(Republished from November 24th 2015)
ANKARA, TURKEY – Today Turkish F-16’s have downed an Russian Su-24 Russian fighter jet in northern Latakia, near the Turkish border. This is a major event and a considerable escalation, being the first direct engagement between NATO and Russia in the last decades. Its unclear if it will be a game changer or just an short term but alarming episode.
However I would like to explore in this content several myths and contexts that have been circulating in the public opinion’s speech, as well as Russia’s response by boosting up propaganda and disinformation using its Sputnik, Russia Today and unaffiliated “troll” blogs, website, launching several myths and “conspiracy’-friendly stories.
We know that two F-16’s have been scrambled after a Russian jet violated Turkish air space, again. But this time, after dispatching 10 warnings from the Turkish pilots, and a 5-10 minutes range to comply and communicate a response. Not only did they not respond but also refused to exit the airspace, in this effect, the Turkish pilots engaged, under clear and rational legislative back-up.
The fighter jet crashed in Northern Latakia, 3 kilometers from the Turkish border. One of two pilots that parachuted have been killed while falling by the Syrian Turkmen Brigades; that they’ve recently bombed, before entering Turkish airspace; not ISIS, not the Islamic Front, but the Turkmen Syrian Brigades. The helicopters send to evacuate the pilots have came under fire by the rebels and had to turn around, while ones was shut down, killing one pilot.
Update November 25: the second pilot of the fighter jet has been saved in an evac operation that lasted 12 hours.
There has been a lot of complications and clearly Russia expected to enter a State’s airspace as it please, without respecting international norms and protocols.
But as we know, this is not new. Moscow uses to violate other State’s airspace in order to conduct what is known as “air-bullying” – a very mild variation of Power projection.
Russia’s Air Force: A Tradition for Air Bullying.
Russia’s air bullying is known to happen, mostly because it’s one of the only way to “project” a certain amount of power over the Alliance or partner states. They do the same in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom and on several times even approached the United States. Of course, as mentioned, there are rules of engagement and air protocols, like releasing warnings, escorting to exit and establishing radio contact.
But the Russian are also known not only refuse to comply, but on several times, to “play with fire”:
- Conduct mock nuclear strikes on Stockholm or London; the Russian bombers carried nuclear unarmed weapons to simulate nuking those cities.
- “Congratulated” the US for the 4th of July when they’ve approached California, in the “Russian bombers in California” episode.
- Establishing radio contact and making jokes.
- Putting the Turkish fighter jets, in Turkish airspace, under radar lock (which means targeting for imminent strike) – a very serious incident which could have caused the Turkish pilots to even parachute and crash the jets.
- Interrupting NATO exercises by intruding the designated air space.
It has become an even more frequent and common practice these days, as it was during the Cold War.
As of the emergency consultations Turkish, NATO consultations in Ankara and the Alliance overall talks with ambassadors at Brussels, they formulated a press release stating that NATO call for: Diplomacy, Negotiations and De-escalation.
It was no Article 4 request, and nothing as even a tease of Article 5 invocation. As many conspiracy-hunters liked to call Turkey of bringing Russia in a war intentionally with NATO.
It’s just a “big boys” game, checks and muscle flexing; one of a particular character that is clearly not for the faint of heart.
Russia has made several declarative replies, but in reality, Erdogan (when he gave that command) knew that Moscow cannot respond using hard power toolsș a military response was unlikely. The reasons why, are many, but overall Turkey has managed to keep Russia in-check throughout the region.
Russia in Turkey’s Geopolitical Check: Energy Security
Russia’s hybrid tool of Gazprom is heavily depended on the current discussed project of Turkish Stream, which would use Anatolia as a gateway to selling gas to Europe, after the Ukrainian pipelines are under scurtiny from the government in Kiev, as response to the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas.
Putin always thought of Erdogan as a unconventional friend, hence why he called the action: “a stab in the back“. But also was Gazprom’s promise of a 10,25% discount of gas exports in Turkey, which was not respected. Thus making BOTAS (Turkish state owned company) to sue Gazprom for not respecting the deal. When two opportunist regimes collide, a mutual-benefiting friendship is not the long-term trait.
As Turkey is Russia’s second biggest gas market, behind Germany, with over 70 million consumers and an energy thirsty industry, the “cutting of gas” strategy can’t work here. Not only that Turkey could find quick alternatives, with more expense (of course), from Azerbaijan, UAE and Turkmenistan, but also Russia’s economy will take one of the biggest hits it ever seen.
Limited Military Response: Proxy and Deterrence
Putin cannot respond in a direct military move against Turkey, not even as an individual state. Russia has a poor infrastructure around Turkey that would facilitate or sustain a war, while it’s degraded economy is anything but ready for a large scale conflict as one with Turkey would be. Furthermore, Turkey is a NATO member with the 2nd largest armed forces in the Alliance. It has its own military industry which would easily sustain at least 50% of the needed equipment and hosts advanced US advanced weaponry on its territory, especially at Incirlik. The case of a war is unlikely and ridiculous. Although that does not mean that a subversive respond would make its place.
