Is a NATO – Russia Showdown in the making?
People are now wondering if the Cold War is over or if there has been a quarter century armistice? On Tuesday, A Turkish F-16 Shot down a Russian fighter that they claim was intruding on Turkish airspace – the first NATO attack on a Russian aircraft since 1953.
Complicating the issue is the actual location of the Russian jet. While Turkey has insisted that it was shot down inside Turkey’s airspace, there are unnamed Pentagon sources that are saying American information shows the aircraft as being shot down inside Syrian airspace. There’s also the fact that Turkey is routinely accused of violating the airspace of its neighbors – Greece, Syria,Iraq and Armenia.
It is an incident fraught with ramifications – one with NATO firmly on Turkey’s side, but Russia intent on punishing Turkey and the militia who killed its pilot after safely ejected in the area where the aircraft crashed. An official from Russia’s defense ministry warned Turkey today: “Anyone threatening our air forces will be destroyed.”
NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels after Turkey requested it following the incident. And, a planned meeting between the Russian foreign minister and his Turkish counterpart has been cancelled at the last minute as diplomatic tensions worsen between the two nations.
Unverified sources have claimed Russia is sending a warship across the Dardenelles from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. It is also moving a Cruiser ‘Moskva’ off the coast to strengthen air-defenses – just as French and US carriers are on their way. They have also suspended military contacts with Turkey and are ordering Russian fighter aircraft to escort each ground strike.
Clearly, France’s Hollande, America’s Obama, and NATO’s Stoltenberg hope that this situation not escalate. NATO ambassadors called on Ankara to show “cool-headedness” following an emergency meeting in Brussels. Diplomats present at the meeting told Reuters that while none of the 28 NATO envoys defended Russia’s actions, many expressed concern that Turkey did not escort the Russian warplane out of its airspace.
However, it appears Putin is not taking the shooting down of a fighter jet lying down.
Clearly, Putin’s actions across the world displayed his toughness in dealing with what he perceived Russian interests, and we are witnessing strong threats of retaliation from him regarding this incident. In addition to Syria, there have been aggressive military actions in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine. In the past few years, Russian aircraft have regularly been intercepted close to NATO airspace. This has prompted NATO nations to station more interceptor aircraft in the Baltic nations and Poland.
Turkey has continually warned Russia and Syria not to fly into their airspace, and has said to them it would shoot any planes violating that. The Turkish military shot down a drone which violated their airspace last month. No one has said who the drone belonged to, but the Turkish government claims it was made in Russia. BBC News also reported a Russian jet had to be told to turn around after wandering into Turkey and a Mig-29 caused some issues for Turkish jets.
In October, when Russian planes flew into Turkish airspace two days in a row, NATO – of which Turkey is a member – released a statement which said: “Allies strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace, and condemn these incursions into and violations of NATO airspace. Allies also note the extreme danger of such irresponsible behavior.
There has been some debate about whether the aircraft was actually in Turkish airspace and if it received warnings. Konstantin Murahtin, the co-pilot from the downed Russian jet who survived the ground fire by US-armed rebels and who was rescued by the Syrian army, said that contrary to official reports that Turkey had somehow warned the Russian jet “10 times” that it would fire, Turkey had in fact given no warning.
Warning or not, Putin didn’t back down then and on Wednesday, he increased the rhetoric by accusing Turkey of assisting ISIS. Putin said, “This is a stab in the back from accomplices of terrorists…Lots of oil and oil products from ISIS controlled areas flow to Turkey. If ISIS has so much money, tens of millions, maybe billions, and is acting so brazenly, it is because of protection by a country’s (Turkey) military.”
“Following the downing of the plane, Turkey, rather than engaging with Russia, ran to engage with NATO, as if Russia had downed the plane. This incident will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.”
Those hoping for an easing of tensions from the West were disappointed. Obama, who has been seriously criticized for not acting in Syria came down firmly on Turkey’s side. In a press conference after meeting with French President Hollande, Obama said that Turkey had a right to defend its airspace and charged that Russian air activity near the Turkey-Syria border has contributed to the crisis.
“This points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations,” Obama said. “They are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries.”
Hollande, who is scheduled to see Putin on Thursday said Russia must pledge to target ISIS terrorists instead of moderate Syrian forces opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, a requirement Obama also insisted upon during Tuesday’s press conference.
