When Russia Howls, Turkey Moves

December 2, 2015

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Of Turkey’s near-dozen neighbors, there is just one that Ankara really fears: Russia. This is rooted in history stretching back to the Ottoman Empire. At some point in the past, the Ottoman Turks ruled over or defeated all of modern Turkey’s neighbors from Greece to Syria.

The exception is Russia.

Between the 15th century, when the Ottoman and Russian empires became neighbors, and 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution, the Turks and Russians fought at least 17 wars.  Russia instigated every single one, and the Turks subsequently lost all of them. With good reason, across the ages Turkish elites have harbored a deeply ingrained fear of Moscow.

In fact, Russian military prowess has often acted as a catalyst in the formation of Ottoman and Turkish policy. As my colleague Akin Unver writes in his Foreign Affairs article, when Russians captured Crimea in 1783 — the first Muslim-majority territory the Turks lost to a Christian power — this triggered Turkish westernization. The Turks felt so humiliated by Russia that they decided to adopt European ways to counter it. That modernization eventually produced Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic.

More recently, when Stalin demanded territory from Turkey (such as the Bosporus, in 1946), Ankara made a decision with far-reaching repercussions by opting to side with the United States in the Cold War. It appears that the fear of Russia can force the Turks to do whatever it takes to find cover against Moscow: In 1950, Turkey sent troops to faraway Korea to fight the Communists, proving its commitment to the United States. Washington rewarded Ankara for this move in 1952 with NATO membership.

Russo-phobia has acted as a key catalyst for Turkish political maneuvering for hundreds of years. That is why Ankara’s recent downing of a Russian jet, which only briefly violated Turkish airspace, makes more sense under scrutiny.

As a resurgent military power, Russia has been violating air spaces of NATO allies regularly, from Estonia to the United Kingdom, but none of these countries has shot down a Russian plane. Closer to home, Russia is not the only country that violates Turkish airspace. Greek and Turkish jets regularly violate each other’s airspace, yet Turkey is not shooting down any Greek planes. In other words, there is something uniquely disturbing in the Turkish decision to shoot down the Russian plane: This is neither routine Turkish behavior, nor a typical NATO reaction. Furthermore, with history in mind, Ankara ought to be aware that the odds that it could win a military confrontation with Russia on its own are close to nil.

Turkey’s aggressive posture vis-à-vis Russia can be explained through the war in Syria, where Ankara and Moscow have diametrically opposing policies. Since 2011, Turkey’s Syria policy has had one premise: ousting the Assad regime, which Russia has conversely and successfully bolstered. Thus far, Ankara’s Syria policy has failed and Moscow’s has succeeded.

With Russia backing Assad in Syria, it is clear that his regime will not fall. Ankara has not yet admitted this failure publicly, but in reality Turkey has already downgraded the intensity of its Syria policy.

Turkey’s Syria policy now aims to secure Ankara a seat at the table when negotiations are held for Syria’s future. This can only happen if Turkish-backed rebels continue to hold on to strategic zones in northwestern Syria. This gives further significance to the recent Russian airstrikes against these rebels. Such attacks threaten to debilitate these rebel groups, and simultaneously undermine Turkey’s recently downgraded Syria policy.

It is this fear of being shut out of Syria by Russian attacks on Turkish-aligned rebels that has induced Turkey to posture so aggressively against Russia, and which led to the hair-trigger shootdown last Friday. The question now is: How does Moscow react? While Russia is the only neighbor Ankara truly fears, the Russians consider Turkey a historic nuisance that cannot be allowed to come between it and its goals. Hence, Moscow will settle for nothing less than Turkey standing down in Syria as well as a full apology from Ankara. To date, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have both ruled out an apology.

In the coming days, Russia could launch a set of retaliatory steps designed to humiliate Ankara. With this in mind, Russia will target northwestern Syria with increased vigor to root out Turkish-backed rebels. Putin’s dream now is to drive these rebels out of Syria, a scenario that would mean complete defeat of Ankara’s Syria policy. This would also potentially create a massive new wave of refugees, adding to Turkey’s current burden of nearly 2.5 million refugees.

Russia could also use asymmetrical warfare against Ankara, which might, unfortunately for Turkey, include support to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that Ankara is fighting.

