Whatever the rights and wrongs of the incident in which a Russian SU-24 fighter jet was shot down by the Turkish air force, this was an accident waiting to happen. Ever since Moscow announced that Russia was going to launch airstrikes on Syria, the risks were obvious.
One, at the outset, was the danger that poor coordination between Russia and all the other forces operating in Syrian airspace would lead to the US, for instance, downing a Russian plane (or vice versa), even though both sides insisted they were fighting the common enemy, Islamic State. In fact, defence officials from either side rapidly met to work out some rules, and these appear to have been observed. Mercifully too, it appears, today’s incident is being treated as of bilateral, not alliance significance – in other words, not the first Nato-Russia armed clash since the Soviet collapse.
The other risk was that Russian planes – either because of the area in which they were operating or because, at least according to the US, they lacked high-precision targeting technology – would stray outside Syrian airspace and/or inflict big civilian casualties on the ground. An earlier incident, before Russia began its aerial bombing, in which Turkey had accused a Russian plane of violating its airspace – had prompted warnings from Ankara that next time their pilots would shoot. This is what happened.
As in the previous incident, there is no meeting of minds about where the plane was actually flying – and the border is particularly convoluted here. Turkey says it issued several warnings, but the plane flew into its airspace and it had no alternative but to act. Russia immediately denied the Sukhoi had crossed the border, insisting that it had remained 1km inside Syrian airspace the whole time. The wreckage was found inside Syria. One of the Russian pilots was believed killed before the plane hit the ground; the other may or may not have been captured – fortunately for the Russians not by Islamic State, but by local Turkmen forces.
Whatever the truth – and any investigations are still at the furious mud-slinging stage – the ramifications could hardly be more damaging for the fledgling peace negotiations over Syria – where both Russia and Turkey are crucial players.
Although the two countries have had a mostly pragmatic relationship in recent years, there always seems to be an element of tension at the point where the two Eurasian powers coincide. During the cold war, the Soviet-Turkish border was guarded along its length as heavily as the frontier in Berlin, as anyone who took a train journey from Armenia to Georgia will know. For reasons old and new, this ingrained state of alert remains.
The war in Syria, and Russia’s intervention, further complicated this relationship. As things stand today, Turkey and Russia manage to be fighting at once on opposing and on the same sides. Turkey was at least as enthusiastic as the US and the UK – perhaps even more so – about trying to remove Bashar al-Assad, and it has not seriously tempered that aim. In this respect, its objective is the opposite of Russia’s. But both countries are committed to fighting Islamic State, even though Turkey has used its air intervention more as cover to fight its own Kurdish rebels, and Russia has reportedly been attacking groups opposed to Assad, as well as known strongholds of Islamic State.
The ambiguity in Turkey’s position, in particular, helps explain the ferocious response of Russia’s president, who described the downing of Russia’s plane as a “stab in the back” by “accomplices of terrorists”. He has, of course, to consider the domestic aspect. The loss of a Russian plane, and one or both pilots, comes only three weeks after the crash of a commercial Russian airliner that Moscow now accepts was brought down by a bomb. Both losses could threaten the record popular support Putin has enjoyed since the annexation of Crimea.
For Putin, however, an at least equal concern is likely to be the fate of international discussions on Syria that hardly yet even qualify as a peace process. These must be considered a good in themselves – and it is fair to say that Russia, through its decision to join the fight in Syria and because of its back channels to Assad and some rebel groups, was in a unique position to initiate the talking.
But Moscow, and Putin personally, has more invested in the talks that have begun in Vienna than an eventual peace settlement. It could offer Russia a route back to international respectability after the western attempts to isolate the Kremlin over Ukraine. Turkey’s signature on any deal is as necessary as anyone’s. In this sense, the image of Russia’s burning plane crashing to earth starts to look very like a metaphor both for the immediate prospects of peace in Syria and for Putin’s hopes of making Russia a global diplomatic player.
Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington, and a special correspondent in China and many parts of Europe. She is a member of the Valdai Group, invited since 2004 to meet Russian leaders each autumn, and a member of the Chatham House thinktank. She is a past honorary research fellow at the University of Buckingham and contributed the introductory essay to The Britannica Guide to Russia.