BACKGROUND: The downing of the Sukhoi aircraft and the resulting Russian sanctions on Turkey have heightened tensions between the two countries, tensions that were already rising due to the Syrian crisis and Moscow’s total support of the Assad regime from the beginning of the civil war in that country. Moscow’s is in direct contrast to Turkish policy, which calls for a change in the Syrian leadership, and has supported a variety of Sunni movements fighting toward that end. The tensions between these two countries rose after Russia’s direct military intervention, including its use of military force in support of the Assad regime and the forces loyal to him. Russian military activity focuses on aerial attacks on forces opposed to Assad and ISIS. The opposition forces, supported by Turkey, constitute a target for Russian air attacks, increasing bilateral tensions. All this provides the backdrop for the downing of the Russian combat aircraft. The initial Russian reaction to this incident was the placing of economic sanctions on Turkey, including trade and tourism.
As a result of the downing of the plane, Turkey, an important member of NATO, requested NATO support. At an emergency meeting, NATO accepted a resolution expressing support for Turkey and declaring its support for Turkish territorial integrity. At this point, this confrontation deviated from being bilateral and became a confrontation between Russia and NATO. Several days later NATO decided to accept Montenegro during this coming year, which increased Russian concern over NATO’s eastward enlargement, and added to the growing tensions. Warning shots fired by a Russian battleship at a Turkish vessel in the Aegean Sea about three weeks after the Sukhoi incident is an expression of this continuing anxiety. The Russian announcement that Montenegro should hold a referendum as to joining NATO is an additional sign of growing tensions between Russia and NATO.
Since Turkey is a member of NATO, its growing conflict with Russia has implications regarding Russia’s ongoing confrontation with NATO and the U.S. over Ukraine. The development is only one component of this geostrategic confrontation. The Turkish incident intensified the Russian-NATO standoff in Ukraine, the source of which was Ukraine’s choice to seek an Association Agreement with the EU. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko doubled down on this westward orientation on the eve of the New Year, with a decree allowing Ukrainian forces to take part in military exercise with NATO forces on Ukrainian territory. This presidential decree is an expression of the Ukrainian military doctrine, as updated and ratified in February 2015. According to this doctrine, Ukraine considers Russia its prime enemy and intends to take steps to further its acceptance into NATO.
IMPLICATIONS: The growing tension between Russia and Turkey in Syria, and the Turkish tendency to broaden the sphere of its response to include support for the Tatar population on the Crimean peninsula, adds an additional factor to the conflict between Russia and NATO, as it has been developing over the past two years on Ukrainian soil. All of this has heightened the confrontation between Russia and NATO. In a document updating the security doctrine signed by President Putin late last year, it is stated that the recent establishment of NATO military capabilities near the borders of Russia constitutes a violation of international norms and laws. In this document, an updated version of the 2009 doctrine, the U.S. and NATO are clearly named as a threat to Russia for the first time. By contrast, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk has also stated Ukrainian aspirations to join NATO and the EU, twin objectives that form the basis of his country’s central security reforms.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, NATO has been considered the major threat to the integrity of the Russian Federation, from a security standpoint. NATO is also seen as threatening Russia’s hegemony in its crucial geostrategic space. President Putin, in 2005, pointed out that the break-up of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century”. NATO’s enlargement eastward and the inclusion of states formerly under Russian hegemony threatened Russia’s standing in her own backyard as well as its role as a regional superpower. According to Putin, Russia’s global status is threatened as well. NATO, which included sixteen countries before the break-up of the USSR has more than doubled in size since then. Twelve additional countries have joined its ranks, most of which were part of the Soviet Union or, as members of the Warsaw pact, under its hegemony. As the Obama regime enters its last stretch in the White House, President Putin has a window of opportunity to bring about a significant geopolitical change, as part of the policy he has been acting on since he came to power, in order to challenge the reality following the break-up of the Soviet union.
This will not be the first time President Putin has taken advantage of such a window. The war in the Caucasus in 2008 – the Russian military invasion of Georgia – was a formative event, in which Russia, for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union, used military force against a state which had previously been part of the USSR. Putin initiated this move in August 2008, about three months before the end of the Bush administration. While failing to unseat the Saakashvili government, the Russian initiative in Georgia was successful in a geopolitical sense. There was no meaningful American reaction, even though Georgia was America’s closest ally in the region, and at a critical stage in its dialogue with NATO. Thus, an unprecedented Russian invasion of a neighboring sovereign state took place while the U.S. was busy with its upcoming elections, creating a new geopolitical reality in the region.
The tension between Russia and NATO, rising as a result of the Russian–Turkish confrontation, may well bring about a Russian move – and one that may not take place near Turkey’s borders. Equally, it could happen in the Baltic region. This area is of great strategic importance to Russia, which finds the acceptance the Baltic states into NATO in 2009 difficult to accept. President Putin has referred to this more than once. The possibility of such a Russian reaction as a result of the confrontation with Turkey has been mentioned by an unofficial source. Such warnings, again coming at the end of an American president’s term, should not be ignored.
CONCLUSIONS: The Russian-Turkish confrontation goes beyond the scope of the Syrian crisis and will have significant implications for Russia’s relations with NATO on the global scene. Russia is not deterred from an escalation of its confrontation with Turkey. To a certain extent, the downing of the Sukhoi played into Russia’s hands. As the confrontation worsens, it serves Russian interests and allows Russia to challenge NATO’s standing and contain the organization’s eastward enlargement. A presidential election year in the U.S. presents a window of opportunity to President Putin for such a strategic move. While failing to sustain its ally in power, Russia has achieved its short-term objectives in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and the creation of a secessionist area in eastern Ukraine have created conditions which Russia sees as enabling it to achieve its long-term goals in Ukraine, at the same time coming close to reaching an understanding with the U.S. over the future of the Syrian regime. If Russia succeeds in dealing with its economic distress, considering low oil prices, President Putin might find the time to challenge NATO on the Baltic scene or elsewhere, taking advantage of the 2016 window of opportunity.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Dr. Avinoam Idan is a political geographer and a nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus & Silk Road Studies Program, based in Washington DC. Prior to his academic career, he served in the Israeli Embassy in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Image Attribution: www.telegraph.co.uk, accessed on Feb 28, 2016