Russia could also provide weapons to the PKK’s Syrian franchise, the Party for Democratic Unity (PYD), which has been aiming to capture a nearly 60-mile stretch of territory (the Jarablus–Azaz corridor) along the Turkish–Syrian border to link its two enclaves in northern Syria. Russian assistance would allow the PYD to establish a 400-mile-long pro-PKK cordon abutting Turkey from the south — with Moscow’s backing.

If a Russian–Turkish crisis escalates, this will have momentous ramifications: Turkey will react to the Russian moves with a potentially historic move.

Washington needs to prepare for Turkey’s potential next steps. After a decade of trying to become a Middle East player in its own right, Ankara may now find comfort in the NATO alliance when faced with the historic Russian menace, pivoting closer to the United States.

Alternatively, Turkey could try to retaliate against Moscow’s moves, escalating the war in Syria by bringing in Central Asian, Chechen, and other North Caucasus proxies to fight against Russia in Syria. Such a policy could find resonance with the Turkish nationalist and Islamist constituencies of the Erdogan-Davutoglu administration in Ankara, further boosting their drive for an autarchic foreign policy.

Either way Turkey turns, Ankara could be at the precipice of a major foreign policy decision: When Russia howls, Turkey moves.


Soner Cagaptay is Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century’s First Muslim Power.

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12 thoughts on “When Russia Howls, Turkey Moves

  1. Excellent assessment of the situation.

    It is rather surprising,even given their strategic naivete, that the Turks would be so foolish as to challenge the Russians in the location and manner in which they chose.

    Once the Russians have their S400 SAM System operational and, along with the presence offshore of their Guided Missile Cruisers, providing protection for their Attack Aircraft, they will in all likelihood begin using aircraft bombing and Cruise Missile attacks to remove / the Turkmen presence in that area by destroying their towns, etc.

    The Turks should have remembered the Russian artillery bombardment of the Chechnyan civilian population in Grozny. Russias will not let the presence of a civilians stop them from obliterating Turkmen towns located in Syria.

    The Turkish Airforce will be unable to successfully penetrate the Russian SAM 400 protective barrier. And, even worse, the Turk”s unnecessarily shooting down of a Russian plane has set in place a chain of events that will preclude the U.S. establishing a “No Fly Zone” in the area along the Syrian-Russian Border. That area is now under Russian domination. The Turks have also solidified Assad”s rule over Syria.

    Some (or maybe all) of the candidates running for President need to wake up to the above strategic realities.

    1. The Turks are neither stupid nor naive. That was an armed Russian aircraft, conducting combat operations against Turkish proxies, who after being warned 10 times, violated Turkish airspace directly over Turkey and Turkish populated areas. To claim this is not typical Turkish or NATO behaviour is a misnomer: the Turks have reacted very aggressively to Greek tactical air movement in the Aegean, and to my knowledge, no major western power as had an armed Russian aircraft actually fly over its borders. The link provided only cites incidents in which Russian MPA’s approached the coast of England and Norway, which is the kind of thing which has been going on for years. If that aircraft had been warned away from the English coast 10 times, and then proceeded to fly directly over Cornwall, we may have well seen a very different reaction from the RAF. So tactically I’m not sure why everyone is surprised. Russia’s historic enemy is conducting combat operations in a strategically vital neighbour, counter to known Turkish interests. Russian aircraft had previously violated Turkish airspace, a VERY provocative action. Would we expect the US to be as restrained of Russian aircraft violated the borders of Florida during some hypothetical Cuban civil war? In that situation I think the world would be questioning why the Russians violated US airspace. If anyone escalated the situation here, it is the Russians.

      As for the S-400, that doesn’t really change the metric for the Turks at all. They are not conducting interdiction operations inside Syria, and the incident clear occurred within Turkey’s territorial airspace. So they have never had a need to penetrate the S-400’s defensive zone, and they won’t now. Depending on where it is deployed, given the S-400’s range it is possible that the system could strike Turkish aircraft operating inside Turkey, but that would certainly be a massive violation of Turkish sovereignty and could well trigger article V, or at least some kind of US response. So honestly, I’m not sure how it effects Turkish calculations at all. There’s already zero chance of the Turks mounting some sort of offensive counter air campaign to protect its proxies from Russian attack aircraft: defending their airspace is one thing, getting into a shooting war with the Russians in Syria is quite something else.

