Could downed warplane contain Russian aggression?

Turkey is once again becoming a significant player in the West.

File photo of Russia''s President Putin arriving for news conference at Presidential Palace in Ankara
History has shown that when national pride or strategic imperatives are at play, Russians are ready to bear economic pain, write Paul and Seyrek [Reuters]

Russian aggression and expansionist policies in Georgia and Ukraine have raised concerns in the West over the limits of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Having flexed his muscles in the European Union’s eastern neighbourhood, Putin has now extended this policy to the Middle East.

Since September, Russia has been militarily supporting its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the close cooperation of Iran. While Russia insists that its military operation in Syria is targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Moscow’s military operation has focused more on opposition groups fighting against the Assad government rather than ISIL – and saving the regime.

Moreover, heavy civilian casualties as a result of Russian air strikes have increased concerns in the West over the risk of potential cooperation with Putin. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 403 civilians have been killed as a result of Russian air strikes since the end of September.

Previous incidents

Russia has been conducting air strikes near NATO’s eastern flank, just a stone’s throw from the Turkey-Syria border. Even before the Turkish Air Force downed the Russian plane, tensions between Russia and Turkey had been building.

Ankara and Moscow have had an uneasy relationship regarding Syria over the past few years – given the Turkish animosity towards the Assad regime. Relations in the months leading up to the downing of the jet became increasingly confrontational with Russia violating Turkish airspace on several occasions.

Can Turkey and Russia resolve their dispute?

For instance, on October 16, Turkey shot down what was believed to be a Russian-made drone within its territory. Turkey has also been outraged by Russia’s strikes against the Turkmen, an ethnic Turkic minority in Syria.

While Russia has claimed that the violations of Turkey’s airspace were “accidental”, it is more likely that they were a power show-off – a Putin-style exercise in order to test the limits of the West similar to Russian actions in the Baltics and elsewhere.

Over the past year, Russia has violated and approached the airspaces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania numerous times despite continued warnings from NATO.

Following the first violation of Turkish airspace, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared that “NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats.”

Also read: Predicting Putin’s next move

Moreover, NATO is also planning to send troops to the Baltics following airspace violations of Russia in the region.

Considering these developments, downing the Russian warplane could be seen as defending the West’s redlines, although it is unlikely that any other NATO member state would have responded in the way Ankara did. It was the first time since 1952 that a NATO member has shot down a Russian plane.

National pride

Further military escalation between Turkey and Russia is not expected. Russia would rather seek revenge by other means, including economic sanctions, tourism boycotts and further strikes in Syria targeting those groups Turkey supports as well as steps aimed at tarnishing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s international image.

Turkey’s geostrategic trajectory is also affected by the crisis. Erdogan has frequently cited Russia as an alternative strategic partner to the West. However, willingly or not, Erdogan now has only one choice: the West.


While many of these measures are likely to hurt the Russian economy as much as Turkey’s, history has shown that when national pride or strategic imperatives are at play, Russians are ready to bear economic pain.

Furthermore, the impact of the crisis has consequences beyond Turkey-Russia relations. If the tension cannot be quickly de-escalated or if it has direct consequences on finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis and the much-needed cooperation with Russia for that, other Western countries may start seeing Turkey as a liability.

Turkey’s actions in the aftermath of the jet incident signal that Ankara is not looking for a long-term fight with Russia. While Erdogan has refused to apologise to Putin, he has repeatedly said that Turkey was not aware the plane was Russian, and called for dialogue.

However, Putin refused to meet Erdogan at the Paris COP21 Summit and is likely to maintain a vengeful attitude. The fact that both Putin and Erdogan are very proud and stubborn personalities will not help in finding a way out of this crisis.

Moment of opportunity

Nevertheless, this development is also an opportunity for the West, in terms of acting on its expressed determination to contain Russian aggression and expansionist policies.

The West’s response to continued Russian aggression against both Georgia and Ukraine has been quite limited and disappointing leaving many international experts wondering what exactly the West’s redline is.

However, this incident and NATO’s response to violations in the Baltics have confirmed that the redline is NATO borders. The “all talk, no action” policy of the West, which has encouraged rather than discouraged Putin, finally seems to be changing.

Also read: Turkey’s move against Russia: Cold War redux?

Although this incident has been presented as unilateral action of Turkey, NATO knew and supported Turkey’s rules of engagement. The North Atlantic Council meeting on October 5 condemned the airspace violations of Russia and noted “the extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour“.

Turkey’s geostrategic trajectory is also affected by the crisis. Erdogan has frequently cited Russia as an alternative strategic partner to the West. However, willingly or not, Erdogan now has only one choice: the West. Turkey immediately turned to NATO for support and emergency consultations, following the shoot-down.

Furthermore, considering the Turkish military’s strategic role in NATO and the new action plan between Turkey and the EU for the Syrian refugee crisis, Turkey is once again becoming a significant player in the West.

Hence the famous “Is Turkey turning away from the West” question has been answered as – strategically and militarily – Turkey remains part of the West.


Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Western values given the democratic backpedalling and deterioration in freedoms and civil liberties in the past few years. Greater dependence on the West could play a role in reversing this trend.

Turkey has been a staunch and steadfast NATO ally for 63 years and is the alliance’s front-line state in the Syrian civil war. Now is the time for NATO to stand firmly alongside Turkey.

But at the same time Turkey urgently needs to clarify its position on ISIL because the Russian propaganda machine is working to make people believe that Turkey is supporting the group.

Putin openly called Turkey “accomplices of terrorists” – and this is a very serious accusation. While Turkey is part of the US-led coalition against ISIL, it has been rather passive in terms of concrete actions and is finding itself increasingly accused of indirectly backing the group in order to destroy Assad.

It also has had a very ineffective and opaque approach to tackling ISIL-linked groups operating in Turkey. In this sense, Ankara now needs to demonstrate Turkey’s sincerity in the fight against ISIL.

Amanda Paul is a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.

Demir Murat Seyrek is a senior policy adviser at the European Foundation for Democracy.

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