Only a few hours after the first shoot-down of a Russian plane by a NATO member in 60 years, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to explain Russia’s reaction to the incident. It was a stark contrast to the highly managed appearances that Putin has usually given when discussing security issues, such as the images shown just a week earlier of Putin in Russia’s brand new state-of-the-art three storey central Moscow war room where Russian officials confirmed that MetroJet Flight 9268 was brought down over the Sinai Peninsula by a bomb. While it is likely Putin’s televised statements on 24 November were also highly managed, with Putin commenting during a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, in an effort to downplay the likelihood of a military response, Putin’s body language and facial expressions were a faint ghost of the strongman appearance in which he is usually presented. This is likely because, despite aggressive rhetoric from multiple Russian politicians, Russia’s potential responses to the shoot-down of the Su-24 are limited. In shooting down the plane, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan essentially put Putin in the position of weakness that Putin’s Kremlin has often sought to force upon its rivals.
Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has regularly used Russia’s military power to send political messages to its neighbours, most often by launching unexpected actions to catch its rivals off guard. The most well-known example was the deployment of so-called ‘little green men’ to Crimea in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on 21 February 2014. However, others abound, including the surprise invasion of Georgia in August 2008 or, on a smaller scale, the September 2014 kidnapping of Estonian security officer Eston Kohver from Estonian territory. These actions were taken knowing that the ability to respond to Russia’s actions was extremely limited. The invasion of Georgia came after Georgia itself launched military actions against Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia and as the world’s attention was focused on the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the takeover of Crimea came as Ukraine was attempting to construct a new government in the aftermath of its revolution, and Kohver’s abduction took place close enough to the Russian-Estonian border under sufficiently murky circumstances that a major response would have been difficult to justify. Furthermore, the balance of power between Russia and these states is so great that any military response would have been futile.
Russia’s use of this tactic has been highly successful. In Ukraine, it resulted in Ukrainian forces withdrawing from Crimea without a fight despite Kiev’s fierce opposition to, and international condemnation of, the Moscow-organised independence referendum. This spurred pro-Russian demonstrations in the east of the country, which together with further Russian assistance, lead to the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk and a severe economic recession thereby negating the risk the Euromaidan revolution could spread to Russia. In Georgia, it resulted in a crushing military victory in just five days that left Georgia’s hopes of ever re-establishing its territorial integrity entirely dependent on relations with Moscow. Kohver’s kidnapping raised doubts about whether sufficient political will existed in the US and much of Western Europe to defend Eastern European and Baltic NATO members against Russian aggression. However, Russia is not the only country that can successfully employ the tactic of carrying out military actions meant to highlight weakness rather than provoke a response.
This tactic is the very same one that Erdogan employed in shooting down the Su-24. It is unlikely Turkey took the decision to do so as a hastily-decided emergency, but rather carefully weighed the risks and rewards of doing so in the event Russia once again violated its airspace, as it has done on numerous occasions since it began airstrikes in Syria on 30 September. An analysis of the risks and rewards likely showed that by shooting down the plane, Turkey could do to Russia what Russia had done to Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and others.
The aircraft was in, or close enough, to Turkish territory that Russia cannot deny Turkey’s justification for the shoot-down. A military response is also effectively impossible due to Turkey’s status as a NATO member. Even Russia’s military posturing is limited as Turkey could bar Russian naval transport from the Black Sea to the Syrian coast as the custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits under the Montreux Convention. While Turkey imports some 50 per cent of its natural gas from Russia, which is also a major oil supplier, Russia’s ability to respond on the energy front is limited. Turkey is crucial to Russia’s long-term strategy of maintaining its dominance of Central and Eastern European gas markets, as evidence by last-year’s agreement between Russia and Turkey to construct a new natural gas pipeline that would eventually deliver supplies to Europe. Russia has also aggressively lobbied against the construction of natural gas pipelines to Europe via Turkey from Azerbaijan, and possibly further abroad. Other trade ties have also gained in importance, particularly as the ruble’s decline versus the Turkish Lira has been far less than its comparative decline versus the US Dollar, Euro or Chinese Yuan. Although there are already indications that Russia will look to curtail tourism to Turkey, this too is fraught with challenges. More than 3 million Russians travelled to Turkey in 2014, a million more than the second-most popular foreign destination, Egypt, to which Russia has severed flights due to the MetroJet bombing. Turkey had been expected to receive the vast majority of those tourists no longer able to seek the sun in Egypt. Russia simply cannot conjure up sufficient spots in the sun for five million people.
As with Putin’s body language during his accusation Turkey stabbed Russia in the back by shooting down the plane, while Russia’s rhetoric over the incident will remain heated, its actions will likely remain muted. In many ways, Erdogan simply did to Putin what Putin has often done to project himself and his country as the paragon of strength and an opponent as weak. How Putin will respond to the taste of his own medicine over the long-run remains to be seen. However, it is of little surprise that the plane’s downing was cheered on by Ukrainian activists on social media, hailed as the inevitable result of Russia’s dramatic increase of military drills and actions near NATO and EU borders over the past eighteen months by Western think tanks and also praised by supporters of Islamist groups in the North Caucasus, Syria and elsewhere. Both in the West and former Soviet space, many politicians and military officials familiar with Putin’s tactics likely did so in private as well.