When the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter jet over what it said was its territory, some nervous people suggested that it was the match that would start World War III. The premise was based on the notion that Russian Vladimir Putin, always spoiling for a fight, would go to war against Turkey in retaliation, and that country in turn would invoke the NATO treaty to call upon support from its allies. Matters would spiral out of control from there, much like they did at the start of World War I.
These analysts forgot to consider that Putin is pursuing a number of strategic aims to restore Russia to what he considers its former greatness. His actions in both the Ukraine and in Syria are being carried out toward that goal. Russia getting into a general war with Turkey and the NATO alliance, at least at this juncture, runs the real risk of weakening, not strengthening, Russia.
That is not to say that Turkey is going to get off scot-free. One does not poke at the bear and get away with it. But Putin’s retaliation is thus far limited and focused.
Russia has moved advanced anti-aircraft S-400 missiles to its Hmeymim air base near Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The S-400 has a range of 150 miles, which means they can strike at aircraft deep inside Turkish territory. The message is clear. If another incident takes place, Russia will have the easy means to retaliate, tit for tat, if necessary.
Next, Russia is planning a set of economic sanctions to be imposed on Turkey. These sanctions will include putting the brakes on certain joint projects such as a gas pipeline and a nuclear power plant. Russia also proposes to restrict food imports from Turkey and to restrict flights between that country and Russia.
No doubt Putin can devise other low-level pain that he can inflict on Turkey if he does not get what he considers satisfaction. He will doubtless direct his attention to various rebel groups inside Syria that are aligned with and supported by Ankara.
The incident and the aftermath, though it has downgraded from a causus bellum to a slow, diplomatic burn, illustrates the dangers of having too many players inside a small region with different agendas. Russia wants to prop up Bashir Assad and make Syria a client state. Turkey is said to support ISIS, if for nothing else as a counterbalance to the turbulent Kurds who still want their own state, partly carved out of Turkish territory. The United States, and possibly Britain and France, would like to see both ISIS and Assad gone and replaced by a peaceful, preferably Democratic Syrian state. Removing both is also the key to salvaging something out of Iraq.
It will take deft diplomacy to navigate the choppy waters in the Middle East for the time being. Unfortunately, deftness seems to be in short supply at the moment.