Crooked Line in the Sand — Russia and Turkey

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, two Turkish Airforce F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24. How will that incident impact Russia-Turkey relations, Russia-West relations, NATO response, and the fight against ISIS?

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

Russian Sukhoi SU-24
Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and Turkey disagree on what occurred leading up to Turkey shooting down the SU-24.

Russia claims that its aircraft flew along the Turkish border, making sharp turns along the crooked and sharp-angled Northwestern Syrian border to avoid flying into Turkish air space. According to Russia, its pilot received no warnings prior to being shot down. The Russians claim they were hitting ISIS targets in the area.

Turkey claims that the Russian plane flew a two mile route across a small section of Turkey that borders Syria to the east and west. Turkey claims that it radioed ten warnings to the Russian pilot before shooting down the SU-24. According to Turkey, there are no ISIS terrorists in the area that the Russians were bombing – that ethnic Turks that do not support ISIS, but do oppose Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, inhabit the targeted area.

Russia’s claim that the downed SU-24 never flew across Turkish airspace is highly improbable.

The SU-24 lacks the maneuverability required to fly the route that the Russians are claiming that it flew. Also, the Russian claim that they were attacking ISIS targets in the area is most likely at least partially false. ISIS members would be scarce in that area. The Turks seem to be telling the truth about those elements of the shoot down.

However, the Turks could not have radioed ten warnings in the few seconds that would have elapsed while the SU-24 was crossing over Turkish airspace. It’s possible that they could have been broadcasting warnings as the SU-24 flew the long leg of its route that paralleled Turkish airspace. In any case, Turkey had previously warned Russia to keep their warplanes out of Turkish airspace in response to earlier incursions by Russian planes. (For one example, see Russia Upskirts Turkey.)

So why did Russia allow their pilot to fly over Turkish air space?

Given the highly regimented air combat control structure employed by the Russians, it’s not likely that the pilot acted on his own initiative. Russian avionics equipment is not cutting edge, but it is certainly adequate to prevent an accidental flyover on the particular route taken by the SU-24. My guess is that Russia had decided that their pilots should limit their incursions into Turkish air space, but that they approved the flight path that led to their plane being shot down. It seems that Russia miscalculated Turkey’s resolve concerning its incursions.

So how will this incident affect the famed “international coalition to combat ISIS”?

Since the famed coalition is more a product of rhetoric and wishful thinking than of substance, it’s not likely to matter much. Russia is in Syria to prop up the hapless Bashar Assad. Russia’s opposition to ISIS is secondary to that goal. The West opposes both ISIS and Assad. Non-ISIS rebels are receiving Western aid, and both Turkey and its Western allies are opposed to Russian airstrikes targeting non-ISIS rebels. None of this will be greatly impacted by Turkey’s shoot down of the Russian SU-24.

On the diplomatic front, Putin claimed that Turkey “backstabbed” them by shooting down the plane.

Given that no real cooperation between Turkey and Russia has occurred in Syria, and given that the Syrian regime previously shot down a Turkish F-4 on the Syrian Turkish border, it’s more accurate to describe Turkey’s actions as a “counter slash.”

Russia canceled some official meetings between Russian and Turkish ministers and has asked Russians to halt any tourist travel in Turkey. Russia is also claiming that it is scaling back plans for gas exports through a new Russian gas line across Turkey. This seems unlikely since the alternative is for Russia to continue to rely on gas lines crossing Ukraine to reach European markets. With the current low prices of crude, Russia cannot afford to scale back on energy exports. Their fragile economy needs the revenue generated by oil and gas exports.

In military terms, Russia has reacted by deploying better air defense missiles in Syria.

This, when combined with the uncertainty that Putin relies upon so heavily in his foreign policy tactics, may present a new threat to Western and Jordanian aircraft flying in Syrian airspace hunting ISIS targets.

Putin likely does not want to further escalate the situation in Syria by attacking Western or Jordanian aircraft, but he might feel justified in shooting down Turkish aircraft that fly into Syrian air space. The possibility that Russia might mistake a French or American aircraft for a Turkish aircraft cannot be ignored. In recognition of that, the West might, without much fanfare, inform Russian commanders in Syria of Western flight plans when attacking ISIS targets.

As for Russian relations with Western nations, the impact will be minimal.

The US views Erdogan as unreliable on his best day. If Erdogan has “backstabbed” anyone, it has been his NATO partners. Nobody in the US military community will forget that on the eve of the 2003 US-coalition invasion of Iraq, Erdogan withdrew his permission for US troops to invade Iraq via Turkey. More recently, Turkey has been inconsistent in dealing with the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. Erdogan claims to want to fight ISIS, but he has spent far more effort fighting Kurds both in Turkey and in Syria.

