In the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet that violated its airspace and Russia’s resulting casualties, tensions are certainly on the rise. Despite the fact that these tensions should not be overblown, important questions about Putin’s aims need to be addressed. Yet in the end, the saddest thing is how avoidable this incident was and how easy it would be to improve this situation dramatically.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse November 25, 2015
A much shorter version of this piece focusing on Putin’s mentality/political calculus was published by Global Risk Insights. This was also published by by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) here and was “Post of the Month” for December/January.
What the Hell Happened?
AMMAN — After weeks of increasing tension between Russia and Turkey, yesterday, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter-bomber jet that Turkey alleges violated its airspace. The Russian jet had been bombing Turkmen positions/villages—part of a series of Russian bombings in recent days that have targeted Turkmen—on the border area of Turkey and Syria. Turkey is supporting these Turkmen rebels against Assad that Russia is bombing, and had previously asked Russia not to bomb them. Turkey also claims it warned the plane ten times before it fired, but Russia denies this. The alleged violation of Turkey’s airspace comes after several earlier violations and a clear pattern of Russia flagrantly violating NATO and other American allies’ airspace over the past several years, and after clear warnings from Turkey that this behavior would not be tolerated. The Turkmen who had been bombed by the Russian place killed the pilot, who had ejected from the plan and landed in the Syrian area controlled by the Turkmen. The plane’s navigator was rescued by Russian and Syrian special forces, but one Russian contract marine was killed in the process and a Russian helicopter was downed as well.
Don’t Expect WWIII Out of This
While this is hardly good news, we should also hardly expect a Russo-Turkish war, a Russian-NATO war, or WWIII in the coming days. As with the situation in Ukraine, both NATO and Russia should avoid panic. For one thing, Turkey and Russia have very close economic ties, both in terms of tourism in Turkey and in terms of energy exports from Russia; these ties are very profitable for each nation and for both Putin’s and Erdoğan’s regimes and would not be scrapped lightly over such an incident. Secondly, and this is something less talked about, Russia and Putin fear NATO greatly; this has been a driving force behind first Soviet and then Russian policy for many decades, as NATO dwarfs Russia both in terms of military and economic power. It is helpful to think of all of Putin’s posturing, including his airspace violations, and akin to the guy driving the gigantic hummer with huge tires and fire designs spray-painted onto its sides: this is all undertaken to overcompensate for an insecurity. Putin has been smart to calculate that the U.S. and NATO will not risk a war with Russia over Georgia, Ukraine, or Syria; he is certainly smart enough to not start a war with Turkey and, by consequence, NATO now even after such an incident as this. Putin is not stupid, and he is hardly not in control; the repeated violations of NATO and others’ airspace is unquestioningly a series of deliberate provocations directed by Putin. Sure, one or two may be an honest mistake by a pilot, but there have been far too many violations by Russia over time that these violations, in general, are no accident. For the sake of argument, let’s say this one was an accident; Putin still knows he made his own bed with these previous violations, and he knows he has no grounds for starting a serious military confrontation over this as a result. And deep down, Putin probably respects Erdoğan’s move as a fellow hardball politician: Putin called Turkey’s warning a bluff, but Erdoğan demonstrated he was not bluffing. This is the language Putin understands.
Putin may be miscalculating here in general, but he is certainly smart enough to know a war with Turkey, and therefore NATO and the West, is not at all in Russia’s interests right now.
Why, Mr. Putin?
Coming off of all this, many questions arise as to the risk-gain, cost-benefit analysis going on inside Mr. Putin’s head. One must hope that Mr. Putin’s actions in Syria are not going to continue to be as either myopic or as cynical as the best possible explanations indicate they thus far been.
