Now that Turkey Shot Down a Russian Bomber, What Does Escalation Look Like?


Since Tuesday, policymakers and pundits from NATO member states have voiced concerns about the escalation that could result from Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet. But what actions might Moscow actually take in response?

Putin faces domestic pressure to retaliate, but Moscow’s responses will likely be limited to avoid triggering a broader NATO response and an escalation. This means that rather than a direct military retaliation on Turkish forces or territory, Russia will likely continue and step up attacks on Turkish-backed groups in Syria and create opportunities where Turkey could be blamed for any escalation. Indeed, Moscow has reportedly attacked a Turkish aid convoy near its border in Syria and announced plans to escort future strike missions with fighter jets.

The debate over Ankara’s decision to shoot down the Russian tactical bomber — which was apparently in Turkish airspace for just 17 seconds — has only begun. To be sure, the unauthorized penetration of a Russian military aircraft into Turkey’s national airspace is a violation of international law. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Chicago Convention, each state maintains “complete and exclusive sovereignty” over the airspace above its territory, giving Ankara grounds, however tenuous, to exercise the right of self-defense in response to a foreign military incursion.

Critics of Turkey’s actions, however, will almost certainly respond by questioning whether the Russian jet actually threatened Turkey’s national security and whether shooting the jet down represented a proportional use of force.

Although statesmen will continue to hash-out the details surrounding the incident for weeks, Putin will feel pressure to take action far more quickly. Angry crowds have already descended on the Turkish Embassy in Moscow; and the Kremlin has described consequences for Turkey’s “unfriendly actions” as “inevitable.”

A long tradition of international relations research suggests that Russia is likely to follow through on its threat. Although the subject of academic debate, leaders who issue threats during crises are unlikely to back down given the possibility of domestic political repercussions or reputational consequences on the international stage. So what is Moscow likely to do?

A direct military retaliation against Turkey is highly unlikely. States have historically avoided armed responses to the downing of aircraft, even during periods of heightened tension. The last time a NATO member state downed a Russian military aircraft was at the end of the Korean War in 1953, but the Soviets intercepted and destroyed dozens of U.S. military aircraft throughout the Cold War and Pakistan shot down Soviet-piloted MiGs in the 1980s without significant military retaliation. Even when personnel were killed in these incidents, these actions typically elicited little more than harshly worded diplomatic communiqués. States sometimes resort to military retaliation — like when Pakistan reportedly fired on an Indian Air Force helicopter the day after Indian forces downed a Pakistani reconnaissance plane in 1999 — but these cases are relatively infrequent.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has seemingly ruled out military action against Turkey. Instead, Moscow is likely to dole out consequences in two ways.

First, Turkish-backed Turkmen rebels — who reportedly killed one of the Russian pilots and a marine sent to rescue the downed aircrew — are likely to face the brunt of Russian retaliatory measures. Ankara arms and trains these anti-Assad groups, and Turkey warned Russia to avoid targeting Turkmen areas just days before the shoot down.

Launching more strikes against these Turkish-supported groups will allow Moscow to signal its displeasure with Ankara without directly threatening or attacking a NATO member.  Moscow already unleashed a wave of airstrikes in the area near where the Su-24 jet went down and struck a Turkish convoy at the Turkey-Syria border (Russian sources speculate the convoy was carrying weapons). Since Putin is keen on keeping Russian casualties in Syria to a minimum, Moscow will likely minimize the risk to Russian forces by keeping strike aircraft out of Turkish airspace or relying on cruise missiles to carry out these operations.

Second, Moscow is likely to vocally reaffirm its commitment to operating in the skies over Syria. The Russian General Staff has reportedly developed a plan to ensure the safety of its air operations in light of Tuesday’s shoot down. The new measures include fighter escorts for strike aircraft and the deployment of a guided missile cruiser off the coast of Latakia, placing large swaths of Turkish airspace within range of the ship’s surface-to-air missiles. Additionally, Russia pledged to discontinue military contacts with Turkey, although diplomatic communication channels have apparently remained open.

These steps are exactly the type of actions states ought to avoid during crises. Deploying additional military assets into the already congested Syrian battlespace heightens the risk of accidents, while cutting off military-to-military communications eliminates channels that could help deescalate future incidents. By taking these steps, Russia has created what Nobel Prize-winning economist and strategist Thomas Schelling describes as a “threat that leaves something to chance.” These actions exploit the risks of low-level escalation and increase the potential for miscalculation, creating conditions that could quickly spiral out of control. On top of increasing the risk of escalation, heightened tensions between Russia and NATO will almost certainly further detract from the fight against the Islamic State.

While Tuesday’s incident has strained already tense relations between Russia and the West, any significant military action between Moscow and NATO seems unlikely. Still, any of Moscow’s moves could easily trigger inadvertent escalation. In the interests of regional stability, both Turkey and Russia ought to maintain open lines of communication, avoid moves that increase the risk of miscalculation, and put the chocks on escalation.


Erik Lin-Greenberg is a doctoral student at Columbia University where he studies international relations. Before graduate school he served as an active duty U.S. Air Force officer. The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any U.S. government agency.

Image: Cynthia Vernat, CC