There is still the question of Syria and Assad. The French president hoped to press the U.S. to team up with Russia against ISIS in Syria and ignore the fact Bashar Assad is still in power. The downing of the Russian fighter gives Obama an excuse to rebuff Hollande, on the idea Russia can’t be trusted. Apparently it seems from the press conference that Obama was unwilling to compromise.
Since Turkey is a member of NATO, Obama probably told Hollande that France has to support Turkey, not Russia because of NATO. That is unlikely since Hollande is meeting Putin and he wants to leave his options open at this time.
Interestingly enough, events in the past few weeks have moved Hollande to the center of European leadership and his meetings with Putin and Obama only cemented the fact. German Chancellor Merkel’s leadership is in question given her policies toward Greece, the civil war in the Ukraine, and the Middle Eastern refugees flooding the European continent.
This means that Hollande may have a big impact on what happens in the next week.
What’s Likely to Happen on the Ground
The problem isn’t long term regional interests as much as two adamant leaders. With two leaders (with major egos) like Putin and Erdogan at loggerheads, it’s unlikely that either will back down, which could make this incident flare into a major worldwide crisis.
First, there is the issue of the militia in the area. Reports say that they are “moderates” supported by the US and Turkey. However, there are reports that they shot down a Russian helicopter that was trying to rescue the pilots. Apparently, they killed one SU-24 pilot as he was hanging helpless in his parachute. The copilot was rescued by Syrian forces.
One problem was the bellicose attitude of the militia, which only creates more international tension. Reuters reported: a deputy commander of a Turkmen brigade told reporters, “Both of the pilots were retrieved dead. Our comrades opened fire into the air and they died in the air,” Alpaslan Celik, a deputy commander in a Syrian Turkmen brigade said near the Syrian village of Yamadi as he held what he said was a piece of a pilot’s parachute.
This will be a major embarrassment for the US and its already failing policy of arming some militias in the Syrian war. It will also worsen relations with Russia.
If US supported militias were in the area, it will give Russia a stronger reason to push for Western support for president Assad and the end of support for the militias fighting him. Given the bad publicity of such an atrocity, America might back down.
Another question will be the activities of Russia and Turkey in Syria, especially in regards to potential conflicts against each other. In the region of the shoot down, the Turks consider the Syrian Turkmen to be their kin and have always stood by them as ethnic Turks. This has meant that they have felt free to extend their influence across the border into Syria.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Russian jets are providing cover for advancing Syrian ground forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies, which could spark a Turkish military response and nearly guarantee another incident. A possible Turkish response would be helping the militia to carry out strikes against Russian targets deeper in Syria.
Another problem is the installation of Russian surface-to-air missiles close enough to the border to stop Turkish aircraft. Russia is currently moving S-400 SAM to protect its airbase in Latakia. But, they have the ability to reach Turkish airspace 50 kilometers away.
There is also the situation off the coast. Although the French and American fleets far outclass the Russian and Syrian navies, there could be another incident. The most likely would be a Russian SAM missile launched at either an American or French carrier aircraft carrying out operations in Syria. It’s not an exaggeration to say that such incidents lead to wars.
In the end, either Putin or Erdogan will have to back down (which would damage them politically back home) or both of them will have to be able to say that they won. However, much depends on other world leaders like Obama.
If Obama decides to pull support for anti-Assad militias and support some sort of Syrian government with an Assad presence, Putin might back down a bit militarily, knowing that he won politically.
Erdogan, however, wants to extend control over parts of Syria and wants to control the national desires of the Kurds. For him, a continuing Syrian civil war allows him to extend his control in Syria and attack Kurds in Syria. In that regard, he wins as long as the war continues at its present course. In other words, the status quo makes Erdogan a winner – all with NATO help.
It’s going to be hard to make both Putin and Erdogan happy. And, that means that the chances of another incident will continue until everyone is in agreement on what is to happen in Syria.
In that case, the battle may move beyond the battlefield of Syria and into the economic world
The Economics of the Shoot Down
This event is more than just a military event between Turkey and Russia – or even Russia and NATO. Its ramifications are vast and most likely be economic. That was evident as gold jumped about $7 an ounce in the few minutes following the news of the Russian aircraft being shot down.
One important issue is energy supplies as Europe heads into winter. Turkey gets 57% of its gas from Russia (and Turkey is Russia second biggest non-domestic market for gas after Germany). Turkey’s alternative supply routes include Iran, which just signed a $5 billion trade deal with Russia and is unlikely to come to Turkey’s aid.
