In thinking about the distressing but also unfortunately predictable announcement of a Russian fighter jet being downed by two Turkish fighters, let me start with one almost sure assumption – an assumption that without doubt is also being made by the Russian government: Turkey’s action, utilizing US- furnished F-16 planes, was taken with the full understanding and upfront support of the US. The truth is, given Turkey’s vassal position as a member of US-dominated NATO, it could well be that Ankara was set up to this act of brinksmanship by the US.
What makes the downing of the Russian jet, and the announced death of at least one of its two pilots (the other was supposedly captured alive by pro-turkish Turkmen fighters on the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkish border, and will possibly be charged back to Russia) so threatening is that as a member of NATO, apparently a “mutual assistance” treaty that binds all members to come to the defense of one that is attacked, if Russia were to get back by downing a Turkish military plane, NATO countries which includes the US would be required to come to Turkey’s defense.
Russia understands this, and that is why so far the Russian reaction to the downing has been muted. Had it been a Jordanian, Saudi or Kuwaiti jet that downed the Russian SU-24, Russia’s reaction would have been instant, and immediate. The guilty party would have had some of its planes shot down, or maybe even bombed on the ground. But President Putin so far has restrained himself to demanding a meeting, to warning that Russian-Turkish economic relations would be threatened, etc.
This restraint is good, but obviously, Vladimir Putin will not quit there. Even putting aside domestic factors (visualize the public clamor for a military response here in the US if some small country shot down a US plane!), he will have to answer or his whole project – so far amazingly successful – of restoring Russia to its pre-USSR-collapse position as a global power, would be a failure.
Putin’s choices are really quite vast, though some carry significantly more risk for everyone, not just for Russia and Turkey. He could have his own air force in Syria, where Russia is legally acting at the request of the Syrian government to safeguard it against rebel forces of ISIS and Al Nusra, some of which are backed by both Turkey and the US, steadly hold out for a Turkish military jet to cross into Syrian airspace. At that point it could be downed by Russian planes or missiles. No doubt Turkey will be extremely careful going forward to have its pilots keep well away from Syrian air space too prevent that, but it could arise. My guess is that Russian fighter pilots and anti-aircraft batteries in Syria currently have their marching orders to take that action, which probably would not activate NATO confrontation with Russia and lead to World War III, as long as there was sensible proof that Turkey’s plane was in Syrian airspace.
But should no such chance show itself, Russia has loads of other opportunities to counter Turkey. Keep in mind, Russia is also defending Syria’s coastline, and might destroy or capture a Turkish ship that entered Syrian waters (or Russian waters in the Black Sea, which borders both countries).
Russia – realizing that this is actually not about Turkey, but about push-back by the US in opposition to growing Russian power and influence, both globally and in the Middle East region – could also decide to answer in a venue where it has more of a gain, for example in Ukraine, where it could amp up its support for the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, maybe by downing a Ukrainian military plane, or more broadly, supplying air cover to protect those regions. Russia could also, less directly, supply aid to Kurdish rebels in both Syria and in Turkey itself who are fighting against Turkish forces.
I’m certain there are a good deal of other options readily available to Russia also to turn the screws against both Turkey and NATO, without openly pushing buttons that could steer to a direct confrontation with the US and its NATO fiction.
Working in Russia’s benefit is that the US aside, the European nations of NATO have no wish to be at war with Russia. There are clearly hotheads in the US Congress, the Pentagon, and maybe even within the neo-con-infested Obama administration, who are pressuring for just such a mad showdown. But in Europe, where the real fighting would mostly happen, and where memories are still strong of the destructive power of war, there is no taste for such madness. It could, in truth, have been a big mistake in the long run for the US to push Turkey into such a dangerous provocation, if it results in more anti-American sentiment among the citizens of such key NATO countries as France, Germany, Italy and Britain.
It should be included that Russia and China have become much closer in recent years, economically, politically and militarily. This suggests there is also the chance that the two countries could, in concert, step up pressure on the US in the western Pacific, to illustrate by forcing down one of the provocative US flights near China’s new island projects in the South China Sea. That would compel an currently stretched US military to shift more forces to Asia from Europe and the Middle East.
It is all dreadfully dangerous and it is hard to anticipate where things will lead. One thing looks sure, though. This crazy shootdown of a Russian plane that was in no way posing a threat to Turkey or Turkish forces, will not end here, because Russia and President Putin cannot permit Turkey and NATO to so brazenly act against Russia and its pilots and go unpunished, especially as it is Russia that is acting legally in Syria, while the US, Turkey and other nations backing rebel forces there are in all acting blatant violation of international law.
Unless more competent heads start prevailing in Washington, this could all rapidly spiral into the kind of circumstances in 1914, where a great deal of ill-conceived treaties resulted in a minor occurrence in the Balkans resorting inexorably into World War I.