Turkey’s move against Russia: Cold War redux?

The downing of the Russian jet was breaking news, but it wasn’t completely surprising for Russia and Turkey watchers.

Turkey shoots down Russian warplane on Syrian border
Although Turkey has a point in downing the Russian jet from an international law point of view, this righteousness is unlikely to translate into strategic gains for Turkey, writes Unver [EPA]

On November 24, a Russian Su-24 warplane was shot down near the Turkish-Syrian border. According to Turkish officials, the plane was running an assault against Sunni-Turkmen groups fighting joint Russian-Syrian ground forces.

Russia has confirmed that one of their pilots died after ejecting from the jet, which certainly raises the stakes for Moscow to respond.

Turkey-Russia relations souring over Syria conflict

Although the downing was breaking news, it wasn’t completely surprising for Russia and Turkey watchers, who have been following repeated Russian violations of Turkey’s airspace.

After all, Turkey has been watchful of growing Russian involvement in Ukraine and the Black Sea since February 2014, and was already monitoring Russian violations of Turkey’s airspace in the Black Sea.

Not the first time

For example, in early March 2014 and March 2015, Russian fighter-bombers conducted unannounced air-to-sea attack exercises locking onto NATO warships in the Black Sea, briefly violating Turkish airspace, and leaving only after Turkey scrambled its jets.

Turkey may have to sacrifice their support for the Turkmen, abandon its involvement in the Aleppo battle, along with the rest of its operational priorities in Syria in order not to provoke Russia and escalate the crisis into an unmanageable magnitude.


After Russia moved into Syria in early October of this year, the number of Russian airspace violations increased dramatically and on a recurring basis. The most substantial and direct threat was the case in which a Russian Su-30 had “painted” a Turkish F-16 via radar lock for a duration of more than five minutes.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Russian violations and said that they are becoming intolerable, and NATO warned Russia by calling its incursions into Turkey as an “extreme danger”.

Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed the alliance’s concerns and stated that Russian violations of the Turkish airspace are no accident and have happened multiple times and for longer periods. More concretely, Stoltenberg offered to field ground troops in southern Turkey in response to growing Russian violations of Turkey’s airspace.

Russia’s intrusion into Turkish airspace is the latest instalment of similar violations against NATO countries. One of the most significant of these incidents was the late-October 2014 Russian air exercise, close to Norwegian, British, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Turkish airspace.

An ongoing pattern of Russian airspace violations is also observed in the Baltic Sea. Adding on top of all is the established Russian military pattern of “accidentally” engaging in hostilities.

For example, in August 2014, heavily armed and battle-ready Russian paratroopers penetrated Ukraine’s eastern territories – a move that was defined by the Russian defence ministry as an “accident”.

The mounting momentum of Russian moves around NATO territory and in Ukraine has generated substantial mistrust in Ankara towards what Russia really intends to do in Syria.

Why now?

But why did Turkey shoot down the Russian jet – while other NATO countries did not resort to such an extreme measure? Most importantly, despite the lack of a similar confrontation between Russia and Turkey during the Cold War – and the fact that the last time a Russian jet was downed by NATO was in 1952 – what caused the Turkish Air Force to shoot down a Russian jet this time?

After all, based on flight data provided by Turkish armed forces, two F-16 jets scrambled in advance to intercept any probable Russian violation and they have practically ambushed the Su-24, which reveals a more profound planning behind the interception.

Also read: Putin shows his realism in Syria

The most immediate explanation is also the most straightforward – that Russian jets have been violating Turkish airspace both above the Black Sea and also recently above Syria, and despite repeated warnings, this went on for an extended period of time.

The point of no return was Ankara and NATO’s earlier ultimatum in October, after which Turkey did not have any other option but downing the jet when Russia violated its airspace again.

Less visibly, on the other hand, Turkey was infuriated by the joint Russian-Syrian operations against pro-Turkish Turkmen militias, whom Turkey defines as ethnic kin.

Also read: Turkey won’t lose any sleep over Russia’s harsh words

Squeezed into a small pocket of territory called Bayirbucak across Turkey’s Hatay province, these Turkmen groups recently lost ground as Syrian troops supported by the Russian military captured several key positions.

However, more than kinship, Bayirbucak region’s strategic location – as the main northern Syrian opening into the Mediterranean – is what makes it significant.

As Turkey seeks to prevent Syrian Kurdish groups, such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Defence Forces (YPG) from establishing a united de facto statelet, a significant part of the strategy revolves around denying those groups access to the Mediterranean and keeping them landlocked.

Putin called Turkey's downing of the Russian fighter jet 'a stab in the back' [Reuters]
Putin called Turkey’s downing of the Russian fighter jet ‘a stab in the back’ [Reuters]

Turkey’s strategy was to keep the Turkmen of Bayirbucak well-funded and well-armed and integrate them into the proposed “safe-zone”.

That safe zone would then span from Jarablus in the east to Azaz in the west, joining with the other Sunni enclaves in northern Aleppo and Idlib, and becoming the foundations of a future independent state in northern Syria.

However, lack of coordination in the field, along with Russia’s entry into the theatre has rendered this strategy implausible, if not impossible.


So, what now? What does this incident tell us about the future of Russia’s relations with Turkey in particular, and NATO in general?

NATO will surely assert its support for Turkey publicly while conveying their annoyance with Turkey’s aggressive measure. This is especially true for the US, whose air force is flying at close proximity to Russian jets operating in northeast Syria.


Had the pilots been rescued and delivered to Russia, damage control would have been slightly easier. But now, with one pilot dead, there will be more pressure on the Kremlin to retaliate and avenge the situation through a visible and publicised event.

Although Turkey has a justification in downing the Russian jet from an international law point of view, this righteousness is unlikely to translate into strategic gains for Turkey.

With a more aggressive Russian aerial presence eager to settle the score, and with the Russian navy dominating the Black Sea and patrolling through the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, Turkey may have to sacrifice its support for the Turkmen, and abandon its involvement in the Aleppo battle along with the rest of its operational priorities in Syria, in order not to provoke Russia and escalate the crisis into an unmanageable magnitude.

In turn, Russia may exert substantial support on Syrian-Kurdish groups such as PYD and YPG, which Turkey defines as “terrorist organizations”.

Akin Unver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.