The downing of a Russian fighter on the Syrian-Turkish border Tuesday represents an inflection point, not only in the Syrian Civil War but also in the broader “new cold war” between Russia and the West.
Russia and Turkey present starkly differing accounts of what transpired. Russia claims it never violated Turkish airspace and that its plane was shot over Syrian territory. Turkey claims it gave the plane up to 10 warnings before finally shooting it down.
The difference matters. Turkey is a NATO member and if it acted to defend its airspace any Russian reaction risks drawing the entire NATO block into a conflict under the treaty’s mutual assistance provision, Chapter 5. If Russia’s view of the world is correct, then it could potentially drive a wedge between NATO if/when it counteracts. To date, NATO has stood by Turkey.
That doesn’t mean that Russia will sit idle. In fact, the ultra-nationalist euphoria boiling in Russia for the past year has found a clear enemy to latch onto. Add to that perceived historical grievances between the two sides; the belief that Turkey shot down the plane in support of ISIS; that ISIS had recently knocked down a Russian airliner in Sinai and you can see how the pressure for Vladimir Putin to act will increase. Not to mention, of course, that Putin is not one to stand down easily.
But if Putin can’t react directly for fear of drawing in NATO, what can he do in response?
Russia can retaliate in four ways: Cyber attacks, economic warfare, proxy war, and by “rattling the cage.”
The first is simple; a cyber attack against Turkey might not trigger Chapter 5 retaliation by NATO. The second is also simple but will hurt Russia as well. Russia provides 57% of Turkey’s natural gas and feels comfortable using that as a weapon in disputes (Gazprom recently cut off gas to Ukraine). Turkey also relies on Russia for its second biggest source of tourists. A Russian travel ban – or slowdown -- would hurt.
Moving beyond these options gets increasingly complicated. The obvious “proxy war” response would be to fund the PKK and other Kurdish groups in Turkey, fueling an intensifying civil war.
Finally, Russia could “rattle the cage.” That means flying more sorties in tight airspace; deploying anti-aircraft weapons that could down Turkish jet that might enter Syrian airspace; or draw Turkey deeper into Syria by sponsoring cross-border raids by other proxies.
NATO’s role here is simple: work to de-escalate. The alliance can’t be seen either abandoning a member in its time of need (no matter how rash their actions were) or rushing headlong into armed confrontation with Russia (something the alliance managed to avoid throughout the Cold War.
NATO can also use this as an opportunity to extract concessions from both sides.
In return for standing by Turkey, NATO can force it to modify its anti-Kurdish posture and cease aiding radical Islamist groups in Syria. In return for helping Russia save, NATO could require Russia to coordinate its Syria campaign with France and the US.