“Lesser incidents have resulted in world wars breaking out in the past,” one Russian official joked gloomily in a conversation with me when I asked him what he thought about the downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber by the Turkish air force on Tuesday.
The gloom in Moscow has more to do with the very limited options it has in how to respond to the dramatic events over Syria – or, as the Turkish government insists, over its territory – when the Su-24 bomber, which, on the final phase of its mission, was brought down by two Turkish F-16 fighters. The reality is that relations between Russia and Turkey are way too important and cannot be endangered despite such a dramatic development.
President Vladimir Putin’s tough language after his meeting in Sochi with Jordan’s King Abdullah II probably didn’t make anyone lose any sleep in Ankara. Putin accused Turkey of back-stabbing Russia and of complicity with terrorists, comments which were coupled with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelling his preplanned visit to Turkey.
I would even go so far as predicting that despite the public anger in Russia over the downing of the Su-24, millions of Russian tourists will probably continue to visit Turkey for all-inclusive holidays. And Russian gas will be delivered, as before, to Turkey, in full contractual volumes.
But from the Russian point of view, it is difficult to figure out what was going through the minds of the Turkish military brass when they instructed their pilots to push the launch button upon suspecting that a Russian incursion was taking place. Such decisions are taken at the highest level and blaming local military commanders or the “existing procedure” would be foolish and naive.
From the Russian point of view, it is difficult to figure out what was going through the minds of the Turkish military brass when they instructed their pilots to push the launch button …
Even if the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace – and note, I say “even if”, as it was crystal clear that it did not pose any danger to Turkish territory, as it was on a mission to bomb ISIL fighters on the ground in northern Syria.
Incidentally, Turkish planes have been known to violate Syrian airspace regularly, and no one made a fuss over it in Damascus, where the government is taking a pragmatic stance on these incursions.
Apart from Russia, all members of the US-led coalition that has been bombing ISIL in Syria for the past year were technically violating Syrian airspace practically daily. Although with the latest vote at the UN Security Council on the joint battle with ISIL, this has now been rendered legitimate.
Risks outweigh benefits
Furthermore, as the thinking goes in Moscow, the risks of bringing down that plane overweighed any possible benefits, if there were any at all, for Turkey. Privately, Russian officials surmise that NATO must have known about the orders to shoot down the Russian planes.
Any fears that Russia may retaliate militarily against Turkey for the loss of its plane have been allayed by the Kremlin. Its official spokesman said that no military response will be taken by Russia in response to the incident.
That was probably a very timely statement, as it came hours after the downing of the plane, when emotions were running high and the possibility of a kneejerk reaction was very real; although initial reports that one pilot was dead and a Russian soldier was killed during the search operation did push some hotheads in Moscow to start calling for revenge.
Usually, the first 24 hours after any crisis – no Russian/Soviet plane has been downed by a NATO country since the 1950s – are the crucial ones.
The possibility of a costly mistake is huge. Both sides may be tempted to score political points and appeal to domestic sentiments to be seen as tough on the opponents. So the good thing is that the danger period has passed without any drastic developments that could have been regretted later.
Cause for optimism
But there is also cause for optimism, if anything positive can be extracted at a time when human lives are lost and bad feelings prevail. It is possible that this incident may finally push politicians to realise that coordination of the battle with ISIL between the US-led coalition and Russia, Iran – and, possibly, the Syrian government, as well – is essential if more tragedies in the skies and on the ground are to be avoided.
The Russians have been asking for such coordination since they started their bombing campaign in September in Syria, but Western governments have been reluctant to respond positively, accusing Russia of trying to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s position by bombing not just ISIL, but the “moderate opposition”, as well – whatever “moderate” means these days.
The hope now is that the downing of the Russian plane may help resolve this issue and finally introduce a proper exchange of information and intelligence between all sides. Especially as UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is itching to join the coalition of the willing and send British planes to bomb ISIL in Syria and not just in Iraq, making the skies an even more crowded place. Why on earth Cameron wants to do that is anyone’s guess.
Out of tragedy, something positive may emerge. A long shot, I know, but in this dangerous and confusing situation, that is the best we can hope for.
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.