The Danger Games: Russia and NATO Collide

Washington abruptly awoke to the news this morning that its NATO ally, Turkey, had shot down a Russian military jet which, according to Ankara, had crossed into Turkish airspace after being warned repeatedly.  This may be the first time that a NATO military aircraft has shot down a Russian warplane since the Korean War.  This is history no one wanted to make. 

Two Russian pilots ejected from the SU-24; one pilot is reported dead with early accounts suggesting Syrian Turkmen fighters fired upon the pilots as they descended. Unconfirmed reports indicate that a Russian search and rescue helicopter, sent to rescue the pilots, may also have been shot down, possibly with a U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missile. 

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry formally notified Russian, U.S., French, and British diplomats of the incident and called for emergency discussions at NATO which was held today to discuss this unprecedented event. Following the meeting, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg noted that the situation was serious and that information regarding the incident received from other NATO allies is “consistent” with the information provided by Ankara.

Today’s dramatic events must not be understood in isolation but in the context of several earlier events.  Turkey has strenuously protested previous Russian airspace violations, including last month, when the North Atlantic Council met and warned that Russian military actions were reaching a “more dangerous level.” Turkey shot down a drone (suspected of being Russian) over its territory last week; Russian diplomats were called in by the Turkish authorities, and President Erdogan publicly warned that Turkey would respond forcefully to any violations of its airspace. Days ago, Russian jets bombed Turkmen villages along the Turkish-Syrian border. Following these incidents, the Turkish government called in the Russian Ambassador to protest the bombing and Turkey requested an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the bombing. 

These events should come as no surprise to analysts who have closely observed increasingly reckless and provocative Russian military behavior over the past two years, particularly in Ukraine but also over the skies of Northern Europe. In September 2014, Sweden issued a formal complaint to the Russian Ambassador when two Russian aircraft penetrated Swedish airspace unannounced, raising the alarm less than 16 months after Moscow simulated an aerial assault in the Baltic Sea.  Russian jets have also repeatedly violated Finland’s airspace. More often than not, Russian military aircraft do not turn on their transponders or signal their flight path, creating considerable confusion; last year, 85 percent of the 500+ scrambles conducted by NATO aircraft in Europe were in direct response to Russian activity. Civilian airliners have also had disturbingly close encounters with Russian military jets, and in November 2014 a SAS flight with 132 passengers on board narrowly avoided collision with a Russian reconnaissance craft. There have been similar Russian challenges to maritime sovereignty in the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea and, most recently, in the North Sea.

Russia’s dangerous military games violate international norms, endanger civilians and raise international tensions, yet the international community has imposed precious few penalties in response to this behavior. The U.S. reaction has been to heighten NATO’s air policing presence over the Baltic Sea region and, most recently, in Turkey, sending ten F-15s to the Baltic States last March and another six to Incirlik Air Force Base in southern Turkey in October. Despite these beefed-up deployments, Russia’s behavior has not been deterred.

Much of the current challenge over Syrian and neighboring countries’ airspace is the ad hoc nature of so-called de-confliction with Russia. When Russia inserted itself militarily into Syria on September 30th at the request of the Assad government, senior U.S. Defense Department officials warned this scenario might unfold and scrambled to establish a communication channel with Russia to avoid “misjudgment and miscalculation” and prevent “an accident.” But in practice this has amounted to the Kremlin directing the United States to halt operations in Syria while it conducts its own airstrikes (something Washington has refused to do), suggesting the limitations of these communications and the ability to de-conflict.

These events form the backdrop of French President Francois Hollande’s meeting today with President Obama to solidify his “grand and unique coalition” against ISIS. Today’s events suggest it is now impossible to hide the fact that the presumed members of this envisioned coalition are actively working at military and political cross-purposes with deadly consequences. The Syrian conflict has become a multi-layered proxy war under the auspices of a coalition of the disingenuous.   

The strategy of military de-confliction, which has been primarily led by the United States, is seen by many as a way for the United States and its allies to steer clear of Russian military operations. Indeed, the initial U.S. reaction to the Turkish shoot-down this morning was to distance Washington from the incident, with a Pentagon spokesperson characterizing it as a Russian-Turkish matter rather than one that affects the United States, its NATO allies, and the entire U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. As President Hollande seeks to enlarge the anti-ISIS coalition and campaign, which now include substantial French air sorties over Syria and potentially British and Dutch aircraft, these risks will only grow. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested the downing of the Russian SU-24 was a “stab in the back” which will have “serious consequences.” Foreign Minister Lavrov has canceled a previously planned visit to Turkey tomorrow. In the coming days, Turkey may seek additional NATO air and border enhancements. Russia may increase pressure economically and militarily on Turkey as well as increase its military operational tempo in Syria, which given Russia’s operating posture up to now will make the situation more dangerous.

It is time for Russia to return to its adherence of international legal norms and fully respect the principle of territorial integrity - something for which it has demonstrated complete disdain be it in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic region, and now Turkey. President Obama has made clear that Turkey has the right to defend its airspace and border. It has become evident that Mr. Putin is attempting to write a new set of rules through these dangerous games.  The time has come for the international community to demand that Russia adhere to long-established rules that have prevailed since the end of the Second World War.


Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Artic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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