Assumptions About the Turkey-Russia Incident

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.

Update 2

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.

15 comments… add one
  • Guarneri Link

    “17 seconds and kablooey sure sounds trigger-happy to me.”

    I heard the Ruskys were playing an offensive YouTube video and, well, you know how how excitable they can be in those parts of the world……..

  • Ben Wolf Link

    Whatever the Turks are really up to, it’s a good bet it won’t be aligned withour interests. NATO is unlikely to work as intended with an increasingly Islamist member pursuing an agenda at odds with the other members’ security.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    Came across a story from 2012:

    Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, said on Saturday that it was “routine” for jets flying at high speeds to violate other countries’ air spaces for short periods of time.

  • The concern at this point is that it becomes routine for Turkish jets to be blown out of the sky when they approach their own border.

    I think that Putin needs to appeal to the Security Council. If only to see how deep a hole the American are willing to dig for themselves.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I hate to say it but basically I think the Russians are in the right. They may have been behaving like dicks, and had the Russians been near a major Turkish military facility, maybe they’d have a case, but two seconds over this little tit of land? You’re going to shoot down a Russian plane over that? That’s nuts.

  • Absent new information I think that’s where Occam’s Razor takes us. If they weren’t behaving like dicks, they wouldn’t be Russians. Alternately belligerent and sentimental.

    Now the Turks appear to be drawing themselves up to their full height and wrapping themselves in the flag. Not usually a good sign.

  • Guarneri Link

    Lots of words…………summed up as well as any with: “that’s nuts.”

    And now we have “one fine mess.”

  • Modulo Myself Link

    Another option is Turkey’s military has a few ISIS supporters in its officer corps and they ordered this on their own hoping that it would start a bigger conflict. Obviously Turkey has discovered this but they’re not going to announce it to the world.

  • General Dunlap is a pretty reliable authority on international law as it applies to armed conflict, he is still one of the armed services’ go-to guys on the subject (he also coined the term “lawfare”). Dunlap is not a “look for weird technicalities interpreted strangely” type of IL expert but rather one whose opinions are well anchored in established precedent. That he is very skeptical of the Turks is not a great sign

  • ... Link

    Today the USA slapped sanctions on a bunch of Russians, including the current President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), ostensibly for dealing in ISIS oil transactions. Apparently no Turks have been so sanctioned. I can only assume this is the USA intentionally pokng the Russian bear, for which purpose I have no conception. This seems like the wrong time to purposefully piss off Putin & company, but not my circus, not my monkeys.

  • jan Link

    The scattered bits of info I’ve gleaned is that the Russian plane wondered into the air space of Turkey but drew a missile when it had crossed back over into Syria, causing the main wreckage to be in Syria. Supposedly the surviving Russian pilot has said no warnings were given by Turkey before they were shot down.

    People have speculated that Putin would like nothing more than to disrupt the NATO treaty and have it simply disintegrate. So, challenging it’s cohesive powers can stir the pot and muddy the water of the nations who form NATO. However, Russia is also negotiating building a pipeline through Turkey, which makes any thoughts of exploiting this incident further not really in Russia’s best long term interests. Analysts say that Putin will find a way to hit back, but it will probably not be by starting a Russian/Turkey war.

  • ... Link

    jan, despite the analysts love of making statements about international relations being a game of chess, it isn’t. Chess is a game of perfect knowledge, and is zero-sum. International relations are neither of those things. Situations and events can take on lives of their own, and I don’t think anyone, not Putin or Erdogan, has real control of what’s going to happen now. They can take certain actions, but will each side understand what the other is trying to do? Hell, we can’t even figure out what our own President is trying to accomplish, and we’re (allegedly) from the same country. Can we expect Putin to understand whatever Erdogan is trying to do (other than make himself a new Padishah) and what limitations Erdogan has on his freedom of movement, and vice versa?

  • steve Link

    I think Dave is probably right. The Russians have probably been doing this for a while. Since there had been no prior response the SU-24 didn’t have a fighter escort. They just assumed Turkey would not dare attack.

    I have to think this is being driven by Turkey’s internal politics. It isn’t very likely because Erdogan’s son is going to lose money. This just means Russia works harder on making sure no oil gets into Turkey. I suspect it had a lot more to do with making a bold move to show he was trying to protect ethnic Turks fighting in Syria. I guess they could also use this to push for a no-fly zone at the border, which would help the Sunni cause immensely.

    Personally, I think the Turks should just send their army across the border. I am sure they would be greeted as liberators. The war would pay for itself.


  • TastyBits Link


    For the chess analogy to hold, you would need pawns capable of switching sides. The players could actually be puppets, and the human players could be knocked-off and replaced at will. The game could have another player suddenly emerge, seemingly from nowhere, with their own pieces in place.

  • ... Link

    TB, you’re describing a poker game.

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