It is important for the Russian air force and military to recognize the way their actions are perceived and the possible outcomes of their actions.
Last week, one of the most significant recent crises that has taken place between two countries occurred between Turkey and Russia. The shooting down of a Russian bomber jet – after its violation of Turkish airspace and refusal to change its course despite multiple warnings – turned into a major crisis in bilateral relations. Following the incident, despite explanations from the Turkish side and the release of the audio recordings of the warnings to the Russian jets and flight map of these jets, which were later confirmed by sources in NATO countries as well, the Russian administration presented its own narrative of events, which denied the violation of Turkish airspace or warnings from the Turkish air forces.
However, in the aftermath of this incident during debates and various reports, it was revealed that such violations and aggressive behavior have become a typical pattern in recent years in Russian military behavior. In an analysis of the crisis, The New York Times described the most recent risky incidents as “Russia’s pattern of confrontation.” Some of these incidents were presented as high risk or serious incursions by Russian forces. According to the paper: “The incident with Turkey is the kind of conflict analysts have been fearing might happen amid escalating tensions over a series of air encounters between Russia and the West. Russian military planes fly near, or into, the airspace of other nations, or behave in other ways that NATO countries consider aggressive.”
Although most of these incidents took place in the Baltic region in previous periods, in recent months it increasingly also took place around Turkish air space. CNN also reported, in reference to a NATO official, “When Russian jets violated Turkish airspace a few weeks ago, the council met in an extraordinary session, which resulted in a condemnation of the incursion.” Such a pattern of confrontation for Russia may be considered a new pattern of operation to support the tactical posturing of the Russian influence around the globe following recent crises between Russia and the West, including the Ukrainian crisis. However, it has two significant risks. First, these acts have started to be perceived as increasingly aggressive by other countries, which may lead to escalation. Secondly, the already high-risk actions of these Russian air forces vessels may constitute another layer of threat perception in more sensitive regions and conflicts, such as Syria. To prevent the repetition of such events, it is important for the Russian air force and military to recognize the way its actions are perceived and their actions possible outcomes in different areas.
Secondly, the Russian presentation of its own narrative of events in Russia contributes to the escalation of the crisis as well. Since the beginning of this crisis, there has been an increasing anti-Turkey atmosphere in the Russian administration that is indirectly feeding a popular reaction among some segments of the population against Turks and Turkey. On the first day of the crisis, President Vladimir Putin said the incident “represents a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists. I can’t describe what has happened today in any other way.” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went one step further, changing the context of the incident and said: “Turkey’s actions are de facto protection of [DAESH]. This is no surprise, considering the information we have about the direct financial interest of some Turkish officials relating to the supply of oil products refined by plants controlled by [DAESH].”
Some other officials and offices, such as the Russian Embassy in the U.K., joined this chorus of Turkey bashing in recent days in Russia and rallied the popular anti-Turkey atmosphere in Russia. Claims that started circulating in the Russian press, such as the historical animosity, the claims over Crimea and pumping anti-Turkey fervor, may in the longer term create serious repercussions in bilateral relations. Mobilizing such an atmosphere, which will be hard to demobilize, would create a situation that in the long run will not be in the best interest of Russia and Turkey. It can be another bit of risky behavior that will generate a significant threat to its relations with neighboring countries.
This article was first published in the Daily Sabah on November 28th, 2015.