Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country does not want an escalation in tensions with Russia after its jets shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane that Ankara said had strayed into its airspace close to the Syrian border. One of the pilots was killed -- possibly by a Syrian rebel group operating in the area -- a loss Russian President Vladimir Putin called a "stab in the back."
To help understand the significance of the events, and what they mean going forward, we asked some of the world’s leading military experts and analysts to weigh in.
Implications Of The Jet Downing
Dmitry Gorenburg, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University: "What’s clear to me is that this comes at a time just after the downing of the Russian commercial airliner [over Egypt] and the Paris attacks, when there’s been a lot of talk of forming a coalition or alliance against Daesh (the Islamic State militant group). All these countries were supposed to start working together, but it’s pretty clear to me that the differing interests of the countries involved make that a difficult proposition now."
Edward Lucas, senior editor at The Economist weekly and senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank in Warsaw and Washington: "Up until now, this whole adventure looked great on Russian TV, with missiles being launched from the sea and videos of Russian jets. But today highlights that it’s a real war and Russia doesn’t have the ability to ensure that Russian airplanes can fly around safely. This was an accident waiting to happen. There are French, American, Russian, and Syrian planes all flying around in contested airspace and despite all the talk of deconfliction, it’s a very difficult thing to actually implement."
Alexander Clarkson, lecturer at King's College London: "Turkey never really liked what Russia was trying to do in Syria, so although Putin saw this as a conflict with the U.S., it’s clearly deeper than that. Turkey warned the Russians repeatedly that they wouldn’t tolerate incursions into their airspace, and at some point Erdogan had to throw his hands up and say, 'We need to send a message that we are serious about protecting our interests.'"
Mark Galeotti, professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University: "First of all, we’re not heading for World War III. That being said, Putin’s speech was not just an expression of unhappiness, he was literally pissed off. Tensions between Russia and Turkey have been brewing for some time; the Russians have had intelligence officers carrying out hits in Turkish cities. They’ve been pushing the Turks, in some ways, more than they’ve been willing to push Western European countries."
Kyle Frese, D.C.-based expert on Russia's military: "There are significant implications if not handled properly. Turkey and Russia actually got quite close during the Ukraine crisis as Turkey became a bigger market for Russia’s gas, picking up a fair bit of the slack that was lost in the EU. I think Russia now supplies 60 percent of Turkey’s natural gas. Will they cut that off? Likely not, especially since Gazprom is still recovering from all of its losses in Europe. I am genuinely surprised Russia and Turkey hadn’t worked out an agreement on airspace, especially since Russia and the U.S. have proven cooperation can take place to avoid incidents just like this."
Gustav Gressel, EU Council On Foreign Relations: "[Russia's] Crimea Intervention was a hard shock for Erdogan, and Russia’s mistreatment of the Tatars was hard to take for Erdogan. The Syria intervention and Russian air strikes commencing without the OK from Turkey (or at least not on Erdogan’s terms) was the last straw. Erdogan -- to my point of view -- took this as a personal insult. And Turkey became much more vocal and critical of Russia, especially after the first airspace violations. And now I think Erdogan wanted to stress a point that Turkey is still there and cannot be treated as a second-rate power. To my view, this is as much about prestige and face-saving as it is about the actual Russian intervention."
Alex Kokcharov, principal analyst, Country Risk, IHS: "The big problem with the Syria conflict is that it has started as a proxy conflict where the sponsors of it were quite removed from the situation on the ground. The actual fighting was carried out by local proxies. Now the distance between the actual sponsors, who are involved in the conflict militarily, is shrinking rapidly. While Russia is insisting its military operation in Syria involves only its air force, there have been numerous reports suggesting that some Russian ground troops are also in Syria as well."
How Will Putin Handle This?
Dmitry Gorenburg: "From Erdogan’s point of view, he’s defended his borders, so he doesn’t look weak. Now the question is: How does Putin play this to prevent humiliation at home?"
Alexander Clarkson: "The Russians put on a good show, but they don’t have the tech capacity, connections, and power to run a real campaign in Syria. They’ve taken insane risks; they’ve messed around with Turkish airspace and they really seem like they have this neo-colonial attitude to the rebels and the whole area, thinking, ‘We can do whatever we want here.’ As with Ukraine, he completely underestimated his [enemy's] power."
Mark Galeotti: "If the Turks don’t apologize, we might see an escalation of the struggle between Turkey and Russia in some way. We might see additional support from Russia to the extreme Kurdish movements, which is part of a classic Russian technique to back your opponent's worst enemy."
Yury Barmin, Middle East expert with the Russian International Affairs Council: "Judging by his statement, Putin is determined to have Turkey accountable for this tragedy, if not internationally then at least at the expense of bilateral ties. Turkey and Russia have close financial and industrial ties; I believe these ties will suffer the most. Construction of a gas pipeline that’s been discussed for almost a year now will be put on hold as well. There are calls in Russia to suspend all flights to Turkey, which could be a huge blow to the country’s hospitality industry since Russians make up to 30 percent of all tourists in Turkey."