Turkey is a NATO partner, but thanks to Erdogan, it is the least trusted and least liked member. NATO will not ignore direct military aggression by Russia against Turkey, but given Erdogan’s long, ugly record of ignoring the interests of his “allies,” NATO partners are not going to allow Erdogan to control their agenda in Syria.

As for the war on ISIS and statements by US cabinet members and DOD spokesmen that “this further complicates our efforts against ISIS” – that’s more PR effort than reality.

The Obama administration’s opponents have been critical of Obama’s minimalist approach to combating ISIS. The White House now has one more excuse for not escalating efforts against the Islamic extremists.

Given the economic trouble at home and the expensive conflict in Ukraine, Putin does not want to escalate a conflict with Turkey. Given the growing discontent and political violence in Turkey, along with troubled relations with his NATO allies, Erdogan does not want to escalate a conflict with Russia. NATO does not want Turkey or Russia to escalate a conflict. Neither Erdogan nor Putin have demonstrated skill in foreign policy or diplomacy, but both have strong reasons to avoid a serious engagement with each other.

Most likely, the status quo will continue in Syria. The fight against ISIS will remain in low gear, and since Russia has few friends, economic convenience will prevent a long term freeze of Turkey-Russia relations.

Dances With Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

By Jay Holmes

On February 23, 2014, with the help of ethnic Russians in Crimea, Russia’s special forces and intelligence services stepped up their pro-Russian campaign to a degree that signaled that a Russian invasion and that annexation of the Crimean region was likely to occur. Emboldened by Russian military support, pro-Russian protesters in the area became more violent and more demanding.

During the last three years, national sentiment in Ukraine has shifted toward closer ties with Europe. How and when, not if, Ukraine would enter the European Union was the topic of daily debate in Ukraine. While Europeans, including most Ukrainians, were forging those closer ties, the infamous Dancing Bear of Moscow, Vladimir Putin, began to formulate a very different view of Ukraine’s future.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.
wikimedia commons

 

Prior to February of 2014, as these tensions played out in Ukraine, Western nations were relying on two basic strategies. The strategy pursued by most Western nations ranged from “Where is Ukraine?” to “How soon can they join the EU?”  The US pragmatically pursued a more focused policy—the “I hope that all goes well and nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”  Once a Russian invasion of Crimea was imminent, the West quickly reacted with new strategies. Most European nations seemed to be relying on the US to “do something.” The US responded by upgrading its own strategy to “Gosh, I really, really hope nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”

On February 28, 2014, the not-so-sneaky Russians did their best impersonation of a “sneak attack” in Crimea. All the West’s best hopes and wishes had not prevented the obvious. US President Obama (a.k.a. Dances With Bears) and other Western leaders quickly announced that there would be “consequences” for Russia in response to their invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, Putin responded by claiming that Crimea belonged to Russia all along. He then reminded Europe that they like Russian gas supplies.

As expected, the “consequences” promised by the West have been mild.

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell, GNU Free Documentation License, wikimedia commons

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell,
GNU Free Documentation License,
wikimedia commons

Moderate economic sanctions and a list of Russians who will not receive US entry is all it amounted to.  Across Western Europe, the political rhetoric varied from near silence to mild displeasure. Putin is probably thrilled by this lack of a coordinated response on the part of the West.

Since February, Russia has officially annexed Crimea and continues to orchestrate, supply, and partially man protests and riots in Eastern Ukraine. Russian mechanized forces are staged along the Russian Ukraine border.  So now what?

On May 7, Vladimir Putin gave a televised speech to the Russian people. The speech was the usual double talk that we can always count on Putin to deliver. Here is a small, translated excerpt of Putin’s speech. “We must look for ways out of the situation as it is today. We all have an interest in ending this crisis, Ukraine and its people above all. Thus I say that we all want the crisis to end as soon as possible and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine, no matter where they live. The discussion with Mr. President showed that our approaches to possible solutions to the crisis have much in common.”

Putin meme i don't always invade a foreign country

When he said “Mr. President,” Putin was referring to the visiting president of Switzerland. As far as his claim that they share “much in common,” it’s true in the same sense that the chicken and the fox might momentarily share the same hen house. In case you wonder, the translation is the official translation to English done by the Kremlin media office. As usual, Putin sounds semi-conciliatory, and as usual, his words don’t mean much except to the Russian public. In the same speech, Putin directly contradicted his own foreign minister by claiming that he supports the upcoming May 25 elections in Ukraine as “a step in the right direction.”

Fortunately, most Western leaders are responding to Putin’s speech with muted skepticism.  A few Putin admirers and the occasional innocent have welcomed Putin’s speech as a turning-point in the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s military dispositions on the Ukraine border and his country’s ongoing operations in Eastern Ukraine are a very clear measure of Putin’s actual intentions. In light of that, the West should formulate a united response to Russian aggression. That response should include increased economic sanctions.

