Downing of Russian Su-24: The NATO Dimension

Co-authored with Yusuf Buluç (*)

December 16, 2015

Downing of Russia’s Su-24 bomber on November 24, 2015 has led to tensions between Ankara and Moscow putting decades-long cooperation in danger.

Before the incident, a Russian military delegation headed by Major General Dronov, Deputy Commander of the Russian Air Forces visited Ankara on 15 October 2015. According to the statement issued by Turkey’s General Staff, the purpose of the visit was to clarify the reasons underlying the violations of Turkish airspace on 3-4 October and the measures taken to prevent their recurrence. Apparently, the Russian side also apologized and that was the end of it. Why the two sides did not conclude a “de-confliction agreement”, like Russia and the US had done, remains an open question. Yes, Russian and American military aircraft are engaged in combat operations over Syria and Turkey is not, but more could and should have been done.

Following the downing of the Russian Su-24, President Putin directed harsh accusations against President Erdoğan. This was done in the heat of the incident but it was wrong and diplomatically counter-productive. Because it led the Turkish government to immediately deny the charges and then continue with its well-known bravado, upping the ante. Turkey is probably the only country on the planet where political leaders deliver remarks every other day, if not every single day, and that does not allow any issue to be addressed with calm. The downing of Su-24 has been no exception.

On November 30, 2015 PM Davutoğlu and NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a joint press conference in Brussels. Mr. Stoltenberg stated the following as part of his opening remarks:
“We discussed last week’s incident, which led to the downing of a Russian jet.
“All Allies fully support Turkey’s right to defend its territorial integrity and its airspace.
“I welcome Turkey’s efforts to establish contacts with Moscow and through its contacts with Russia, to de-escalate the situation.
“It is important to stay calm and to calm tensions.
“I urge Russia to play a constructive role in Syria by targeting ISIL, our common enemy.
“NATO strongly supports the renewed international efforts to find a genuine political solution to the conflict in Syria.
“This is more urgent than ever.
“Last week’s incident shows how important it is to strengthen international mechanisms.
“To build stability, transparency and predictability in our relationship with Russia.
“This is key to reducing the risks of incidents and accidents.
“And, if they occur, to prevent them from escalating and get out of control…”

Referring to the incident PM Davutoğlu said:
“And Turkish-Syrian border also is a NATO border. Violation was not only against Turkish border but also against NATO border. Therefore, the same day, we gave all the details, all the details to NATO Allies in NAC, in Council meeting. And we are ready to share all the information with any party to satisfy, to convince, to explain our position.
“And again, I want to express for clear position of NATO, and clear position of Secretary General personally – yesterday I had also the chance to meet with EU leaders here in Brussels – again I want to express our thanks to all NATO Allies expressing their solidarity with Turkey. Thank you very much.”

In response to a question NATO Secretary General also said:
“Turkey has shared a lot of information with NATO and NATO Allies. And we also had a special meeting of the North Atlantic Council where the Turkish Ambassador went through all the information and all the details related to the incident last week. And the information that we have also from other sources is consistent with the Turkish assessment about what happened last week.
“And I think what we have seen now just underlines what we have stated several times: and that is the concern related to all the increased activity and presence of Russian military capabilities in Syria and close to NATO borders. Turkey has its right to defend itself, and Turkey has the right to defend its airspace. My message now is that I welcome all and any contacts between Moscow and Ankara. And the important thing is to calm the tensions. And I think also the incidents last week also underlined the importance of us focusing on mechanisms to avoid these kinds of incidents in the future. And if this kind of incident happens again, to do whatever we can to prevent them from escalating and coming out of control…”

In brief Mr. Stoltenberg supported Turkey’s version of the incident, reiterated Turkey’s right to defend its borders but urged calm.

