On Tuesday, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it says had crossed into its airspace from Syria. Though Russia denies it had violated Turkish airspace, Turkey has been complaining of such Russian violations ever since Russia began its military intervention in Syria this September.
To understand why Russia might do this and how Moscow might respond to this incident, I called Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU's Center for Global Affairs who focuses on Russia. He suggested that Russia could have been poking at NATO, as it has in the past, but also discussed some much deeper, and more important, issues in the Russia-Turkey relationship and Russia's military adventure in Syria. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Beauchamp: Why would Russia fly into Turkey's airspace in the first place?
Mark Galeotti: There are a few possible reasons.
First is pilot error. They were operating near the border and so strayed over by mistake. It's unlikely, given modern avionics, but nonetheless we can't completely exclude the possibility.
The second thing is that this could, since Turkey is a NATO state, have been Russia just trying to flex its political-diplomatic muscles. Wanting to make the point that they can do this with impunity — which, of course, they have done in NATO's northern reaches.
The third possibility is that this was just a brief foray into Turkish airspace, and the bomber pilot was just setting up an attack run. And given that the Turks are actively supporting some pretty toxic rebel groups, it could have been that the target was just inside Turkish borders. That's the problem when you have a target-rich environment on both sides of the borderline.
It's [also] worth noting that we heard that one of the two pilots was gunned down by rebels while parachuting down, which means that it's possible that it was in Syria. Nonetheless, the fact that the Russians are operating so close to the Turkish border in any case does say something about a certain arrogance and a certain brinksmanship.
Zack Beauchamp: Speaking of brinksmanship: Immediately after the attack, Putin threatened "serious consequences" for the Turks after the plane went down. How seriously should we take his threat?
Mark Galeotti: These days it's very hard to predict Putin. But I suspect Moscow is not keen to start yet another diplomatic war, let alone anything more than that. They're stuck in a quagmire in Ukraine. There's a very dangerous commitment to Syria. They have a whole series of international sanctions on them.
What we're likely to see is some kind of symbolic act: maybe banning Turkish airliners from landing in Russian airports, some kind of economic sanctions, words with the Turkish ambassador, that kind of thing. [Ed. note: after this conversation, the Russian Ministry of Defense suspended military-to-military communications with its Turkish counterparts.]
At the same time, they'll hope for there being even the faintest signs of contrition from Ankara, which would allow Putin to tell the Russian people that "the Turks messed up, the Turks have acknowledged that, we move on."
Zack Beauchamp: So what is the Russian public reaction to this going to be?
Mark Galeotti: The first indications are that there's a definite surge of public anger. They only know what the Kremlin is going to tell them, which is that this was a Turkish attack on a Russian plane over Syria while it was trying to bomb terrorist targets. All Putin's rhetoric about being stabbed in the back will have resonance, particularly because Russians — even more so than many other people — are very conscious of their history.
Russia has a long pre-Soviet history of rivalry with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and a sense that the Turks are not to be trusted, rooted in crude cultural stereotypes. But one has to realize that it's not as though they're demanding war: They can, to a large extent, be modulated and if need be distracted through the state controlled media. I don't think this is, in any meaningful sense, a constraint on the Kremlin.
In Russia, the whole Syrian adventure has been played as "strike the terrorists in Syria before we have to fight them in Russia." It's been sold as an operation that's tremendously successful. You could argue with how effective the airstrikes are — let's be honest, the best the Russian airstrikes can do is slightly slow the rate at which Assad is losing the war; they won't turn the tide. But that's not how it's being sold in Moscow. Finally, it's been sold as a safe operation: no large ground troop commitments, the Russians are doing everything at arm's length away from danger.
One plane being shot down — and by another country, not the rebels — is not going to change that last element. But it really does point to the fact that if the Russians do start taking losses, losses they can't paper over with their propaganda machine, then there are risks that this will quite quickly become less popular.
Zack Beauchamp: That point you made about historical animosity between Russia and Turkey is interesting, and brings up a bigger issue: how do you see the Russian-Turkish relationship today more generally? Will this incident change anything?
Mark Galeotti: We saw, at one point, something of a connection forming between Turkey's [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Russia's Putin. Both of them were leaders in the strongman roles.
But to be perfectly honest, Turkey has — at best — been a frenemy to Moscow. Under Erdogan, Turkey has embarked on a campaign to assert itself as a regional power. To essentially acquire a sphere of influence, and in the process it is inevitably challenging and competing with Moscow.
This predates Syria. I remember when I was in Azerbaijan, there were a whole variety of actors competing there, very clearly including Turkey. Turkey was making quite a push [to the chagrin of] the Russians. There's actually a long history of rivalry in the modern era; the Russians have clearly infringed on Turkish sovereignty, including the assassination of Chechen rebel fundraisers on Turkish soil by what were almost certainly Russian intelligence officers.
Relations are unlikely to change, then, because they've always been quite tense and antagonistic.
Zack Beauchamp: Another thing you said I'd like to pick up on: The more Russia takes casualties, the more of a burden the Syria war will become for Putin. If that's the case, then is this incident going to make Putin less assertive in using military force in Syria?
Mark Galeotti: It depends very much on the scale. If we're talking about a slow-drip feed — a soldier killed by a sniper here, a plane shot down there — it's a lot more manageable. On the other hand, I'm thinking back to when Ronald Reagan was forced to call back the US Marines from Lebanon after the major truck bombing in the barracks [in 1982]. A single, cataclysmic loss of life made this much more of a story.
But let's be honest. Moscow is not looking for an open-ended, much less an expanded, military effort in Syria. The purpose of the air attacks is, more than anything else, to place Moscow within the decision-making cycle about what happens in Syria. What the Russians are actually looking for is to be some part of a political settlement.
Now, a political settlement would actually see Assad go — the Russians are probably the only people who can get Assad out of Damascus peaceably and offer him sanctuary in Russia. It would also include the creation of some kind of political settlement, including the rebels and the Alawite elite. That's the only way you're going to get enough combatants on the ground in Syria to actually take on the Islamic State.
Putin is much more concerned with that political dimension than the military one — he wants to be moving on that political dimension as soon as possible. And thanks to the Paris attacks, it looked like the momentum was actually going his way. This shoot-down could stymie efforts at reaching a West-Russia deal, or it could make it more urgent. We really don't know at this stage.