Russia’s buzz of Turkish airspace

Russian reconnaissance IL-20 aircraft recently buzzed Turkey on two separate occasions, Sept. 22 and 26, by flying very close to Turkish airspace over the Black Sea region from the Bulgarian border to the Georgian side. In both cases, Turkish F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the Russian military planes as a precautionary move, according to an announcement from the Office of the Turkish General Staff. There was no violation of airspace reported and there was no dog fight in the air either.

The fact that Russia chose reconnaissance planes rather than bombers for the mission means that Moscow did not want to go overboard in sending a message to Turkey, whatever that is. That stands in sharp contrast to past airspace violations Russian strategic bombers conducted against its neighbors Japan, Norway and Finland, for example. Nevertheless, what can be described as harassing flight patterns by Russian military jets have always been a part of the standard operating procedure employed by Russia when it has wanted to flex its muscles for a show of force.

From the Turkish viewpoint, incidents over the Black Sea near Turkish airspace probably aimed to raise Moscow’s bargaining power on the eve of the upcoming Turkey-Russia High Level Cooperation Council (ÜDİK), a sort of intergovernmental conference headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with key cabinet ministers attending from both sides. Since the meeting will be held on Nov. 21-22 in Moscow, Putin likely ordered the IL-20 flights to strengthen his hand in the negotiations with Erdoğan on a number of wide-ranging issues which include, inter alia, the Syrian crisis and the South Stream pipeline that will transport Russian natural gas to Europe via Turkish territorial waters.

Putin knew that Russian planes flying parallel to Turkish airspace would prompt an immediate reaction from Turkish jets, which would in turn get reported widely in the Turkish media. By embarrassing Erdoğan, Putin thinks he can pressure the Turkish government into accepting a compromise deal on some issues. The perception that Turkey is now facing new tension in the north in addition to ongoing troubles along its southern flank that has been challenged by uncertainties in Syria, Iraq and Iran, may create uneasiness in Turkey. It may very well complicate things for Erdoğan on the domestic front when the country is heading towards three elections over the next two years. Russia’s hope is that Erdoğan will be more flexible and accommodating to Moscow’s requests under this circumstance.

We all know that Russia is a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime and that Bashar al-Assad is Putin’s last ally in the Arab world. Putin has made it clear that he will not let the regime collapse to prevent an unfriendly government coming into power in Damascus. By sending planes into Black Sea airspace, Russia may be trying to pivot Turkish defense alignment away from the south where the Turkish military, backed by NATO missile defense batteries, has beefed up its forces along the border with Syrian. In other words, Russia is creating a distraction in Turkey’s north by buzzing planes close to Turkish airspace, hoping that it will lead to overstretched Turkish resources.

Part of Putin’s motive has nothing to do with Turkey but is rather linked to significant domestic challenges Russia has been facing. The Russian economy is overly dependent on hydrocarbon exports and its population is shrinking. If it cannot solve these problems, Russia is destined to soon lag behind all other emerging economies. The harsh rhetoric adopted by Putin on foreign policy may be an indication that he wants to distract the public from domestic woes with external issues. It is a classic deflection game played by leaders who are under pressure at home.

Another motivation stems from the sharp decline of conventional military capabilities in the Russian military since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin wants to modernize its military force. In the meantime, he holds onto the idea of maintaining a large nuclear arsenal while avoiding any major concessions on the reduction of strategic stockpile in negotiations with the US. Since Moscow does not have many allies left that are reliable and trustworthy, anxiety and apprehension in Moscow must be on the rise. Therefore, a show of force in the airspace near NATO’s frontiers as well as in the airspace of non-NATO US allies is a reminder message that Russia is still a major force to be reckoned with.

Barack Obama has attempted to work with Putin on a number of regional and global issues, including in Afghanistan as the deadline of 2014 for the drawdown of US forces approaches fast. But he found it difficult to cooperate with Russia, forcing him to readjust US policy vis-à-vis Russia’s neighbors. That is one of the reasons why the US has resisted any written commitment that the European missile shield system, called Phased Adaptive Approach, that NATO has been building in Poland, Romania and Turkey will not target Russia. Washington believes the circumstances may change dramatically in the future and the NATO alliance needs flexibility to adjust according to new threat assessments.

A high-ranking official in the US recently told me that the US has not ruled out deploying the Aegis-equipped naval assets to the Black Sea if the threat from Russia warrants such a counter move. The Aegis missile defense ship has already been deployed to the Mediterranean as part of NATO’s missile defense system. The Aegis Combat System (ACS) employs advanced command and control capabilities that use powerful computers and radar to track and guide weapons to destroy enemy targets. It works with the AN/TPY-2 radar system that was deployed at Turkey’s Kürecik Air Force base. The radar was operational as of January 2012. Turkey has said that deploying Aegis to the Black Sea is not among the options being discussed at the moment. But it may quickly become an attractive option if Russia moves beyond merely harassing Turkey by buzzing its airspace.

I do not think Russia is really interested in escalating tension with Turkey as both countries have invested a lot in the relationship in the last decade. Turkey is a major client of Russia in oil and gas and Russia is a big spender for Turkish manufactured goods, produce and textiles. While the trade balance heavily favors Russia, Turkey is benefiting from the large number of Russian tourists flocking to Turkey and Turkish companies are profiting from Russian contracting and construction jobs. Both sides waived visa requirements in 2010, something Turkey has not been able to accomplish with the US or the EU for that matter.

But given that Turks and Russians have had rough patches in relations in the past, it is better to err on the side of caution and develop contingencies in case Russia decides to become more aggressive with Turkey. Whether the buzzing of Turkish airspace may be just a nuisance or a serious and alarming provocation, it will push Turkey to shore up its ties with the transatlantic alliance, something I believe Moscow does not want to see.

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