On the myopic side, you have Putin thinking that risking the ire of almost all the Sunni governments, Sunni people, and Sunni jihadists by helping Shiite Alawite Assad massacre mainly Sunni rebels and civilians with the help of Shiite Hezbollah and Shiite Iran just for Russia’s having a naval base on Syria’s coast and a few new bases inside Syria as well as a client in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who accounts for roughly 10% of global Russian arms sales is worth it (oh, and there’s knee-jerk opposing American and Western aims in Syria partly out of spite, from which I would also wonder what Putin thinks he will gain). Over the longer term, Putin is playing a game to win over the more despotic regimes in the Middle East, letting them know that America may abandon you if you give up all pretense at democratic reform and massacre your own people, but Russia will not (see Putin and Assad as BFFs). One of the big prizes Russia is eyeing here is Egypt and Hosni Mubarak’s second–(perhaps harsher) coming, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The gamble here is that Egypt’s restive population will tolerate an Egypt aligning itself with Shiite-led Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah and that Egypt’s own explosive and volatile domestic security situation with its own people and an ISIS franchise running amok in the Sinai (one which apparently was able to blow up a Russian airliner) will not be major liabilities. Egypt has a large population but is mainly devoid of resources that Russia would find useful. Sure, Russia can increase arms sales to Egypt, but that does not seem to be so great of a prize. If Putin thinks that the real prize—Saudi Arabia—will be aligning itself with Russia anytime soon, that may have been a possibility without Russia’s forceful backing of Assad and linking up with Iran and Hezbollah, but now that possibility seems as remote as ever even as the U.S. and the Saudis put some distance between them and their relationship cools; a cool relationship with the U.S. still yields a lot more for Saudi Arabia than a new alliance with Russia ever could. In general, Russia hardly has a strong position in the Middle East; Putin’s desperation to help Assad, his one main ally in the region (it would be a stretch to say that Iran and Russia are general allies even as they are allies in the Syrian Civil War), even at the expense of empowering ISIS, is a reflection of this weakness. And as Putin cozies up to dictators like Assad and Sisi, he risks severely undermining any chance of real long-term gains where he and Russians seek them the most: in Europe. Democracy-loving Europe will not sit and has not sat idly by while Russia has provoked war and secessionist rebellion in European and democratic Ukraine while fighting against rebels in authoritarian Syria in a way that intensifies the war there.
Thus, the term myopic is particularly appropriate for Putin’s strategy because his methods of pursuing whatever gains he seeks pose risks that threaten to harm Russia’s interests more than those gains would help them: Russia is particularly vulnerable to Sunni extremist terrorism for a number of clear reasons and its moves in Syria, as I have written before, are only going to expose Russia to further attacks. If Russia is so concerned with 10% of its arms sales and access to a few military bases in Syria, I am certain the West would work out a deal to ensure these interests are preserved by a new Syrian government if Russia would agree to push for Assad’s ouster, as this would be a reasonable price to pay to see a realistic possibility of an end to this incredibly destructive and lethal war.
On the cynical side, there is the ability for confrontation with the West and Turkey in Syria to help Putin sell his narrative to his own people and the extremist gullible conspiracy-theorists who are intense RT.com and Sputnikconsumers; no doubt the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey and the related casualties will galvanize popular support among the Russian people who famously rally behind Putin whenever he is challenged from the outside; thus, provoking a crisis with Turkey and NATO certainly serves to increase Putin’s power at home. And yet, he is so popular there already, one must either question this as a solid basis for his actions or question the level of paranoia inside the Russia ruler’s mind. Therefore, it is harder to accept this explanation on its own but we cannot rule it completely out. Is it some kind of combination of the myopia and the cynicism? That is a difficult question to answer. My own gut tells me that to ascribe this mainly to Putin playing a domestic political game seems is quite an intense assumption to make.
We know that Ukraine and Moldova are prizes Putin has been eyeing, in one form or another, for quite some time, although trying to guess how he will play the European theater and Middle Eastern theater in terms of each other is mainly speculative at this point. If there is some big move Putin is planning in Europe, it will be interesting to see what it is, but my money is on the idea that Western sanctions (coupled with falling oil prices) have constrained Putin’s behavior there and that this will continue to be the case, even in light of this incident. Putin hay have been having fun time routinely violating NATO and other American allies’ airspace over the past few years without any serious consequences, but Turkey sure put an end to that, and while I am no fan of Turkey’s President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan for numerous and significant reasons, given Putin’s track record of airspace violations, I am willing to believe that Turkey would not risk shooting down a Russian plane unless it actually did violate Turkish airspace and that the Russian had been warned.
What will be interesting to see is if Putin is now willing to continue to risk the lives of brave Russian pilots to play political chicken with his rivals, and even more interesting will be trying to figure out what he hopes to gain should he pursue such a course.
And yet, Putin is not the only actor here: Turkey and the U.S. have been flirting with a call for no-fly zones in parts of Syria, including the Turkish-Syrian border; if Russia pushes Turkey and NATO too far, this will only increase the odds of NATO no-fly zones that would severely limit Russia’s freedom of action in Syria and the region.
