, and soon, before Turkish opportunism and Russian machinations threaten the alliance

If NATO, or even merely the United States, can fill the power vacuum in the region with something before the Turks do, it will slow or even thwart the ambitions of Turkish elites to recapture past glories. This is a key reason why I propose keeping Turkish troops in their barracks in the event of an international solution to the Daesh crisis. Turkish ambition could founder NATO if left unchecked.

But time is running out. Turkey has abandoned attempts to achieve peace with the Kurds. If it feels it cannot win that war without settling accounts in Syria, Turkish power will move south. It could clash with Russian power again and if it did, NATO would find it hard to justify coming to Turkey’s aid.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 30, 2015.