Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 warplane on the morning of 24 November, after it had allegedly violated Turkish airspace while carrying out offensive operations over Syria. The plane crashed in an area known as Jabal Turkman in the Syrian province of Latakia. The area has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent months between Syrian forces backed by Russian warplanes and local Turkmen militia, with whom Ankara has previously expressed solidarity.
Witnesses reported that two parachutes were seen ejecting from the plane as it descended, but the fate of the crew remains unclear. Local activists reported that one Russian pilot was captured, while the other died during the crash. However, unnamed rebel groups operating in the area have been cited by some media sources as saying both pilots were killed. Later in the day, Turkish government officials told Reuters they had intelligence indicating that both pilots were still alive.
The crash has prompted fierce rhetoric and contradictory claims by both sides. Turkey claimed it began issuing warnings to the Russian jet when it came within 15 km of the Turkish border and the firing of the missiles was an “automatic response” once the plane had violated its airspace. Ankara has released radar images that it says show the flight path of the Russian jet, which it claims passed over its southern province of Hatay. US officials have since said they believe the Russian jet violated Turkish airspace, but that it was only a matter of “seconds” before it was shot down.
President Vladimir Putin has denied allegations of an incursion and warned of “serious consequences” for the relations of the two countries. He went on to describe the incident as a “stab in the back” and to accuse Turkey of providing financial and military assistance to Islamic State. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has cancelled a planned visit to Turkey and has advised his citizens not to travel to the country, citing the terrorist threat. Russia’s state tourism agency Rostourism has also recommended suspending sales of tour packages to Turkey.
In the aftermath of the attack, Ankara has called a special meeting of NATO’s principal decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council. Ambassadors of NATO have said this did not constitute an invocation of Article 4 of the treaty’s charter, which would involve a consultation of member states in response to a threat to the security or territorial integrity of an individual member. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also ordered consultations with the UN and “related countries”.
Since Russia began formal military operations in Syria in September 2015, commentators and analysts have issued repeated warnings of the risk of such a confrontation in the absence of military-to-military coordination between Russia, US-led coalition forces and the ground defences of Syria and neighbouring countries. Turkey already shot down a Russian drone that entered Turkish airspace in October, while in 2012 the Syrian armed forces downed a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet after it violated Syrian airspace. With little likelihood of any improved level of coordination or delineation of areas of operation, there will remain a risk of both accidental and intentional aerial confrontations between the various parties engaged in Syria as the conflict continues.
Unlike previous incidents, however, the downing of a Russian plane by Turkish forces has potentially far wider geopolitical consequences. The incident marks the first time since the 1950s that Russia has publicly acknowledged that one of its planes has been shot down by a NATO member state, and the consultations at NATO and the UN reflect the seriousness with which Ankara is treating the situation. Putin’s reputation as an erratic and sometimes aggressive actor on the world stage has evidently drawn serious concerns within Ankara of what sort of hostile reaction they might expect, and there is a degree of unpredictability over how the situation will play over the coming months.
Although it is too early to make definite forecasts of this rapidly changing development, it should be noted that it is hardly in Moscow’s interests to escalate the crisis significantly. Moscow is already facing strained relations with the West over Ukraine that have led to punitive economic sanctions and efforts to isolate Russia internationally. As a core NATO member state, Moscow faces a far more formidable adversary in Turkey than it did in Ukraine in early 2014. Moscow is also in no position to sever relations with another country that separates it from its main energy market in Europe. Russia is hoping Turkey will provide the conduit for the new TurkStream gas pipeline that will allow it to circumvent Ukraine to deliver gas to Europe. A serious deterioration in relations could jeopardise this and other strategic energy projects, including a planned Russian-built nuclear power plant in Turkey, with negative consequences for both countries.
Notwithstanding these considerations, Moscow now has a number of options open to escalate the situation without taking direct military action. This could include retaliation against Turkish businesses in Russia in the form of sanctions or more informal types of disruption, such as delays in processing visas or business permits for Turkish companies. More extreme measures could include increasing the price of Russian gas to Turkey, or halting flights by Turkish airlines to Russian airports, as occurred with Egypt following the Sinai plane crash in October. Moscow may also be tempted to retaliate indirectly by increasing support for Kurdish rebel groups in Syria, who are allied to Kurdish rebel groups in Turkey, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Russian business interests in Turkey may also face retaliatory discrimination as bilateral tensions rise over the incident. Protests have already taken place outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul in the hours after the downing of the Russian plane, and worsening public sentiment towards Turkey’s Russian community could influence public tendering of projects to Russian businesses.
Undoubtedly, the incident will have wider consequences for cooperation between Russia and NATO in resolving the Syrian conflict and tackling Islamic State. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks there were hopes in Europe for renewed cooperation with Russia over these issues. For now, however, it is likely that any goodwill that may have come out of the Paris attacks has been squandered. Any hope of reinvigorating multilateral cooperation on Syria will depend heavily on the reactions of leaders in Washington and Europe and their willingness to take a more conciliatory response to help de-escalate the situation. By moderating their criticisms of Russia, American and European leaders would give Putin the flexibility to let the crisis gradually dissipate over time without losing face in front of his domestic audience.