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National Security & Defense

Turkey Shoots Down Russian Jet, and the World Gets Even More Complex

And now a NATO partner has engaged in a direct military confrontation with Russia:

Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian jet Tuesday after NATO-member Turkey says the plane violated its airspace on the border with Syria, a major escalation in the Syrian conflict that could further strain relations between Russia and the West.

Russian officials confirmed that a Russian Su-24 fighter had been shot down, but insisted it had not violated Turkish airspace.

“A stab in the back,” complained Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Turkey’s military, however, said that the Russian jet was warned multiple times before it was shot down by two F-16 fighter jets in the border zone in western Syria in mountains not far from the Mediterranean coast.

What happens from here? While it’s entirely possible that this incident was a product of the fog of war — the confusion and tension that accompanies every military conflict — it’s also possible that Putin and/or Turkey has engaged in deliberate provocation, testing the boundaries of their counterpart’s strength and resolve. As my colleague Jim Geraghty has pointed out, Putin is intent on demonstrating that NATO is a paper tiger, and he may well push the issue to see how NATO responds. If so, then he’s chosen the weak link relatively well. Turkey has an Islamist government, has been deliberately and consistently provocative towards Israel, is relentlessly hostile to our Kurdish allies, and served as a vital transit point both for ISIS recruits moving into Syria and ISIS oil exports moving out. There’s likely little stomach in the U.S. to risk even a great power skirmish in support of Turkey.

At the same time, however, there is immense cost in forsaking a NATO partner. Our more vulnerable eastern European allies would rightly perceive the Obama administration as retreating from the North Atlantic alliance and placing them in a precarious strategic position, with unpredictable results. Some may double down on their own defense expenditures. Others may move closer to the Russian orbit, expanding Putin’s influence. 

Perhaps the best case scenario is that both sides will choose to view the incident as a mistake, and — unwilling to engage in further brinksmanship — subtly de-escalate. Putin has much to lose if NATO stands solidly behind Turkey, and Turkey has much to lose if it’s left twisting in the wind. Welcome to the return of high-stakes, great power rivalry — where missteps from either side can lead to the kind of force-on-force military engagements the world hasn’t seen in more than a generation.


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