First the good news: Despite Internet memes about Putin having Turkey for dinner last week, the chances are low that Armageddon will be on the menu any time soon.
In other words, the chances that World War III will erupt this holiday season are mighty slim because a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Federation Su-24 Fencer M bomber last Tuesday after it apparently violated Turkey’s airspace.
Outraged Russian officials are already talking about economic sanctions. During a news conference, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the shoot-down a “planned provocation” but said the two countries would not go to war over the incident.
But does that mean Russia will forgive and forget? Hardly. Comments by Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin indicate he is not only infuriated by events, he’s also willing to escalate Russian military presence in Syria as well defend Russian national pride.
Here are three reasons why things could still get out of hand very quickly in one of the world’s most volatile places:
1. In Putin’s world, nobody shoots down a Russian plane and gets away with it
Russian aircraft routinely test the limits of different nation’s sovereign airspace – including the U.S. and Britain. Those missions are absolutely designed and principally intended to appeal to Russian pride and national identity, as well as show the world that Russia military power is a force worthy of respect.
As recently as July 4, multiple nuclear-capable Tu-95 Bear bombers flew into U.S. air defense identification zones off California and Alaska. In fact, some of the Bears flew within 40 miles off the California coastline.
But even though we scramble fighters to intercept the bombers, the U.S. and other NATO nations don’t shoot them down. Turkey did, principally because in recent weeks Russian warplanes bombed Syrian rebels who are also Turkmen, an ethnic group considered kinsmen of the Turkish people.
What’s more, the rebels killed one of the Russian plane’s crew members as well as a Russian Marine who was part of the search-and-rescue operation.
To put it bluntly, Putin is pissed off by the shoot-down and what he considers a war crime committed against Russian fighting men. In addition, he describes what happened a provocative act on the part of Turkey, hence his “stab in the back” comment.
As far as the Russian government is concerned, their men are heroes. Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov, the dead Fencer pilot, posthumously received the Hero of the Russian Federation award “for heroism, courage and valor in the performance of military duty,” the Kremlin announced today. Both Alexander Pozynich, the Russian Marine killed during SAR operations, and the surviving Fencer co-pilot Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin both received the Order of Courage, the Kremlin said.
Yes, Lavrov says there will be no war between Russia and Turkey. However, the Russian president is also well-known for practicing the old maxim about revenge being a dish best served cold – and Putin has already amply proved he has no concern about civilian casualties when Russians fight their wars.
2. The Russian people are angry – really angry
In Moscow, crowds of protesters gathered outside of the Turkish embassy, carrying signs calling the Turks “murderers,” pelting the building with eggs, and even smashing windows with rocks. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the Russian economy has improved enough that the middle-class can spare the eggs for protest purposes.)
True, the protest could have been a good old-fashioned exercise in agitprop – as far back as the Soviet era Kremlin employees were often organized into groups for “spontaneous protest.”
But Russian social media is white-hot with comments like “f**k the Turks” and calls for revenge. There is even a parody of the Eiffel Tower peace symbol that went viral after the Paris attacks by Daesh – except the Russian version has the silhouette of a Su-24 with its fuselage and wings where the lines of the peace symbol should be, superimposed on the Russian flag.
So, Russians fury toward Turkey is also linked to fierce Russian nationalism. Consequently, the shoot-down is an incident that will not just blow over with the Russian people – and Putin knows that.
3. Syria is getting pretty damned crowded with belligerents
The area is rapidly filling up with the aircraft and missile systems of many nations. Turkey, Russia, France, Canada, Australia, and the United States all have planes in the air either over Syria or near Syrian airspace.
In response to the shoot-down, Russia is deploying its S-400 “Triumf” air defense missile systems (NATO name: “Growler”) to its Hmeymim air base near Latakia, Syria. Using three different missiles with varying ranges and an upgraded radar system, it can strike airborne targets up to 400 miles away.
All this hardware and manpower milling around in a very small place could cause things to get out of hand very, very quickly. The result could be old-fashioned nation-on-nation warfare. All it could take would be one more downed warplane.
One other thing to note: Past is not always prologue, but it’s interesting to consider that Russia and Turkey (in the guise of the Ottoman Empire) fought one of the longest conflicts in European history.
The Russo-Turkish Wars from the 16th century until the early 20th century included none other than Ivan the Terrible sending the so-called Astrakhan Expedition in 1569 to pound on 70,000 Turkish and Tatar soldiers, Peter the Great and his army capturing Azov in 1696, and Tsar Alexander II sending Russian troops into Ottoman territory in 1877 to protect Christians from Muslim subjugation.
Russian forces overwhelmingly prevailed over the Ottoman Turks during those wars.