LONDON – The details of how and why a Russian jet was shot down near the Turkish-Syrian border remain unclear, but one thing can already be said: Russian President Vladimir Putin has misjudged his Turkish counterpart and former friend, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to Turkey’s military, one of its F-16s fired on a jet over Turkish territory, after the plane’s pilots ignored 10 warnings to leave. So NATO’s second-largest military is claiming to have shot down an aircraft in anger that was probably Russian, and is now “consulting” with its NATO allies.
Russia’s defense ministry confirmed one of its jets had crashed, but said the plane was flying in Syrian airspace at an altitude of 6,000 meters when it was fired upon from the ground. Putin blamed “backstabbing” and said his country’s plane was 1 km inside Syria when hit. So there’s a dispute.
These kinds of skirmishes happened between NATO and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, but make no mistake; this is a big deal. What comes next will be a test of maturity for all sides. European stocks slid on the news with Russia’s main index down by 4 percent.
By now, after flatly denying that a Russian missile brought down Malaysian Airlines MH-17 over Eastern Ukraine last year (despite a meticulous Dutch investigation), and pretending for days that there was no evidence that a bomb destroyed a Russian airliner over Egypt in October, Russia’s word counts for zero in matters of aviation. But that doesn’t prove it is lying on the all-important question of where its Su-24 was when it was hit.
Turkey summoned Russia’s ambassador on Friday to demand that Russia stop bombing Turkmen rebels in Syria, who hold territory just across the border and are openly supported by Turkey. Ambassador Andrei Karlov and his military attache were reportedly told that Turkey would “not be indifferent” to any harm that came to Turkmen civilians. In order to bomb these rebels (who are part of the Free Syrian Army, rather than Russia’s proclaimed target, Islamic State), Russian and Syrian aircraft have to fly very close to Turkish airspace. So it is conceivable that Erdogan has simply decided to warn Putin off.
The Turkish version of events is also plausible. Russian jets have been flirting with Turkish airspace ever since Putin began his military intervention in Syria. Turkey may just have decided enough was enough.
Whichever version of events turns out to be accurate — or even a combination of the two, in which the Russian Sukhoi had strayed into Turkish airspace and was shot down as it veered back into Syria — it is clear that Putin has misjudged Erdogan. As one Russian report on the website Federal News Agency put it, Turkey claimed to have shot down a Russian drone in its airspace in October, shortly before Turkish parliamentary elections, and threatened that manned aircraft would face the same fate:
But no one attributed any significance to these words; they were thought to be empty election rhetoric on Erdogan’s part. As we can see, the Turks don’t limit themselves to rhetoric.
Both Putin and Erdogan are strongmen, who treat domestic politics as a scorched earth battle for power. Russia’s repeated humiliation of Erdogan before his audience at home, both by bombing Turkish clients just across the border and repeatedly breaching Turkish airspace, was therefore a high-risk strategy.
Putin could afford to be relaxed about Erdogan’s earlier threats to stop buying Russian natural gas in retaliation: Where else would Turkey find enough gas to substitute a fifth of its energy needs? But the Russian leader should have recognized that Turkey, already host to more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees, has a lot at stake in Syria and, in Erdogan, a president who takes rejection personally.
Bashar Assad, after all, was once a feted ally who went on vacation with Erdogan’s family. When the Syrian leader ignored Erdogan’s advice and mediation efforts in the face of unarmed pro-democracy protests in 2011, Erdogan took it as a personal affront and spearheaded the campaign to unseat Assad.
Israel discovered something similar in 2008, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched an invasion of the Gaza Strip, immediately after returning from a visit to Erdogan in Ankara. The two men had been discussing Erdogan’s efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria, not an invasion of Gaza. Erdogan felt played and broke off Turkey’s alliance with Israel, becoming instead one of its fiercest critics.
Putin, too, was supposed to be Erdogan’s friend and ally, as they faced down together U.S. and European complaints about the crushing of media freedoms and democratic institutions in their respective countries. Instead, the Russian leader has ignored his burgeoning economic and political relationship with Turkey to pursue his goals in Syria.
The best way for Putin to figure out how Erdogan will respond to any further Russian moves is probably to imagine how he himself would react. The two men have a lot in common.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times and the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times. He is based in London.
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