      There is zero chance the US or anyone else is going to be either willing or able to impose a no fly zone over northern Syria. The only power flying there is Russia, and no one is going to risk a confrontation with them trying to impose a no-fly zone – which means potentially US aircraft shooting down Russian fighters in Syria – which the Russians could simply veto at the Security Council anyway. Russian presence in the conflict has already secured Assad’s regime in the east, so in reality the Turks have nothing to lose on that front.

      As for the comparisons with Chechnya: The Russians are not capable of annihilating population centres in southern Syria with the forces they have deployed in theatre. Currently they have about a regiment – roughly a USAF squadron – of attack aircraft operating in Syria. That isn’t a massive amount of firepower, and it certainly isn’t capable of dropping enough munitions to raise a reasonably large town. Cruise missiles are not the sort of weapon you use to annihilate population centres either, unless we are talking about WMDs. They are expensive and have reasonably small warheads, which makes them good for striking point, high value targets. In Chechnya they had deployed roughly a combined arms army, three tank and several motor rifle divisions IIRC, which between them had over a thousand pieces of artillery. The only tool they have to do that is strategic air power, which is capable of levelling Villages and towns with large numbers of iron bombs. But is this really likely, given the propaganda impact of watching whole villages and towns being obliterated by Russian bombers? Hardly likely, especially considering the long term threat of radical Islam in Russia.

      1. The Russian aircraft overflow a small area of Turkish territory for 17 seconds. Turkish territory which is surrounded on three sides by Syrian territory. Neither this country nor any Western Country would respond by shooting down a Russian aircraft in that situation. As a Navy Officer during much of the Cold War I am well aware of how we would respond to Russian actions, including their provocations — and it is just the opposite of the picture you propose. I have been involved in confrontations with the Russians.

        The Turkmen villages are not the size of Grozny, and the Russian aircraft will destroy them incrementally. They do not timidly apply Air Power like the U.S. does. Ever seen what a few incendiary bombs can do to an area or seen the destruction from a decent number of “iron bombs” dropped without concern for collateral damage.

        You seriously underestimate the Russians ability, as have the Turks. You think like an American, not a Russian. The Russians, and the Arabs, understand that slaughter pacifies populations and diminishes their ardor for violent resistance while American style population friendly COIN style operations, an unnecessary concern for “collateral” casualties, and reliance on targeted killings embolden one’s chosen enemies, for starters. The Russian Islamic population will not violently react to a slaughter of their religious kinsmen somewhere else, because they realize if they so choose they will be the next casualties. Only Americans are strategically naive in that way. The Russians will simply round them up, imprison the male adults, and distribute the Women and children elsewhere.

        Yes, the Turks were strategically naive and foolish. Their actions will spell the doom of the Turkmen population in Syria on a schedule chosen by the Russians. Assad thanks them.

        1. Cliff, that’s just not true. At no point, to my knowledge, has a soviet aircraft ever overflown the continental United States, let alone after being warned 10 times. You cannot claim that ‘no western nation would have acted like that’, because no western nation has been put in that situation by the Russians. The Soviets shot down western aircraft that penetrated Soviet airspace – sometimes they were over international waters – six or seven times IIRC, the Greeks shot down a Turkish F-16 over the Aegean, the Pakistanis shot down a Su-25, the Indians shot down a Pakistani MPA in 98, this kind of thing is hardly unusual. If you are considered a potentially hostile power, and you violate someone else’s airspace you are liable to get shot down, especially if you have been warned 10 times. What did we all expect Akara to do? Simply allow the Russian to continually violate their airspace? The Turks have been complaining about this for over a month now so it’s hardly an isolated incident. Why are we questioning Turkish actions and not the wisdom of Russian aircraft violating Turkish airspace?

