by Mark N. Katz
Turkey’s shootdown on November 24 of a Russian fighter aircraft that Ankara claims was violating Turkish airspace raises the prospect that the conflict in Syria could escalate.
The facts of the case are, of course, disputed. Turkey claims that two Russian Su-24 fighters disregarded 10 warnings that they were violating Turkish airspace. The Turkish government’s letter to the UN secretary general about the incident stated that the two planes did so “to a depth of 1.36 miles and 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds.” One Russian aircraft left Turkish airspace, but Turkish F-16s fired on the other one. Moscow claims that its aircraft were operating in Syrian airspace. What is not in dispute is that the Russian aircraft that was hit crashed in Syrian territory. The two-man crew ejected from the aircraft, but one was killed by Syrian opposition forces. The other was rescued by a Russian helicopter which was then damaged by rebel fire.
This episode did not occur in isolation. Ankara had made numerous complaints about Russian aircraft violating Turkish airspace since Moscow began its bombardment campaign in Syria on September 30. And these occurred in the context of increasing complaints from numerous European countries about aggressive Russian air force and/or naval activity. The Japanese government has also complained about increased Russian violations of Japanese airspace.
On some occasions, Moscow has been charged with directly violating the airspace or territorial waters of other countries. There have also been charges of Russian military aircraft approaching other countries’ airspace with their transponders off, thus endangering civilian aircraft. Moscow, though, stoutly denies all such claims.
In my view, the question is not so much whether Russia engages in such behavior—it seems clear that it does—but what it hopes to achieve by doing so. Such actions clearly signal that Moscow is unhappy with the policies of the governments whose airspace or territorial waters it is violating. Perhaps Moscow calculates that these governments will realize that they have displeased Moscow and so change their policies. The actual result, though, is to increase their fear of and resistance toward Russia.
In addition, considering the scale of these violations, Moscow may have assumed that it could repeatedly engage in such activity with impunity since nobody, it apparently calculated, would dare fire more than a warning shot (if that) against Russian aircraft or naval vessels. But if Moscow had indeed made this calculation, Turkey has proved now that it was mistaken.
But even if Turkey were justified in taking this action, further such incidents need to be avoided. Urgent talks need to be held between Russia and all the countries accusing it of violating their airspace and territorial waters to make sure that such incidents do not occur again. Indeed, Moscow would do itself a great favor simply by making sure that its aircraft and naval vessels keep a prudent distance away from these air and sea borders, and that the transponders on its aircraft are always on wherever they are flying.
In addition, those countries especially concerned about Russian activity should state clearly under what conditions violating their air and sea borders might lead to their firing on intruders.
In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This applies to the air and sea as well as to the land.
If understandings (even those short of formal agreements) about this issue are not reached, there is a risk that further such incidents will occur, and that they could lead to wider conflict. And this is surely in nobody’s interest. Russia and America reached a deconfliction agreement over Syria in October. Russia and Turkey should be able to do the same regarding the Turkish-Syrian border as well.