Writing in the Washington Post, Dan Drezner asks three questions about the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkish forces:
1. Does irrefutable evidence emerge of the SU-24’s location when it was shot down? Although the plane crashed in Syria, its flight path very well may have crossed Turkish airspace. It’s not like Russia has explicitly acknowledged previous reports regarding planes being shot down, but such reports would tend to reduce Putin’s ability to build international support.
2. Does Putin ratchet up tensions elsewhere? If Putin has a modus operandi, it’s to foment tensions in a new region when the situation is worsening in an ongoing area of conflict. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Putin tries to coerce or intimidate the Baltic states soon, as a way of signaling to NATO that Russia has leverage elsewhere. If that happens, it’s a worrying sign.
3. Can Barack Obama lead NATO? Contrary to realist fears, U.S. alliances have not dragged the United States into needless wars. But for alliances to increase security, smaller states must feel that the United States has their back. U.S.-Turkish relations have been, let’s say, “bumpy” in recent years, so it will be interesting to see whether the United States can constrain Turkey from escalating the conflict further. Similarly, if Putin does ratchet up tensions elsewhere, will Obama be able to coordinate a resolute but measured NATO response?
Note the unstated assumption that Russia crossed into Turkish airspace and that the Turks were within their rights to shoot the plane down. I think I’d add to the questions Dr. Drezner asks one of my own: what if the Russians produce incontrovertible proof of their side of the story? Their side of the story is that the Turks shot the plan down without warning of any kind. That’s been bolstered by the testimony of the aircraft’s surviving crew member. The Turks for their part have produced a recording of a warning. If you give me a little time, I’ll produce a video of the Turks recording their warning into somebody’s cell phone. My point: recordings are cheap.
So far nobody has produced any evidence (and the Turks have not claimed) that the Turks followed regular protocols for such incidents, e.g. if warnings on the international frequency fail try other frequencies, close flybys, signals, warning shots with tracers, prior to shooting the Su-24 down.
Here’s an update from CBS News:
Turkey says the Russian plane strayed just over a mile into its airspace, and was there for only 17 seconds when it was fired on by a Turkish F-16. The Russian jet crashed in Syria, but Turkey’s president said Wednesday that some pieces of it fell inside his country.
And that’s what Turkey says. 17 seconds and kablooey sure sounds trigger-happy to me.
Retired U. S. Air Force Gen. Charles Dunlap, at The Hill, notes:
The problem here is that the Turks are not asserting that any armed attack took place or, for that matter, that any armed attack was even being contemplated by the Russians. Instead, in a letter to the U.N., the Turks only claimed that the Russians had “violated their national airspace to a depth of 1.36 to 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds.” They also say that the Russians were warned “10 times” (something the Russians dispute) and that the Turkish jets fired upon them in accordance with the Turks’ “rules of engagement.” Of course, national rules of engagement cannot trump the requirements of international law. Moreover, international law also requires any force in self-defense be proportional to the threat addressed.
Thus, the legal question is this: Is a mere 17-second border incursion of such significance and scale as to justify as “proportional” the use of deadly force as the only recourse — particularly where there is no indication that the Russians were going to actually attack anything on Turkish soil?
The U.S., so far, is staying mum about what it may know about the precise location of the planes (which the Russians insist never entered Turkish airspace). What is more is that even if the Russians had penetrated Turkish airspace, that fact alone would not necessarily legally authorize the use of force, absent a showing of hostile intent (which the Turks are not alleging). Additionally, it is quite possible that the Russian aircraft may have penetrated Turkish airspace — if at all — because of a bona fide navigational misunderstanding occasioned by the satellite guidance system the Russians employ. Navigation errors are not an adequate reason to use deadly force.
There are rumors floating around that the Turkish action was revenge for interfering with the lucrative oil trade it was carrying on with DAESH. In related news, Erdogan’s son is Turkey’s Minister of Energy and owner of an oil company.