Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber: The implications

Danijel Batica - Regular Columnist

A Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-160 takes off | Image: Rob Schleiffert

On Tuesday 24th November the World was left in shock after a Turkish F-16 jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber, arguing that the Russian bomber had breached Turkish airspace and thus the Turkish military acted in accordance with their rules of engagement. The circumstances of this are very shady and suspicious, where Turkey has argued that the bomber breached their air space for 17 seconds with 10 warnings being issued though the Russian military has denied the bomber ever entered Turkish airspace, both sides presenting their own data to back up their claims.

Russia however has shown remarkable restraint from this attack, as such an act could easily be regarded as an act of war. If we were to assume that the Russian bomber had in fact breached Turkish airspace, to shoot it down would still be an unprecedented reaction as such incidents are usually dealt with by the plane being escorted out by jets followed by a diplomatic protest. What makes the incident more serious is the killing of one of the pilots by militants after he ejected, the other pilot managed to land and was rescued in a joint operation by Russian special forces and the Syrian Army which resulted in the death of a Russian marine. The surviving pilot and navigator of the bomber has also since denied that they ever entered Turkish air space and they received no warnings before being shot out of the sky. In addition, following this event the Greek defence ministry has stated that Turkish jets regularly violate Greek airspace, showing a very serious level of double standards from the Turkish government.

What complicates this event is Turkey’s membership of NATO, thus making this a much wider international incident and is likely to further strain any relations between Russia and the NATO alliance, as if these relations weren’t already strained. President Putin called this a “stab in the back,” and has so far reacted by halting all diplomatic and military cooperation between the two nations, and has further increased Russian military presence in the area, including state of the art S-400 anti-air systems being introduced to protect Russian military aircraft. This will undoubtedly strain efforts of cooperation in coordinating airstrikes between Russia and the US-led coalition, though whilst as expected other NATO members haven’t denounced Turkey’s actions, there has also been a lack of vocal defence from Turkey’s allies suggesting frustration amongst NATO members.

Russia and Turkey are by no means historical allies, where the Russian and Ottoman Empires fought wars in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in addition, during the Cold War Turkey as a NATO member hosted US missiles aimed as a deterrent against the Soviet Union. In recent years however Russian-Turkish relations have significantly harmonised, for example the Blue Stream gas pipeline commissioned in 2005 running from Russia under the Black Sea to Turkey, and even talks between the two governments of redirecting the planned South Stream pipeline to Turkey in 2014 in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine. This progress in relations may be damaged beyond repair after this incident.

But what could have motivated Turkey to act with such force? Turkey’s involvement in the fight against ISIS has itself come under scrutiny, as to how genuine their commitment is to defeating the terrorist organisation. There is one crucial area where Turkish and Russian policies in Syria are in direct disagreement, which is that whilst Russian military involvement is in cooperation with Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian Army, the Turkish government and President Erdogan have made no secret of their desire to see Assad removed from power. In addition, the Turkish government has increased their military action against the Kurds which has raised a large amount of concern. Kurdish forces such as the Peshmerga in northern Iraq and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria have appeared to be engaging in considerable actions against ISIS, and with reports of Turkey shelling Kurdish positions (not just in Turkey itself) it is understandable why they have been accused of using the conflict to primarily target the Kurds as opposed to ISIS.

Another aspect to be considered is that of how ISIS is profiting from oil sales, where elements in Turkey with connections to the government have been accused of doing business with ISIS, however the Turkish government denies any connections to this and has instead accused the Assad regime of buying oil from ISIS. The Russian defence ministry has released numerous pieces of footage showing their bombers striking oil fields and long convoys of oil tankers, thus why some have been led to argue that there is a lot of anger in Turkey concerning Russian airstrikes. This can also be linked to Turkey’s alleged unwillingness to extensively strike ISIS targets.

Rebels from the "Justice Brigade” fight against the Syrian Army and IS in northern Syria
Rebels from the “Justice Brigade” fight against the Syrian Army and IS in northern Syria

Moving on to the death of one of the pilots, soon after the downing of the bomber it was revealed that one of the pilots was shot at and killed whilst still in the air, a war crime under Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Convention. Videos were released showing militants rejoicing around the pilot’s body, which was followed by confirmation that the group responsible was one made up of ethnic Turkmen. The Turkish government in light of this has been relatively open about the fact that they are supporting these Turkmen, which is understandable to a degree, but upon further verification of the supposed leader of this group he was identified as the son of a Turkish mayor and a member of the ‘Grey Wolves’. The Grey Wolves are a Turkish nationalist organisation with alleged links to the Turkish government, they believe in pan-Turkism whose ultimate goal is to unite various Turkic peoples from the Balkans to Central Asia. Their paramilitary wing has been active in various combat zones, including Northern Cyprus, Chechnya, on the side of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh War against Armenia and now in Syria amongst other areas. If indeed the Turkish government is actively supporting this group in Syria, it may suggest territorial aims by Turkey and the expansion of their influence in the Middle East.

However Turkey has effectively dealt a huge blow to any ethnic Turkmen militias in the area, whereby Russia has increased its airstrikes in this border region targeting these militias (who are also fighting the Syrian Army), specifically in response to the murder of the pilot. Whilst Turkish leaders such as President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have defended their actions and vowed to continue to shoot down planes which breach their airspace, it is likely they have done themselves damage in losing the trust of Russia and are likely to see further consequences.

About Danijel Batica 2 Articles

A graduate in International Relations from the University of Sussex, Danijel is keen to pursue a career in political and security risk. His main interests are international security, conflict, and Balkan and Russian current affairs.