Americans weren’t the only ones thinking about how to cook Turkey this week…
Sovereignty, the idea that a state alone has absolute jurisdiction over its borders, has been the lifeblood of international politics ever since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. For better and for worse, the modern world is defined by sovereignty.
Russia loves the concept of sovereignty, and it constantly throws the word around whenever its policies come under fire.
Sovereignty is far from a perfect modus operandi. This is increasingly apparent in an era of increasing globalization where non-state actors (ISIS for instance) factor heavily into the international calculus. But we don’t have to look at the challenges to sovereignty to realize that its flawed; states regularly fight over sovereign rights. There are the obvious grey areas surrounding irredentism. This is a term used to describe a situation nation or state feel at odds with a given nation-state and with to redefine or re-carve borders. Prominent examples of this include the Franco-Prussian rivalry over Alsace-Lorraine, the desire for statehood among Palestinians, and the recent Russian annexation of Crimea.
But we don’t have to introduce arcane words to prove a point against sovereignty. Some of the largest problems with sovereignty are inherit in the concept itself. For example, let’s say that State X has complete sovereignty over the land, waters, and sky within its borders. Now lets say that State Y is conducting military operations nearby and accidentally flies a plane over State X, which responds by shooting the plane down. Strictly speaking in terms of sovereignty, State X is justified. Of course, try telling this to State Y…
Sure, Russia loves sovereignty, but how do they feel about having a plane shot down?
No. I don’t believe that World War III will ever happen. Nation-states generally don’t like committing suicide, and therefore a war between nuclear powers is as unlikely as it is undesirable.
That being said, it still sent chills down my spine to hear that a Russian jet was brought down by a member of NATO this past week.
24 November 2015. An Su-24 was shot down by Turkey.
Turkey claims that the fighter entered its territory. NATO stood by Turkey.
Russia claims that the fighter remained in Syrian airspace. It claims that Turkey is betraying the anti-terror cause and Russia is planning on using sanctions to punish Turkey.
What actually happened?
I would like to posit that theory that it absolutely doesn’t matter what happened. NATO will say one thing. Russia will say another.
The downing of wayward planes happens infrequently. Usually they are isolated incidents that just evaporate; lets agree to disagree. The Soviets downed a U-2 plane conducting espionage in 1960. They downed another U-2 above Cuba during the Missile Crisis. In 1983 they brought down civilian flight KAL007, alleging (likely correctly) that the flight was being used by the US to spy.
States have a sovereign right to bring down foreign planes within their airspace, even if this can also be construed as an act of war. Most times these “accidents” don’t lead to any sort of conflict. A war between NATO and Russia would be especially messy, so its unlikely that either side will pursue the matter further. Turkey will probably not repeat the incident. Russia has moved SAMs near the border to make sure of that, even if it is also likely that Russia will be a little more careful with where its planes fly.
Generally the most tangible outcome of a plane being brought down is that one side gets political capital. In 1960 the US was caught spying over the USSR and Khrushchev was able to point and laugh. In 1983 the Soviets were shamed for recklessly killing citizens. In 2015 Russia now has more fuel to throw around in its complicated game with NATO.
We can expect an immediate frosting of Turkish Russian relations. Russia is definitely looking to make Turkey pay, and is placing new restrictions on tourism as a big part of this. But what does this event mean in the bigger picture?
The Context: Poking and Prodding
A Russian plane getting shot down was bound to happen given Moscow’s increasing use of aircraft to harass NATO. Russian fighters have forced several states on alert. I don’t think it was Russia’s intention to test the readiness of NATO (lets face it, NATO has been on a hair trigger ever since Crimea was annexed), but Russia is certainly trying to make NATO uncomfortable and show that it still poses a formidable threat.
If any NATO member was going to shoot down a Russian plane, Turkey was probably in the best position to do so. Turkey occupies a unique niche in NATO; not only is it the most Eastern member but it is also culturally and religiously distinct. During the early Cold War Turkey was used by NATO for a forward strike capability, although JFK was willing to sacrifice this in order to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Turkey also enjoys a rivalry with Greece, which complicates NATO, and is on the front line of the battle with ISIS. Had a Russian plane been downed over, say, Denmark or Alaska the repercussions would likely be more serious than what we are seeing now.
Turkey has a distinct identity that, like Russia, is between East and West. Russian is therefore likely to be less enraged by a Turkish action than a US or British one. Another factor that helps to soften the blow is that, as a guardian of a valuable warm water access route, Turkey has a long standing geopolitical rivalry with Russia. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds some level of tolerance. Of course the Turks downed one of our planes! Of course!”
Aside from growing distrust between Russia and Turkey (and, less so, NATO) we can also expect that Russia will be a little more cautious in flying planes around. We will see a lot less NATO jets being scrambled to counter Russian thrusts, which may actually help relations in the long run.
Regardless of what happens Turkey will not try the same thing twice, especially with Russian SAMs close-by now. The more interesting question is what effect this might have on Greek-Turkish relations. Turkey loves doing flyovers of Greek territory, and they will likely have much more difficulty justifying these now. Incidentally this event may actually push Greece closer to Russia. The two are already on better terms since the debt crisis, and some mutual hatred of Turkey can’t hurt the relationship.
And Now For Something Completely Different…
In other news ISIS recognized Taiwan. This is absolutely hilarious.
Looking Forward: Reconciliation?
I predicted a few posts ago that Putin would take his time to commit to any policy option following the terrorist attack on a Russian flight in Sinai. The attacks in Paris two weeks ago however forced Putin’s hand on the issue: Russia has attributed the attacks to ISIS and has been increasing pressure, both against ISIS in the form of bombs and against NATO in the form of calls for coalition. A Franco-Russian axis seems liable to form, and an improvement in NATO-Russian relations would be desirable in the fight against ISIS. A multi-lateral effort is the most likely to end with a good outcome. I don’t see Russia and Turkey making up though, so any NATO-Russian axis is predicated on NATO’s willingness to distance itself from Turkey.
Putin continues to call for multilateralism and greater collaboration, and, ever the pragmatist, has taken advantage of the Paris attacks and Turkey incident to retain the initiative in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, following the attack on a Sinai flight by ISIS, most people seemed to be predicting that Putin would remain far more cautious in the Middle East and would rethink his operations in Syria. No more of that talk. The surprises of Paris and Turkey, along with the acknowledging that ISIS downed the Russian flight, have enabled Putin to double-down. He now has far more leverage against NATO; he has a friend in Hollande and can demonize Turkey. He also now has a great excuse to send additional equipment to Syria ostensibly with the goal of keeping Turkey in check.
And thus we end at the beginning. Putin remains slippery and smart as he plays crisis after crisis to his advantage. So far he has been able to weather fortune, but the last few weeks have shown that things can change at a breakneck pace. Putin has proven that he can keep up so far.