As I’m sure everyone, including those buried at airports trying to get home or somewhere for Thanksgiving now know, Russian and Turkish pilots played chicken yesterday and the Russian’s lost. After several previous Russian aerial incursions, and repeated warnings to clear Turkish airspace, the Turks decided to lay down a marker. And if the Turks were not members of NATO and Russia wasn’t the owner of the two largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons on the planet, this would be a problem, but it would not necessarily be a crisis. In this case, however, Turkey’s NATO membership and Putin’s revanchism have created a potentially more dangerous situation.
Perhaps the biggest immediate concern is that Erdogan, in pursuit of his attempts to be the regional hegemon, decides to make this a NATO issue by invoking Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Article 5 is the portion of the treaty that deals with collective defense. In short an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of them (the link is to NATO’s site and provides a complete description and explanation). There was an emergency NATO meeting earlier today, but my professional guesstimate is that most of the other NATO members are trying to talk sense to the Turkish representatives. There are several reasons for this, not least among them is that Turkey, specifically Erdogan and his government, have been unreliable in regards to the Syrian Civil War. Moreover, Erdogan has engaged in a number of concerning actions domestically. What appeared to start out as necessary constitutional reforms, done in the right way through the Turkish political system, quickly turned into something much more worrisome: that Erdogan is slowly seeking to try in Turkey what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to do quickly in Egypt.* Turkey has been a historically important and supportive ally of the US. Under Erdogan, however, they seem to have become less so.**
Putin, and what Putin will do, is also of concern. One of the hallmarks of Putinism (h/t: Stiftung Leo Strauss***), which is itself rooted in Dugin’s philosophy/ideology (h/t: Stiftung Leo Strauss), is revanchism. Putin’s understanding of the world, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, is that the United States, as well as NATO controlled by the US and EU, has taken advantage of Russia. From Putin’s point of view a weak/weakened Russia emerged from the chaos surrounding the end of Gorbachev’s premiership and was exploited by the US and the EU. NATO expansion into Russia’s historic sphere of influence and near abroad is simply further evidence of how the US and EU abused their power at Russia’s expense. Now that Russia has grown more economically powerful, largely because of the outsize profits realized in the petroleum markets beginning in 2008, Putin has the ability to do something about this perceived abuse. The war with Georgia in 2008 was one foray. Seizing Crimea and supporting Russian ethnic/Russian linguistic separatists in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was another. And having Russian jets flirt with incursions into US and other NATO members airspace is just another example of Putin trying to make his point: Russia is strong again, with a strong leader, and will not simply be pushed around. And this is all before we get into the potential links between Putin and Russian organized crime***.
The real problem we are facing though is that neither Erdogan on his own, nor Putin really have the ability to make this a bigger issue. Erdogan can’t take Turkey into an actual fight against Russia. Putin’s limited assets in the Levant, as well as Turkey’s NATO membership and that pesky Article 5, potentially constrain his actions. Or we should hope they constrain his actions, while recognizing that hope is not a strategy. So what happens? As was the case with Russia’s taking of the Ukraine, I do not think there is anyone in the Obama Administration, or in the EU leadership, that would risk an interstate war with Russia over this. The reason, again, is that if that escalates we’re talking about war between the two largest nuclear powers. I would expect that cooler heads will prevail in the NATO meetings. Moreover, I estimate that when President Hollande goes to Moscow, which is on his list of stops after he leaves the US to line up international support against ISIS, that he will attempt to draw the Russians into whatever it is he is actually proposing to/discussing with his other allies. As I’ve written here before: states do not have friends, they have interests. In Syria, Russia’s interests in defeating ISIS overlap with ours and that of our EU and NATO partners, though perhaps not Erdogan’s.
I ultimately expect that cooler heads will prevail here. Finally, this is another real world example of why we do NOT want to create a no fly zone over Syria and a great argument for creating a multi-national deconfliction cell to prevent these types of things from happening again. The key to managing and mitigating the Syrian Civil War and the sectarian conflict that it reenflamed in Iraq, is containment. Deconfliction of operations is an appropriate step towards effective containment as it prevents events from spiraling out of control into related, tangential crises that have all too much chance of getting out of hand.
* Full disclosure to mark my belief’s to market: When Erdogan began his reforms I was one of the folks who believed he was making necessary constitutional adjustments and doing so in the correct manner through the existing and approved political system. Had he stopped there, not only would I and other informed observers been correct, but it would have been to Turkey’s benefit. However, he did not stop there and began to reposition Turkey against both Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony and his party and their politics domestically in a more authoritarian manner.
** Fuller disclosure: I supervised a Turkish armor officer in 2010-2011 and last year wrote a letter of recommendation for him for graduate school. He is an excellent officer, what we in the US would call and officer and a gentleman, and a credit to both the Turkish military and to the Profession of Arms.
*** I highly recommend The Stiftung Leo Strauss for analysis on Russia and Putin, as well as other issues both foreign and domestic.
**** I highly recommend Dawisha’s book, I’m about a 1/3 of the way through.