          As for the ‘Turkmen villages’ – and me thinking like an American (Australian actually) – you have only commented on Russian intentions, not capabilities. Sure, the Russians may be into levelling villages, but with what? They only have between 20 and 24 attack aircraft in the theatre, which leaves between 7 and 8 available for operations at any one time, and given the sustained nature of the campaign we are probably looking at a maximum sortie generation rate of perhaps 20 per day. That’s across the whole of Syria. So how many Su-24 sorties does it take to level a village? An entire day’s worth of air operations, or more, for a single village? So the only way the Russians could mount a campaign by that is by either significantly increasing their presence in Syria ort shifting the focus away from tactical objectives which directly support the Assad regime. Hardly an attractive option, considering how tenuous Assad’s power base is. Are any of those outcomes really likely? Personally I doubt it, even if the Russians really want to obliterate villages as an act of retribution.

          But lets say they did mount a campaign designed at mass civilian casualties amongst Turkish proxies with a dedicated strategic air campaign, how does this impact the Turkish position? The primary Turkish strategic goal – the fall of Assad – has already been fatally compromised by Russian intervention, and its proxies are not winning. What happens if the Russians start levelling villages? How is that going to be perceived by the major western powers, who have thus far been unwilling commit significant resources to counter the Russians in Syria? How is that going to be perceived amongst the wider Muslim world? Is this diversion of effort going to weaken Assad? Are there any outcomes of such a campaign that could improve the Turkish strategic position? There seems to be quite a few.

          I don’t think you’ve thought this through, so until you do, I wouldn’t be going around calling the Turks stupid or naive.

          1. Actually during the Cold War the Russians had repeatedly overflew European NATO airspace and they were simply escorted out of the area, not shot down. The examples you provide are not from an American perspective.

            Second over-flying Turkish territory for 12 seconds hardly qualifies as a threatening act requiring a hostile response.

            Third the missile hit the Russian plane over Syria, thus the Turks were attacking Syria, not the other way around.

            Fourth, the world will not care one iota if the Turkmen are driven from Syria, and they will be. The Russians are increasing the number of of aircraft they have in Syria, and a few Cruise Misses will destroy a village. The world didn’t give a damn about Grozny, didn’t care about Hungary in 1956, didn’the care about Assad the First leveling much of Homs, etc. And even those Westerners who do care will only talk and not militarily intervene.

            Fifth, as far as thinking things out, to further your education on how best to defeat a guerilla war / insurgency read how American General Sheridan succeeded in so doing, when defeating the Indians on the Western Plains — by incrementally destroying their villages, not chasing after their mobile columns (so to speak). Custer was a fool who disobeyed his orders and earned his place in the hereafter.

            Sixth, everything the Turks are / will reap will be the opposite of everything they thought they would receive from shooting down a Russian plane overflying a small part of their territory that proceeds peninsular style into Syria. The Russian S400 now provides SAM coverage along that border deep into Turkey — not good for them.

            Seventh, the Turks were in all likelihood counting on the next U.S. President establishing a “No Fly Zone” along their border with Syria to provide them cover for supplying the Turkmen as part of Erdogan I’s Empire expanding dream. The S400 says it will not be so. The Turks did not expect that Russia response and result.

            Again, perhaps read about Sheridan”s Indian Campaigns. He had a limited number of men, destroyed the Indian villages incrementally, etc.

            The Russians realize you destroy your enemies base of operations, especially if it is where their families are based as a clear path to strategic success. Apparently, like Americans, Australians perhaps fail to understand the only way to defeat insurgencies is to “destroy” their base of support. The Russians understand that need, and they are a patient lot.

  2. Cliff, none of the above addresses a single thing I have said directly. Not a single thing.

    You don’t have a handle on Russian capabilities, you haven’t thought of second or third order strategic effects, you keep going on about COIN theory which has very little to do with Turkish strategic calculations. So again, until you engage with any of the above, I wouldn’t go around calling the Turks stupid or naive.

    And BTW, appealing to the late 19th century best practice in COIN operations is hardly relevant to Syria in 2015 is it? Especially in an internationalised conflict where everyone has a video camera in their phone.

    1. And p.s. explain the practicalities of a ‘No Fly Zone’ for me, would you? How would it be imposed? How would the US deal with the Russians if they refuse the proposal? A large scale SEAD/DEAD and offensive counter air campaign against the Russians? Or just ask really nicely? Obviously this has to be a realistic option if this is the Turks strategic goal, right?