Thus far, the economic sanctions have had a small negative impact on the Russian economy. If those sanctions are increased and continue in force, the impacts will be far more significant. Russia has significant foreign debt in the form of bonds. As the trade value of those bonds continues to drop and interest rates rise, Russian companies will find it difficult to finance growth. That will drive up unemployment to levels that will not keep Russians happy with Vlady the Dancing Bear.

Thus far, one positive development has occurred as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, have prioritized finding new sources of natural gas so they can avoid dependency on Russia. This will include the delivery of liquefied petroleum gas from the USA to a new port facility in Lithuania. Let’s all hope that the facility is well designed and safely operated. Don’t buy a vacation home in that neighborhood. New gas supplies will not be prepared quickly. It will take several years to make a sizeable impact in the European gas supply, but there is now more cooperation than ever before in the energy planning of Western states. It’s about time.

So here is my best guess for the near future in Ukraine. Putin is not going to relinquish Crimea—not this month, or any month. Russia will likely not launch an all-out invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Putin has taken the measure of his geopolitical dance partners in the West. He does not want full-scale cooperation against Russia by the US, Canada, and Europe. Russia could all but eliminate the strife in Eastern Ukraine by withdrawing its military and financial support for pro-Russian Ukrainians and by ending its clandestine operations in Ukraine. However, in all likelihood, Russia will continue to direct a smoldering conflict in Eastern Ukraine while pretending to be “seeking peace.” The uncertainty and chaos in Ukraine suits his purposes. From Putin’s point of view, it keeps the West “on the edge” without causing a more harsh Western response.

In my view, the best way for the West to help the Ukraine is to avoid vague threats and present a united front with well-enforced economic sanctions against Russia. That bear dances well, but all bears must eat, and the Russian bear has a big appetite that feeds on cash from U.S. and Western banks. Reasonable sanctions won’t wrestle the Crimea from Russia, but they can prevent Russia from invading and seizing a third of the remaining Ukraine without firing a shot.

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Bayard & Holmes

Dances with Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

The Nobel Peace-Through-Ironic-Laughter Prize Nominees

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

It has come to the attention of Bayard & Holmes that the Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World (ASUCPW) nominated the Russian President, KGB officer Vladimir Putin, for the Nobel Peace Prize. At first, we were confused.

Vladimir Putin, Dove of Peace image by premier.gov.ru

Vladimir Putin, Dove of Peace
image by premier.gov.ru

Back when PLO terrorist Yasser Arafat—the bin Laden of his day—won the award, we thought it had been purchased for him by some of his pet sheiks as a birthday present. Then, when President Obama won, we were really befuddled, as at that point his greatest negotiation was settling an argument between his daughters over who got the last scoop of ice cream. Our best guess was that he told the committee about his Peace Through Absolute Electronic Surveillance of Americans dream and gave them the same access to PRISM that he shares with Israel, the Five Eyes, his favorite corporations, his dog Bo, and untold others. But now that Vladimir Putin is nominated, we finally understand what the Nobel Peace Prize is all about. It’s to give us all a good, ironic belly laugh.

Putin is being hailed by the ASUCPW as a hero of peace because he got Assad to agree to hand over his chemical weapons to Russia. Those unfamiliar with history may not have noticed, but the Soviet Union started arming Syria back in the late 1940s, before it married capitalism and changed its name to “Russia.” Putin has always been a staunch backer of Assad. Of course he doesn’t want international intervention there. That would be like inviting the neighborhood kids to beat up his favorite illegitimate love child. Instead, Putin is simply having his young foot soldier pass him the “rifle.”

So since Putin is nominated for the Nobel Peace-Through-Ironic-Laughter Prize, we believe he needs a few competitors who could give him a run for his money. We tasked our Bayard & Holmes Peace-Through-Ironic-Laughter Prize Nominating Committee (us) with providing us a list of potential nominees. We think they did a great job finding peers for Putin and Arafat.

  • Osama bin Laden – For bringing peace to fanatical Islamists who were fighting each other by providing them with ways to unify and focus their attention on destroying the West.
  • Heads of the Mexican Drug Cartels – For unifying the people of Mexico who are not in cartels by getting them to all agree that they would like to take extended vacations to almost anywhere else right now.
  • Vice President Joe Biden – For providing the best life insurance any American president could have, thus putting a natural limit on US societal divisions in that no matter how much people dislike Obama, we all want him to remain in good health for the duration of his term.
  • George Zimmerman – For unifying the world of social media into obsessing about a single topic for several weeks.
  • Everybody’s Drunk Uncle Freddie – For unifying enormous portions of society in depression and stress during the holidays.

Now it’s your turn. In light of Putin’s nomination for a Nobel Peace-Through-Ironic-Laughter Prize, who would you nominate? Please don’t disrespect anyone in the comments—except Putin, of course.