Anna Borshchevskaya, The Washington Institute: "I don’t think either side wants a direct military confrontation. The Russians know how NATO works very well; they’ve been dealing with it for years. The Russians are also used to testing NATO members’ airspace; perhaps they did not anticipate such a strong reaction from the Turks. But I think Putin will simply use this situation to bolster his domestic image."
Effects On NATO-Russian Relations
Dmitry Gorenburg: "My guess is that people in various NATO capitals are trying to work out what the response should be and we’ll get a better sense of where this goes in the next 48 hours. There will be a lot of statements and perhaps some retaliation in the economic sphere, and maybe some sort of response where you see a Turkish aircraft gets shot at if it comes near a Russian base or something like that. This could be a single event that becomes an indicator of what’s to come."
Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: "It's still very early, but just to put this in perspective let me say this: For the first time in modern history, a NATO country has directly fired upon and brought down a Russian warplane. We are in uncharted territory in terms of crisis. Even if this doesn't spiral into a NATO-Russia issue, it is certainly the sharp end of a crisis in Russia-Turkey relations that has been brewing now for months or years. It's clear that Russia and Turkey have incompatible goals in Syria and that leadership on both sides have huge political capital invested such that it will not be easy to back down. I do expect this to be spun as NATO aggression combined with the argument that this is America's fault for blocking better coordination."
Mark Galeotti: "This changes nothing with the Germans, who are keen to see Russia as part of the solution in Syria. The big uncertainty is what Washington will do because they are clearly the dominant player within NATO and the closest to Turkey, but they’ve also got the greatest exposure within Syria, and the most to lose."
Kyle Frese: "This could certainly devolve into a nightmare scenario for NATO, depending on how the Kremlin reacts. Again, however, due to Russia’s economic constraints, I do not think much can or will happen. ... My guess would be France will be angry at Turkey, Germany will be the cautious mediator (though will likely sympathize with Putin -- Merkel and Erdogan have a strained relationship), and the U.K. and U.S. will try to be as hands-off as they can."
Yury Barmin: "NATO-Russia relations are at an all-time low already so there’s no way they can deteriorate even further, I believe, but this is definitely a huge problem. You don’t ever see Putin call out a country, which he did in relation to Turkey, calling it an ISIS accomplice.
Gustav Gressel: "We will have to see how the other NATO countries react. The problem is that Turkey had a very double-edged policy on Syria and the Islamic State that caused a lot of unease amongst other NATO allies. Turkey is still the main receiver of illegal ISIS oil, and Turkey is still the transit country for European foreign fighters for ISIS. Turkish efforts to curtail both were rather half-hearted, and the fact that Turkey used some Islamist groups against Kurdish fighters did not increase [Western] trust in Ankara. So Erdogan does not enjoy full backing by the West, and just because Russia is anti-Western does not necessarily mean that the West will support anything Turkey does on that regard."
'A Volatile Mix'
Alexander Clarkson: "NATO and Germany especially will want to immediately de-escalate this. The Turks too will want to de-escalate this. But the fact that the Russians are doing this around Turkey is borderline crazy, because Turkey’s in a serious war stance because of what’s happening in Syria, and they have warned them many, many times that they will act. Turkey will use this to say to the Russians, 'There are parts of Syria where we have allies, and you cannot act as you please.'"
Mark Galeotti: "The Russian audience expects the Turks to be treacherous antagonists, but there won’t be some backlash like, 'Putin, if you don’t invade Turkey you’re a wimp.' There will be the creation of a reality in which Turkey was wrong. Also look for Russian media to really play up any other world leaders' words if they say anything remotely indicating that Turkey was in the wrong."
Michael Kofman, Russian Military Expert at The Wilson Center: "I think people matter in this scenario, and the two leaders make for a volatile mix. While Vladimir Putin is well known for his vindictiveness, Tayyip Erdogan is even more so, and not known for a cool-headed approach. The consequence is that if this results in a tit-for-tat exchange, the matter could get out of hand."
Dmitry Gorenburg: "Part of the problem is that there was a lot of effort put into deconfliction between the U.S. and Russia when the Russians started intervening in Syria, but they sort of ignored everyone else and figured the U.S. would deal with it. Now you have a problem where you have two leaders of similar ilk who have the need to portray themselves as ultimate patriots, so we’ll see what kinds of problems could arise."
Michael Stephens, Royal United Services Institute: "Both sides are pointing fingers at each other's policy in Syria, thinking the other is supporting the terrorists....but neither side views ISIS as the No. 1 threat in Syria. Which is ironic, since this will turn into a public-relations war for hearts and minds between the two capitals."