On December 1, 2015 NATO Foreign Ministers took steps to further the Alliance’s adaptation to security challenges from the south. According to NATO’s official website, “as Turkey is on the front line of regional instability to the south, Allies are looking at additional assurance measures for Turkey. “They will be finalized in the coming weeks,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. He added that NATO has augmented Turkey’s air defense for several years, and will continue to do so.” (**)

It seems that the downing of Su-24 has helped NATO and Turkey remember one another. The reality remains, however, that NATO countries will not engage in a confrontation with Russia over an incident which has occurred totally beyond their control. They will give some verbal support but that will be all. It is worth remembering in this connection that 22 of NATO’s 28 member states are also members of the EU. These are the countries which do not consider Turkey to be a European country, a democracy; oppose Turkey’s accession to the EU; and, try to convince Turkey that “privileged partnership” is the solution. And, in recent years Turkey has pivoted towards the Middle East. Beyond all that, NATO membership gives Turkey certain rights and obligations and it is in Turkey’s interest to maintain a stable relationship with the Alliance and its members. Such a relationship is equally in the interest of NATO. However, we Turks need to realize that when we take steps on our own, we will face the consequences also on our own.

The expressions of gratitude and appreciation for NATO Secretary General’s remarks by Prime Minister Davutoğlu in defense of Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24 notwithstanding, what Mr. Stoltenberg had said warrants closer scrutiny. The excerpt from his statement as recorded above is important for what was included as much for what was omitted. While it may have a heartening ring to it, acknowledging Turkey’s right to defend its borders and airspace is a reaffirmation of an inalienable right of any sovereign state. However, the statement in all its blandness, does not justify the shooting down of the aircraft as the most appropriate measure of such defensive action. It would not be surprising that the confidential minutes of that NATO Council meeting will have recorded a few interventions by allied representatives questioning the propriety, proportionality and timing of Turkey’s action. In closely studying Mr. Stoltenberg’s remarks attention must be paid to what he pointed out as remedial and preventive measure to avoid recurrence. He underlined the need “…to strengthen international mechanisms…(as) a key to reducing the risks of incident and accidents” This is precisely what the United States had put in hand by concluding a written “de-confliction” mechanism with the Russian Federation.

The war in Syria, despite its many ills, has resulted in a significant enrichment of Turkish public’s military vocabulary. The public came to be acquainted with the seemingly impressive term of “rules of engagement”. The announcement by the Turkish government at the time of downing of our F-4 fighter jet on an undetermined mission by Syrian fire on June 22, 2012, of a new set of “rules of engagement” sounded like a pretty harsh retaliatory measure and added to Turkish leadership’s warlike rhetoric. Sadly, it is the same “rules of engagement” that brought about the blunder of shooting down of the Russian Su-24. It must be viewed as a blunder on account of the admission subsequently that had it been identified as Russian, Turkish air defense command would have acted differently. Had there been a mechanism in place, as prescribed by NATO Secretary General, to identify Russian aircraft operating in Syrian airspace not as a “foe”, which the air defense system otherwise automatically does, such an incident fraught with mutually damaging consequences would not have happened.

What makes Turkey’s allies doubly nervous is also the timing of this shoot down. It came at a critical juncture when the “Vienna process”, geared to finding a negotiated political end to the Syria conflict was gaining momentum with enlarged participation by key players, lately to include also Iran.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s first public statement coming on the heels of the downing of the Su-24 was that Russia was not going to war with Turkey. This was taken as sign of controlled de-escalation and a desire to soothe anxiety. Our own deciphering of what he said is rather different. What Mr. Lavrov had done was to set a threshold to intimate in couched language that Russia was prepared to take every retaliatory measure below that threshold of war. This, we suspect, is what we are seeing to unfold almost on a daily basis. There is every justification to act prudently and non-provocatively as we witness another “problem” being added to what we were led to believe that our policy was “zero problems” in our neighborhood. This one is much perilous, as we see our hard won good relations with Russia coming close to an abysmal brink…

(*) Yusuf Buluç is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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