The day after

The day after

The shooting down of the Russian war plane by Turkish jets by the Syrian border on Nov. 24 caused many capitals around the world to hold their breath for a few hours.

This was the first Russian plane to be downed by a NATO country since the Korean War, and it came at a time when Russia was flexing its muscles to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

The tension escalated when the Turkish military revealed pictures of the two Russian Su-24s approaching and entering Turkish airspace despite “10 warnings in five minutes.” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said it was Turkey’s right to protect its borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of stabbing Moscow in the back and collaborating with terrorists. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled his trip to Turkey, which had been scheduled for today, Nov. 26; he also asked Russian citizens, especially tourists, not to visit Turkey.

In the late afternoon hours of Nov. 24 it was understood that one of the two pilots who had ejected themselves from the downed jet with parachutes had been killed, which further contributed to the escalation.

However, neither the international community nor the specific circumstances of the incident have allowed the escalated tension to become a large-scale crisis.

First U.S. President Barack Obama, then NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (after an emergency meeting demanded by Turkey), backed up the Turkish story, saying Russia had violated Turkish borders and that Turkey had the right to protect its borders. They also called on Russia to focus its efforts on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), not on those fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and both recommended “calm” and “dialogue” to the Turkish and Russian leaderships.

Nov. 25 showed that this crisis management had worked not so badly.

Perhaps encouraged by a telephone conversation with Obama, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan - who had closed Nov. 24 by saying that Turkey was not happy to have shot down the plane that had ignored repeated warnings - opened Nov. 25 with another statement on the issue, saying that Turkey did not want to escalate tension. Erdoğan was followed by Prime Minister Davutoğlu, who said Turkey had not wanted to shoot down a Russian plane, but it was obliged to as it had repeatedly violated Turkish airspace despite warnings.

Later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov over the incident, but it seems that Lavrov is not prepared to meet him yet, at least until the upcoming Balkan Summit on Dec. 3. It is understandable that Russia needed time. 

President Putin issued some harsh statements over the incident, including claims that Turkey’s leaders were trying to spread “Islamization” in the Middle East. He also supported Lavrov in saying that Russian tourists should not come to Turkey. Meanwhile, the decision to send brand new S-400 missile systems to Syria and to send the missile cruiser “Moskva” off the coast of Latakia (despite the fact that its mission was announced quite a while ago), as well as the carrying out of huge operations with the Syrian army against Turkmen militia near the Turkish border, can be seen measures aimed at assuaging the fever in the Kremlin and in the Russian public.

Still, Lavrov’s statement that Russia would not get into a war with Turkey over the shooting down of the jet summarized everything. Breaths that were held one day were somewhat relieved the next.

It is clear that Russia will not let the incident go unanswered. At some point it will respond sometime, somewhere, against Turkey or something Turkish. But economic interdependence between the two countries remains strong: From the natural gas trade (as Turgut Özal foresaw in 1984 when it was started), to Turkish construction companies’ work in Russia, from nuclear energy to tourism. This interdependence makes it harder for the two countries to go further. After all, a number of Russian tourism agencies have already announced that they have continued to accept customers for the Turkish Mediterranean coast for the spring and summer 2016 seasons, despite statements from the Kremlin.