With Russia Defense Minister stating that the “downing of the Russian warplane is a ‘hostile act’,” adding that the defense ministry is “devising a set of measures to respond to the incident,” it seems cutting Turkey’s gas supplies would be a strong first step. In addition, Russia’s Rosatom is scheduled to start building Turkey’s first nuclear plant next year
But, it doesn’t end there as Russia supplies a lot of gas to Europe. In an interesting twist, Western Europe may need to step up its cooperation with Russia’s Gazprom because of the strained the relationship between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey and Russia are also partners on a major new natural gas pipeline, known as TurkStream, which will eventually allow Russia to send its natural gas into the heart of Europe via the Turkish-Greek border rather than through Ukraine.
Europe receives about a third of its gas from Russia with a third of that volume flowing through Ukrainian pipelines. Gazprom wants to end or at least cut its gas transit through the Ukraine after the current transit contract expires in 2019. The hope was that the Turkish pipeline would carry some of that gas.
With Turkey and the Ukraine as undesirable gas pipeline partners, Putin’s hope relies on a proposed northern pipeline – a Baltic Sea link directly to Germany known as Nord Stream-2.
But, this is just proposed and although Putin wants to make it a priority, many European nations are leery about it. Nord Stream-2 would bypass many Eastern European nations and leave the EU with one gas pipeline carrying 80% of their gas needs.
But, Europe may not have a choice. Gazprom said Tuesday that key markets for Nord Stream-2 are boosting gas purchases from Russia, with total European exports in early October gaining almost 36 percent from last year’s level.
Turkey may not have many options either and needs to be careful as they increase the rhetoric against Russia. If Erdogan effectively kills the Turkish pipeline over this incident, then Ankara had better hope Moscow and Tehran don’t succeed in restoring full control of Syria to the government of president Assad, because then, there’d be no hope for the Qatar line either.
Is Russian Air Power facing some challenges?
Pentagon’s Colonel Steve Warren pointed out the Russian jet shootdown was “a Russia-Turkey issue,” and that US was not involved, he also said Russia was “exaggerating” its achievements in Syria.
Since the Russians began their air campaign in Syria, the Monitor has been monitoring the number of sorties by Russia. And, although they are more aggressive in carrying attacks than the US Air Force, their level of air operations, given the number of aircraft stationed in Syria, isn’t that high. At the best of times, it seems that they are only carrying out 2 sorties per aircraft per day. And, after a couple of days of such heavy operations, they must severely reduce their operations.
The US Air Force, for example, during the war on Iraq was able to maintain a sortie rate of 4 per aircraft per day for long periods of time.
This indicates that there are some logistical problems for the Russians.
The Sukhoi SU-24 is a supersonic, all weather attack aircraft developed in Russia. The aircraft features a variable-sweep wing, twin-engines and a side-by-side seating arrangement for its two crew. It was the first of Russia’s aircraft to carry an integrated digital navigation and attack system. It was designed and built about the same time as the F-16.
The SU-24 is also used by both the Syrians and Iranians, although they probably don’t have the same sophistication and upgrades that the Russian Air force fighters have – just as the Turkish F-16s aren’t as sophisticated as the American ones. It’s also a given that Russian and American fighter pilots are better trained than Turkish.
The incident may also curtail Russian air strikes a bit in the short term as Russia has decided to provide fighter escort for each ground strike formation from now on. Since Russia originally moved only 4 dedicated fighter aircraft into Syria, they will need to fly at least one fighter squadron into Syria, in addition to the maintenance and logistical support for them.
No Longer a Hypothetical: Russian Plane Shot Down
By Christopher A. Preble
November 24, 2015
Earlier today, Turkey, a NATO ally, shot down a Russian jet, killing at least one pilot, and leaving the other in the hands of insurgents on the ground (and possibly also dead). The Turks claim that the Russian jet was operating in Turkish airspace, and was warned away on numerous occasions. Thus, when its F-16 fighter jet attacked the Russian SU-24 bomber, it was a legitimate act of self defense. The Turks have called for a NATO meeting later today to explain their side of the story, and, presumably, game out next steps.
