Earlier today, a flight of Turkish Air Force F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 strike aircraft. Turkey insists that it repeatedly warned the SU-24 crew to avoid Turkish sovereign airspace. According to Turkey and NATO (now holding emergency meetings), the SU-24 then entered Turkish airspace, where it was shot down. The Russian aircrew ejected into Syrian territory, where anti-Assad rebels apparently executed them. Video footage appears to show the body of one Russian officer. Russia has also confirmed that rebels killed a member of a search-and-rescue team attempting to recover the SU-24 crew. A video posted under the emblem of First Coastal Division, a rebel group aligned with the Free Syrian Army, seems to show its fighters firing an American anti-tank missile at a Russian rescue helicopter on the ground.
President Putin has condemned Turkey’s action as a “stab in the back” by “accomplices of terrorists” that “will have significant consequences for relations.” The Russian military says it will continue operations in northern Syria and will protect its forces from further attack.
What does this all mean?
Putin knew he was dancing on fire. The Russian air force has repeatedly intruded into Turkish airspace in recent months.
First, it’s important to note that President Putin knew he was dancing on fire. The Russian air force has repeatedly intruded into Turkish airspace in recent months, and Turkey has warned that it would take action. As an extension, Turkey last week warned of “serious consequences” if Russia continued bombing Syrian Turkmen forces near Turkey’s border. Moreover, in President Erdogan, Putin should have known he was dealing with a unique adversary, because his Turkish opposite sees himself as the master of Middle Eastern destiny, working against Iran (which has been attacking Turkish interests in Iraq). The Turkish leader has been infuriated by Russia, Assad, and Iran, and he was looking for a way to strike back. On the flip side, Putin’s rebuke to Erdogan today in describing him as a terrorist accomplice reflects the deep personal antagonism between the two men.
#share#The downing of the SU-24 might not be the precursor to World War III, but we shouldn’t underestimate its strategic ramifications. Consider that Russian media are now reporting that Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean will shoot down any threatening aircraft. Recall Russia’s downing of the MH-17 passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July 2014: That incident proved Putin’s willingness to roll the dice against the American-led international order. President Putin will probably regard this incident as both a personal and policy challenge. At home and abroad, Putin has carefully cultivated his image as a determined leader rebuilding Russian global influence. In light of that, Putin is highly likely to respond here, possibly by engaging the Turkish air force the next time Russian aircraft are operating along the Syrian border.
Further inflaming the situation is the rebel video of the Russian flight officer and the Coastal Division’s apparent use of an American missile to destroy one of the rescue helicopters. The combination of crowing anti-Assad rebels using American weapons to kill Russian serviceman will greatly offend Russian pride and fuel widespread anger there.
#related#Of course, Turkey’s actions also insert NATO into the situation. If Turkey is now attacked by Russian forces — even in a limited way — it may request American support under NATO’s Chapter Five collective self-defense protocol, which commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one member state as an armed attack against them all.
While the United States is expressing sympathy for Russia’s loss, it must also warn Russia against escalation. This is especially crucial in light of Putin’s obvious effort to manipulate U.S. allies (such as France) and bring them into closer alignment with his own goal of keeping Assad in power. As I noted on this weekend’s McLaughlin Group, Russia is focusing on Syria to preserve its access to the Mediterranean and expand its influence in the Middle East. But Putin must understand that this incident isn’t an opportunity for him to push NATO out of the Middle East.
—Tom Rogan is a writer for National Review and Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter at TomRtweets. His homepage is tomroganthinks.com.