      Have you actually thought about any of this?

  3. The clock is ticking and things could go south very, very quickly.

    Russia has made it personal, they have destroyed the oil supply train from ISIS to Turkey.

    Bilal Erdogon is out a fortune in the cost of the trucks destroyed and the lovely cash flow of hundreds (10,000 or so if the Russians are to be believed) of tankers worth of oil purchased at rock bottom pricing, selling at a very tidy profit. And if Bilal is broke, it means dad has lost a great deal too.

    ISIS is in a tough spot, its oil income is gone and the resupply line from Turkey is cut. Running a proto Caliphate is a cash business. Without the Turkish trucks full of money and arms, the amount of time ISIS can sustain itself will be demonstrated soon.

    In the meantime, Turkey has placed armour at the border and today Iraq complained that the Turkish run training facility north of Mosul is filling up with an expeditionary force. And just to rub it in, Turkey responded with a so what you going to do about it snottiness.

    What indeed.

    Germany, Britain are heading in. France will have to choose its side.

    Then the wild card in the deck, what would Iran do if Iraq called for help against Erdogon?

    But that is the sideshow, how does Russia respond? Russia does not have the logistical depth to keep its aircraft and some number of little green men driving T-90s fully supplied once Turkey closes the Bosphorus strait.

    My take is that if Russia decides that their position is untenable in the medium to long term, they will hit hard, with everything they can bring to bear.

    Not a pleasant thought in light of their recent Ukrainian tuned doctrine change, permitting 1st use of tactical nukes.

    Like the tough Russian guy said, “If you’re feeling froggy, go ahead and leap… mudak.”

    How froggy do we feel?

    1. I highly doubt the Turks will close the Bosporus, that would effectively be a commercial blockade and, thus, an act of war. The Turkish position vis a vis the Russians is only as strong as it is because of western support. Thus, taking that kind of a unilateral response is unlikely. Additionally, if the Russians see their position fatally compromised, I think it far more likely that they will push hard for a political solution, rather than escalate. Lets say they ‘hit hard with everything they have’ for a few weeks, but achieve little – which is likely given their capabilities in Syria – and are then forced to withdraw. Or do you mean go to war with a NATO member, over their position in Syria?

  4. It is simply flat out wrong to state that Russia initiated all wars (and how does the author arrive at 17? Does this include all Crimean Tatar campaigns?), or that it won all of them.
    I would for example refer to 1571, when Crimean Tartars (with Ottoman aid) burned down Moscow.
    1572 saw an outright attempt by Turkish and Tatar forces to end the existence of Russia as a nation, which failed due to German/Bohemian merceneries, Russian bravery and tactical innovation (gyulai gorod, roughly translated as walking fortress).
    The Ottoman Empire also started, and won, the Pruth River war of 1710-1711. I would also argue that the Austro-Russian vs. Ottoman war of 1735 to 1749 was a Ottoman victory, given that their gains vs. Austria far outstripped their very maginal losses to Russia. The Crimean war also ended in defeat for Russia. I am pretty well versed in history, but have no idea how the author arrives at 17. He possibly includes a number of the Crimean-Russian wars (were the Crimeans were clearly the aggressors, quite a couple of times).

    Concerning the actual shootdown:
    Russia and the west signed a memorandum of understanding to avoid this stuff. Turkey explicitly violated it. No iffs and buts, there is an escalation ladder to be followed there, and escalation ladder that is generally followed, usually including from the Russian side, and the final step of that ladder is indeed shooting the plane down. This escalation ladder was also followed by Turkey during the Cold War.
    Turkey did protest over a violation in the past, and the Russian response was a formal diplomatic apology for it as well as increased access to Russian military information.

    Hypothetically speaking, if Turkey sends, at the request of Ukraines current government, Fighter bombers into Donbass to destroy the seperatists. And the Russian shoot one down after claiming that it crossed into Russian airspace (the shootdown occurded clearly in Ukraine) while bombing the seperatists and make a series of contradictory remarks concerning the specifics, would those defending the Turkish shootdown take the same position?

    Mind you that the hypothetic Russian government in this situation would not be a party to a MOU with Turkey in this situation, so the de jure legality of this shootdown would be improved compared to the Turkish shootdown.