The Danger Games: Russia and NATO Collide
By Heather A. Conley
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 24, 2015
Washington abruptly awoke to the news this morning that its NATO ally, Turkey, had shot down a Russian military jet which, according to Ankara, had crossed into Turkish airspace after being warned repeatedly. This may be the first time that a NATO military aircraft has shot down a Russian warplane since the Korean War. This is history no one wanted to make. Two Russian pilots ejected from the SU-24; one pilot is reported dead with early accounts suggesting Syrian Turkmen fighters fired upon the pilots as they descended. Unconfirmed reports indicate that a Russian search and rescue helicopter, sent to rescue the pilots, may also have been shot down, possibly with a U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missile.
The Future of Political Salafism in Egypt and Tunisia
By Georges Fahmi
November 16, 2015
Salafi movements in the Arab world have for the most part refrained from political participation. Instead, they have typically focused on preaching their conservative religious ideas and engaging in social welfare activities aimed at changing society from below. The Arab uprisings that broke out in 2011 changed that. Egypt’s Salafists decided to establish a number of parties after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. And after Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime fell in Tunisia, their Tunisian counterparts established Salafi parties as well.
What to do and to don’t in response to the Paris attacks
By Dr. Kimberly Kagan and Dr. Frederick W. Kagan
Institute for the Study of War
November 15, 2015
The ISIS attacks in Paris mark a step-change in the threat that group poses to the West. The tactics employed came straight from the battlefields of the Middle East into the heart of Europe. The group hit multiple targets simultaneously without detection by French security services, which are among the best in the world, despite a series of arrests aimed at disrupting this operation. That capability demonstrates superior planning ability, resilience, and operational security. The successful use of multiple suicide vests shows that ISIS was able either to smuggle them all the way to Paris or, more worrisome, build them from materials available in Europe without detection. Europe’s proximity to the Middle East and relatively open borders make it much more vulnerable to this sort of attack, but Americans should be very concerned that a group with these capabilities could also penetrate our homeland. We must draw the right conclusions from this incident in the context of regional and world crises if we are to maintain our security in the months and years to come.
How to Destroy Islamic State (and How Not To)
By Michael Doran, Michael Pregent, Eric B. Brown & Peter Rough
On June 10, 2014, a little over a year ago, the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) shocked the world by seizing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The government in Baghdad watched helplessly as its security forces crumbled and tens of thousands of residents fled their homes. Less than three weeks later, IS proclaimed itself the caliphate—that is, the legitimate successor to the state led by the Prophet Muhammad—thus casting its victory as the start of a new era of Islamic ascendancy. The rise of IS electrified Islamist extremists around the world. It also embarrassed President Barack Obama, who only months before had jauntily dismissed it as the “jayvee [junior varsity] team” and had repeatedly promised the American people an end altogether to conflict in the Middle East.
After Paris: French Voices on the Challenge of ISIS, Syria, Iraq, and Islamist Terrorism
By Gilles Kepel, Fabrice Balanche, and Olivier Decottignies
November 24, 2015
On November 23, Gilles Kepel, Fabrice Balanche, and Olivier Decottignies addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Kepel is a professor at the Institute of Political Studies, Paris (Sciences Po), and coauthor of the forthcoming book “Terror in France: The Origin of the French Jihad,” to be published in January. Balanche is an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2 and a visiting fellow at the Institute. Decottignies is a diplomat-in-residence at the Institute and former second counselor at the French embassy in Tehran. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.
U.S. Carrier Deployment Opens a Strategic Opportunity in the Mediterranean
By Cmdr. Ryan T. Tewell
November 23, 2015
Three days after the Paris attacks, the USS Harry S Truman Strike Group departed Norfolk for Middle Eastern waters to close the so-called carrier gap. Despite the noteworthy timing, this deployment was previously scheduled and not in response to the latest ISIS terrorist attacks in Egypt, Lebanon, Mali, and France. Once the ship arrives in the region, its air wing, which includes about fifty strike aircraft, will substantially increase the coalition’s ability to hit ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. If it follows the pattern of the past several years, the carrier will head directly to the Persian Gulf, but it could take better strategic advantage of the current situation by conducting strikes from the Eastern Mediterranean before continuing on to the Gulf. The operational effects of bombing ISIS targets from either body of water are very similar. Yet the French carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently conducting strike operations from the Mediterranean. If the Truman were to delay its Gulf arrival for a short time, join the de Gaulle, and launch its aircraft as part of French-led strikes, it would make a clear statement of solidarity with a close ally and signal U.S. commitment to other NATO allies in the region as well.