Volume IV, No. 3 @eurasiaanalyst November 30, 2015
The Hard Way
By Susan J. Cavan
The recent downing of a Russian bomber by Turkish authorities has pushed the debate over appropriate responses to Russia’s aggressive behavior around NATO border countries to a new, and admittedly more dangerous, level. While it is clear that most NATO countries would prefer not to see an escalation of animosity in relations with Russia, it is also clear that if Russia’s probing of NATO airspace and response times are left unchecked, these activities will continue and their scope will expand. Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in support of Bashar al-Assad (despite claims to the contrary, Russia is not in Syria specifically to fight Daesh/ISIL, it is in Syria to prop up Assad) enabled the broadening of its violations of NATO airspace, specifically over Turkey.
While Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan have much in common, particularly in terms of preferred style of presidential rule, the national interests of Russia and Turkey diverge significantly. (1) Russia’s annexation of Crimea refocused attention on the clash of interests, with all the accompanying historical overtones. The issue of Crimea was set aside briefly last year, as the two presidents considered a future of energy cooperation and mutually beneficial business with the announcement of a putative deal to replace the South Stream pipeline project with a “Turkish Stream” pipeline that would consolidate Turkey’s position as an energy hub. Throughout the Putin-Erdogan summit, diverging interests and approaches in Syria remained an issue, but Putin noted: “We certainly need to find an acceptable solution – first of all, acceptable for the Syrian people and all political forces in the country. And, definitely, we’re going to stay in contact with all participants in this process, including our friends in Turkey.” (2)
Just one year later, “friends” would not be the first term Putin would employ to describe the Turkish leadership now. In fact, there is a propaganda campaign to denigrate all things Turkish in Russia these days. From Putin’s hyperbolic response to the downing of the Su-24 as a “stab in the back” to claims that Turkey is financing Daesh through the purchase of oil and the recent Russian decision to sanction Turkish products, Russian officials are encouraging anti-Turkish rhetoric, while stopping short of implementing its full range of economic levers, particularly regarding energy supplies to Turkey. In retrospect, if December 2014 represented Putin’s neighborly approach to cooperation with Turkey, the autumn of 2015 has seen a more hardened, bullying engagement.
The change in tone and approach toward Turkey is not unexpected. Putin has made clear since his return to the presidency that his goals for Russia include a resurgent naval presence in the Mediterranean, and Turkey has always presented an obstacle to such Russian aspirations. While Russia’s decision to engage militarily in Syria has much to do with buttressing one of Russia’s few remaining allies in the region, it is also meant to protect and empower its naval base at Tartus, as noted by this report in The Moscow Times from September: “[A Russian] General Staff source said that the expansion of Tartus into a full-scale naval base was not connected with any imminent Russian intervention in Syria’s civil war. Instead, after its expansion, “[Tartus] will simply be able to accommodate first- and second-rank ships from the Russian Mediterranean flotilla.” (3)
NATO General Philip Breedlove also noted the Russian installation of air defense capabilities (now, as of 11/30/15, in use by Russia in Syria) that seem at odds with its stated mission to fight Daesh, “I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA15s or SA22s.” Indeed, General Breedlove suggested Russia had more expansive goals of trying to establish an exclusion zone (or “A2AD”): “We are a little worried about another A2AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean.” (4)
Turkey, likewise, has had reason for concern with Russian intentions since the invasion of Crimea: In March of 2014, Turkey reportedly scrambled fighter jets when a Russian surveillance plane violated its airspace along the Black Sea coast (5), and in March 2015, Russian Su-30 and Su-24 attack planes rehearsed “penetrating air-air-systems” in “mock attacks” on US and Turkish ships involved in NATO operations, prompting the Pentagon to describe the incident as “provocative and unprofessional.” (6) In October of this year, two consecutive days of Russian violations of Turkish airspace provoked NATO to hold an emergency session on the issue, after which Russia’s action was criticized and it was noted that Russia would be “responsible for any undesired incident that may occur” if the airspace incursions happened again. (7)
Putin’s foreign policy decision-making has been the subject of occasionally acrimonious speculation over the last few years, but the core of Russia’s actions was evident long before in the Russian President’s rhetoric. Dissatisfied with the power arrangement of the post-Cold War world, Putin’s Russia has sought to create a “multi-polar” world in which Russia might return to playing a dominant role in international affairs. To this end, one of Russia’s core interests has been to rebuild its naval forces and provide the necessary access corridors for Russia to become a significant actor in both the Arctic region and the Mediterranean/Atlantic. (8)
A confrontation with Turkey might not have been the optimal approach in working toward the goal of naval access, but it was the nearly inevitable course, given the personalities and interests involved. The difficulty for Putin in the Turkish decision not to suffer Russia’s persistent probing is that the downing of the Su-24 makes Russia appear weak in the rough terms of Putin’s own international calculations. And while many imagine that a strong Russia presents a threat, it is when Putin is perceived as weak, that Russia is at its most dangerous.
As such, it seems likely that Russia will seek retribution in some way against Turkey (and by extension NATO), despite any agreements nominally intended to deescalate this recent crisis. It is also probable, given his particularly background and training, that Putin would choose to stage a distraction from the real action, and since the Baltic States represent a credible (NATO) target of Russian pressure, it would be wise not only to respond to any provocations there quickly and decisively, but to keep eyes on Turkey and the south simultaneously.
1) Please see, for example, Palatial Presidencies, Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, Volume 4, No. 2, www.eurasiaanalyst.org.
2) “Putin: Russia forced to withdraw from South Stream project due to EU stance,” Russia Today (RT), December 1, 2014, 17:30, https://www.rt.com/business/210483-putin-russia-gas-turkey/.
3) Why Russia Is Expanding Its Naval Base in Syria, By Matthew Bodner, The Moscow Times, September 21 2015, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/why-russia-is-expanding-its-syrian-naval-base/531986.html.
4) NATO General Worried About Russian Military Build-Up In Syria
Agence France-Presse 7:30 p.m. EDT September 28, 2015, via Defense News, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/europe/2015/09/28/nato-general-worried-russian-military-build-syria/73002834/.
5) Turkey Scrambles Jets After Russian Flyover,” Sky News, March 8, 2014, http://news.sky.com/story/1222489/turkey-scrambles-jets-after-russian-flyover.
6) Russian combat jets conduct ‘mock’ attack runs on NATO warships, By Jamie Seidel, News Corp Australian Network,
7) NATO denounces Russian incursion into Turkish airspace, By Ayla Jean Yackley and Humeyra Pamuk, Reuters, October 5, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/06/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-russia-idUSKCN0RZ0FT20151006#isWiQdT6Fvx9dE8s.99.
8) “Blazing a Trail: Thoughts on Russia’s New Naval Doctrine,” By Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, August 13, 2015, www.eurasiaanalyst.org.
By Susan J. Cavan