National Security & Defense

Russia Has Serially Violated NATO Airspace: Time to Push Back

Russia has been playing a very dangerous game for over a year now, violating the airspace of NATO allies, holding large-scale military exercises in which the use of nuclear weapons are simulated by Russia against NATO, testing the responsiveness of NATO militaries — last week Britain scrambled its fighters to intercept Russian bombers. In October, NATO allies condemned Russia’s “irresponsible behavior.” Russia’s irredentist claims against Ukraine, in the Caucasus, and its ominous statements about a responsibility to protect Russians living anywhere have added suspicion.

Russia has serially violated Turkey’s airspace during its operations in Syria and has continued to bomb Turkmen villages adjacent to Turkish territory despite Turkish diplomatic objections, including last Friday. Even Secretary Kerry could identify the trajectory of Russia’s reckless behavior, rather presciently saying in early October that “we’re greatly concerned about it, because it is precisely the kind of thing that, had Turkey responded under its rights, could have resulted in a shootdown.”

RELATED: Turkey Shoots Down Russian Jet, Putin Threatens Retaliation: What to Expect Next

And the Russian aircraft shot down on Tuesday did not respond to more than ten warnings by the Turks. Not only did the Turkish government release the radar plot of the Russian flight, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized yesterday that several NATO allies have independent intelligence verifying Turkey’s findings. So there is no doubt that Turkey was within its rights to shoot down the Russian bombers. Stoltenberg summarized NATO’s meeting Tuesday: “As we have repeatedly made clear, we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally.”

#share#Given the number of times, over a long period, that Russia has recklessly endangered the security of NATO nations, and the clarity of its violation on November 24, Turkey’s actions would be favorable ground on which to take a stronger stand against Russia’s predatory behavior. If Turkey’s actions prove to be a turning point in Western policy toward Russia, the Erdogan government will have done the West a great service.

RELATED: How the U.S. Should Respond to the Russian Offensive in Syria

Statements coming out of Tuesday’s NATO meetings were temperate, emphasizing the need for “cool headedness” on all sides. And perhaps, finally, President Obama has found a suitable object for the derision he usually directs at his domestic opponents: At a press conference yesterday, Obama dismissed Russia’s effort in Syria as “a coalition of two — Iran and Russia — supporting Assad.” We ought to miss no opportunity to emphasize Russia’s isolation, and the deficiencies of its military operations.

#related#Yet there is much more American policy ought to encompass. We should offer Turkey the support of NATO’s Article 5, which treats an attack on any ally as an attack on all members of NATO. President Obama should be burning up the phone lines to NATO allies, asking for their participation in an Alliance air-defense operation should Turkey want reinforcement by its friends. We should make clear that our naval forces in the region also have the ability to shoot down aircraft and will do so to protect Turkey. We should be organizing reserve energy supplies for Turkey, should Russia cut off its the 20 percent of Turkey’s usage (remember that Russia needs markets — they, too, have consequences to consider). We should be thrashing out a political end state for Syria that allies in the Middle East can coalesce around, and give those countries jobs in achieving it. We should be drawing Russia’s attention to other, more vulnerable, points of their security: reaffirming transatlantic sanctions; increasing our assistance in Ukraine’s transition; considering the expansion of NATO to include more countries, as safe harbor against Russian aggression.

Putin will surely seek to stoke Western anxiousness about escalation. After the shootdown, he fulminated, “We will never tolerate such crimes,” and the Russian military command has announced that all future bombing will have fighter escorts. But we in the West must not be so concerned about Russia’s future bad behavior that we fail to push back against Russia’s current bad behavior. We must not deter ourselves from protecting our interests and our allies.

— Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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