Time to End the Kabuki Theater Charade and Join the Big Boys on the Main Stage
Perhaps most frustrating of all in this situation is that if Russia actually took a broader, less myopic view of its interests, and actually behaved in a way that matched its deeds with its stated purpose, there is a tremendous amount of room for mutually beneficial cooperation.
See, Russia framed its intervention in Syria as primarily one aimed at striking against ISIS terrorists; then, despite its heroic efforts to dissembleand deceive through the propaganda of its foreign ministry and state-funded media operations RT.com and Sputnik that present contrary “information,” Russia used over 90% of its military strikes to hit non-ISIS, often Western-backed rebels fighting Assad’s regime, strikes most often occurring where ISIS had no presence and not even anywhere near to where ISIS had any presence. The strikes have even helped ISIS gain more territory at the expense of these other rebel groups. Strikes like these are the ones that led to the incident yesterday, as Russia was bombing Turkmen who are not fighting for and are nowhere near ISIS.
The New York Times
I get it. Russia likes Assad, and since ISIS is mainly between Kurdish rebels on one side and non-ISIS other rebels no the other, and that second group of rebels is the group near most of the Syrian regime’s zones of control, it makes some sense for Russia to attack those groups that are more threatening to Assad. Yet Russia keeps propagandizing these attacks as attacks against ISIS in its public statements. Sure, Russians inside Russia and avid RT/Sputnik readers might unquestioningly buy up these claims, but the fact is this: Russia is inside Syria to pursue its own war against mainly non-ISIS targets, whatever public relations fantasies it wants to sell. Few people around the world are buying what Russia wants to sell, so any idea that Russian actions in Syria would buy Russia some goodwill from Europe has been dispelled since Russia is not doing what it claims to be doing.
Institute for the Study of War
It Putin was smarter, he’d shift gears. The thing is, not too long ago it seems an ISIS affiliate blew up a Russian airliner killing 224 people, almost all of them Russians. ISIS has fertile ground in and around Russia to recruit terrorists and carry out attacks against Russians. It is manifestly in Russia’s interests to join the current anti-ISIS coalition and to focus on ISIS now, not the other rebels, as even with its small percentage of attacks being against ISIS, Russia has still become a object of ISIS’s wrath. If Russia were to at least mostly suspend its campaign against non-ISIS rebels and cooperate with the U.S., France, Turkey, and others against ISIS, it would win a tremendous amount of goodwill from the West, which would welcome a helping hand. Instead, blatantly lying about targeting ISIS, bombing rebels that are allies with Western powers and Turkey, and violating Turkey’s airspace will do nothing to improve relations with the wider world, reduce crippling economic sanctions, or combat the jihadist threat now facing Russians all over the world. If we could truly join together in common purpose in Syria—ending the war and seeing Assad step aside, and all with the support of Russia—it is difficult to imagine that the West would not work to preserve Russia’s currently existing interests in Syria in exchange for their support and the end of their intransigence.
But if Putin wants to turn everything into a he said/she said contestbetween the Western media and RT/Sputnik (a tactic that has not worked in Ukraine and is not working in Syria), if Putin wants to keep his attention focused away from ISIS even though ISIS has now killed many Russian civilians, Putin only leaves himself and his nation more isolated, more weak, more vulnerable. The old playbook of being against the West for the sake of being against the West is not going to work. Putin has already gained a lot in Ukraine by annexing Crimea; he has shown that if his interests are not considered in a final settlement in Syria that he is prepared to use military means to secure them; if Putin would just deescalate in Ukraine and start focusing on ISIS in Syria, there is a very real chance that both sanctions relief could be on the table and that a final peace deal that removes Assad would see Russian strategic and arms trade interests preserved. Yet if he continues down his current path, he risks destroying important relationships with Turkey and Europe, increased sanctions, a future Syria that will do everything it can to expel Russian influence and a Russian presence, more dead Russian military personnel through incidents like the one yesterday, and more dead Russian civilians from terrorist attacks in a war that will not end anytime soon and keeps empowering ISIS, in part thanks to Russia’s actions in Syria.
The choice is clear for Mr. Putin: stop the charade and begin real cooperation with the NATO and other powers against ISIS, or go down a much more difficult path of pain, confrontation, and isolation. Russia could have taken former approach some time ago, and avoided yesterday’s regrettable incident. Even now Russia just made clear it will keep bombing the Turkmen, but it does not have to be this way. To Putin we must say, there is another way, and not everything needs to be zero-sum. Whether he listens, well, that is up to him.
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