After Turkish planes downed a Russian fighter jet on Tuesday, Western leaders looked anxiously toward Moscow, waiting to see how President Vladimir Putin would respond to an attack he described as “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorist accomplices.”
The incident took place when two Turkish F-16s intercepted the Russian plane, a Sukhoi Su-24 fighter. Turkish authorities claim that the Russian plane had violated Turkey’s airspace – something Russia denies – and said the pilots were warned 10 times before their plane was brought down with a missile launched by one of the Turkish jets. One of the Russian plane’s two pilots was reportedly killed.
The incident puts Putin in a delicate position. Part of his domestic popularity is based on his projection of strength and his new assertion of Russia’s power on the world stage. Some sort of reaction to the downing of a plane seems inevitable.
However, whether the shoot-down was justified or not, if Putin chooses to respond with force against Turkey, it would place him in direct conflict with a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization whose mutual defense pact requires each member to come to the aid of any single member country that is attacked.
Turkey called an emergency meeting of NATO officials for Tuesday evening.
When the news first broke, Kremlin spokesperson Dimitry Peskov reacted cautiously. “We have to be patient, it is a very serious incident, but again, without all of the information it is impossible to say anything and it would be wrong.”
However, not long afterward, Putin, who was meeting with the king of Jordan at the Russian resort town of Sochi, explicitly condemned the attack as a crime.
“This tragic event will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations,” Putin said, according to Russian media reports. “We have always regarded Turkey not only as a close neighbor, but also as a friendly state. I don’t know who needed what was done today, but we didn’t in any case.”
The Russian president also criticized the Turkish government’s reaction after the incident, complaining that rather than contacting Russian authorities, “Turkey addressed their NATO partners – as if it was us who downed their plane, not vice versa.”
The Turkish decision to shoot down the Russian jet is also likely to complicate the situation in Syria where the U.S. and multiple Western nations are conducting air strikes aimed at the terror group ISIS. In the case of Russia, the targets are both ISIS and rebel groups opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
In the days leading up to the incident, Putin seemed to have gained an advantage in the international controversy over Russia’s involvement in Syria.
When he first sent warplanes to the region, Putin described the Russian mission as countering terrorist groups, with a particular focus on ISIS. However, international observers quickly noted that the vast majority of Russian strikes were focused not on ISIS, but on rebel groups opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It soon became apparent that the primary goal of Russia’s involvement in Syria was to prop up the Assad regime, one of its few allies in the Middle East.
That changed in wake of two ISIS-related terrorist attacks outside of Syria. On October 31, a bomb brought down a Russian civilian jetliner, killing 224 people. Then, on November 13, ISIS attackers slaughtered 130 people and wounded hundreds more in multiple attacks in Paris.
It took more than two weeks for Russia to make the determination that ISIS had brought down the plane, but once it did, the Kremlin redirected its efforts in Syria, strengthening its forces there and directing much more firepower at ISIS. At the same time, France greatly stepped up its activity in Syria, launching airstrikes and sending naval forces to the region. France and Russia began operating as allies in the region.
Russian planes have been operating for months in the border region between Turkey and Syria, creating tension between Moscow and the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Russian support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has included attacks on various rebel groups in Northern Syrian close to the Turkish border and has targeted ethnic Turkmen groups, which the government in Ankara wants protected.
In addition, Russian planes have reportedly violated Turkish airspace on multiple occasions. At one point, Russia formally apologized for an incursion, blaming it on a navigational error.