Given Russia’s implication in the Syrian Civil War, the Kremlin has began forging close ties with Turkey’s main enemy: the Kurdish militias. Moscow recognizes politically the PYD (Patriotic Union Party/ Syria) and cooperates with its military with, the YPG/ YPJ – closely linked with the PKK through the Konra-Gel congress. Putin can respond by arming and supporting the YPG and PKK. And that itself could be a serious escalation. But economic sanctions will most likely paint the bigger picture – from both sides.
Nonetheless it goes without saying that the Turkmen Syrian Brigades will become High Value Targets for the Russian airstrikes, which from personal experience I can say that would fuel anger through the Turkish population and especially the nationalist segment of it. The Turkmen from Syria, are somewhat regarded as Turkey’s lost brothers from the Ottoman Empire’s breakdown.
Other response measures would include deterrence, as sending military assets in the region, as the Moskva destroyer in East Mediterranean, and pointing them towards the Turkish border.
Russia in Deterrence
The fact that Russia simply responded by sending the Moskva destroyer near the coast, looks like something NATO will do, which means that the table has turned.
Russia has entered deterrence mode, or as some would call it: “Putin is getting a taste of its own medicine.” But through Turkey’s military action we see that the only way to discourage Moscow from doing aggression is by aggression itself – fighting fire with fire. While this is nothing new, Kremlinologists advocated for years that the only language the Russian authorities speak is the one of hard power. Sure, it’s difficult to translate such a theoretical realist concept in practical policy, due to its risks and high implications, but it’s certified it works.
In the future, we will have to face this truth even more often, or we could face it before it faces us. Putin’s so called “Tsarist” overpower has been basically deconstructed for its admirers.
Propaganda: Another RUssian response
In the current international scene, internet has played a major role in war waging, political transitions, uprisings and what-knot, so the value and impact of it has only grown.
Russia not being able to respond military, has however, boosted its “troll”activity on commentary sections; advertised RT, Sputnik or “dubious” blogs content in order to hijack the public opinion.
Since the 21st Century war-waging is highly depended on public perception, the informational war is an extensive component. Kremlin knows that very well. That’s even how they’ve clean the “crime scene” in Ukraine, intervening in Syria as “anti-terror effort” marketing campaign, for the more less-sounding but more true “helping Assad stay in power”. And now posing as a “friend in need” for Hollande and “avenging” France in Syria – great publicity stunts.
The following are just several myths that can be found circulating and repeat in a cyclical way, almost as a pattern:
- Russia is bombing ISIS; Turkey is supporting ISIS, that’s why they’ve downed it.
First of all, Russia is not “bombing ISIS”, 80% of the air strikes were concentrated against the anti-regime Rebels, especially in Latakia and Aleppo, where Turkmen Syrian Brigades, Free Syrian Army and many civil protection groups operate. They are using barrel bombs and dump-type of munition, and as the Syrian Observatory says, collateral damage is at a high level. This Syrian Democratic Council, is the main political opposition body, which is the internationally recognized legal representatives of the Syrian population, and the Russians are making sure that any group linked with them or at least claiming a link is annihilated. Sure, this means civilian casualties, as any revolutionary movement, the population is the main fuel of it.
The Syrian Turkmen Brigades, that executed the Russian pilots, are also acting against the regime; so as the dictators in the ’89 Revolutions in Eastern Europe, Assad is designating them, as all the opposition, as being “terrorist”. While there are indeed Salafist groups through the “umbrella” term of Opposition, many of those, as Jabhat al-Nusra are isolated and antagonized by many of the groups.
Secondly, Turkey downed the plane because it entered it’s airspace and refused to comply, after several other incidents of this kind in the past.
- Propaganda example: Turkey, at NATO’s command, wanted to drag Russia in a war.
As we all saw, NATO’s response was for calm and de-escalation, not only was Article 5 out of the question but neither was Article 4 requested. It’s safe to assume that Turkey’s actions were questioned by most the NATO members.
Further more, President Obama called Turkey to negotiate with Russia and calm tensions.
- Russia is the real fighter against the ISIS, everyone should join them, not attack them.
Actually the first and “Real Fighter” against ISIS is the Combined-Task Force “Inherent Resolve” Coalition lead by the United States, and composed by over 20 States, including Turkey, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, United Kingdom, Jordan, Iraq, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark; that has been operating in Syria and Iraq since June 2014. As represented above, Russia’s main priority in Syria is to eliminate Assad’s political and military opposition.
The Coalition also supports the legitimate representatives of Syria at this time, the so called Syrian National Coalition; that opposes both Islamic Front (Al-Qaeda led, Salafi rebels) and ISIS.
This situation, while unprecedented, in a high tension time, would not be a game changer, nor would it be “an act of war.”
It could however send a strong message to Russia that “air bullying” could become deadly. Even so, the Kremlin has its way of “cleaning itself”, using its informational war-waging tools complimented by the fertility of conspiracy theories, that people root for. In the end, the downing of a Russian jet was a live-proof of how Russian power can be deconstructed. While it was a firm action, it was also a fair one, for that a state’s border is only as strong as the armed forces enforces it to be. And that includes the airspace.
*Writing from Ankara, Turkey