How the West Can Defuse Russian-Turkish Tensions

NATO must work to keep aggression from spilling over.

Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet has transformed Russian public interest in the country’s strategy in the Middle East. In the initial stages of the Russian campaign in Syria, about 14% disapproved of it while the majority of people had a blurry understanding—apart from what had been in the mainstream news—of what Russia was seeking in the region. The disastrous incident with the Su-24 jet has triggered what may be called a “Russian paradox”: while most people still have a vague notion of what the Russian upsurge in the Middle East is all about, public support for it has quadrupled, with various groups of people, from rank and file to the experts to the opinion-makers, demanding a decisive retaliation against Turkey and more harsh actions against “radical Islamists” in Syria. “We were stabbed in the back” by "accomplices of terrorists": President Putin’s initial assessment, presented in tough terms, may have sounded too emotional, but it is a label that will surely endure and shape Russian discourse on the issue for a long while.

The possibility of such a tragedy has been discussed from the very beginning of the Russian campaign. Experts warned that once there were casualties, it would be a blow to the notion of the success that the Kremlin expected. Russian intelligence forces have noted that weapons capable of reaching Russian planes, at the heights where they operated, hadn’t fallen into the hands of the “ radicals” they bombed. In this respect, Moscow was expecting a “provocation” from the U.S., Saudis or Qataris, but not the Turks, given their dynamic bilateral relations. Certainly, Moscow knew about the ties of different groups in Turkey, including some in the government, with ISIL and other extremist Sunni groups. But Russia calculated that Ankara’s main objectives were twofold: toppling Assad, and undermining the Kurds with cheap oil from ISIL-controlled facilities as a profitable perk. None of them, in Moscow’s vision, included a direct attack on the Russians—even though disagreement over Assad has poisoned relations for a long while. The Russian narrative of the ISIL threat acquired another dimension when President Putin, speaking at the G20 Summit in Turkey, strongly condemned the financial feeding of terrorists and vowed to expose those who support ISIL through oil purchases.

When the downing of the Russian plane took place several days later, there were four specific factors that took the Russians from being speechless to being infuriated.

First, the very fact that the shoot-down took place was shocking. Regardless of Turkey’s claims, Russian officials continue to believe that Erdogan’s team overreacted. The explanation presented by the Turks as “concrete grounds” for the downing didn’t seem to hold up against criticism, no matter how you approach them. If the jet was entirely in Syrian airspace—as the heat signature allegedly reveals—then the downing was not legal in any case. If the plane indeed violated Turkish airspace and Turkish forces were able to spot it and react, the argument goes, was it all that necessary to shoot it instead of escorting it out, considering recent incidents in which other countries shepherded Turkish jets out of their airspace? In this case, however, the calculus behind the arguments seems somewhat stretched, since doubts remain how the ten warnings that the Turkish side claims it had signaled were delivered within the seventeen seconds the plane allegedly spent in Turkish airspace.

Erdogan’s later lamentations that Ankara did not know the jet was Russian seem to clash with his initial statements that Russians had repeatedly violated Turkish airspace before, and thus the Turkish government didn’t feel guilty for shooting it down. The Turkish president’s claim that he had tried to call Putin but “Putin has not returned my call” seems incredibly clumsy, since it came days after the catastrophe and bore no evidence. Finally, Prime Minister Davutoglu’s statements that Russia’s plane had to be downed because it violated Turkish airspace and because Russians have bombed the Turkmen in the region demonstrate a poor logic, mixing up root causes: was it ultimately about the Turkmen or the airspace violation?

Second, Russians were appalled by the video images of the two pilots being shot by the “Turkmen rebels”—who later turned out to be members of the right-wing Turkish group “Grey Wolves”—while the emergency helicopter that arrived to rescue the pilots was shattered by a rocket fired from the ground. Soon after the incident, media in the region reinforced the narrative put forward by the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry of the downing as a pre-planned provocation rather than a spontaneous response. That, too, helped shape a perception of an intentional hostile act rather than a “tragic mistake.”