One of Vladimir Putin’s rules of life is to get mad, then get even. Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian Su-24 bomber in the 17 seconds it was allegedly zipping across a little tooth of Turkish territory jutting into Syria certainly appears to have got him very angry indeed. People close to him have described him as coldly furious, and although his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is trying to balance outrage and diplomacy, Putin — who described this as a “stab in the back” — is unlikely to feel existing economic and political sanctions are retaliation enough. And Putin is not one to forgive and forget.
There is already some hint of Moscow’s response in the renewed and redoubled pounding of Turkish proxies in Syria. After all, Ankara is very heavily and directly involved in the civil war, not just arming and training but mobilizing and protecting rebel forces as it seeks to build a renewed role as a regional power. The MIT, Turkey’s preeminent intelligence agency, is infamously aggressive, long known for its links with both gangsters and fascist terrorists. By some accounts one of the leaders of the main Turcoman rebel forces is Alparslan Çelik, a member of the Turkish fascist Grey Wolves movement, as well as an MIT ally.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost certainly intended to warn Russia off from attacking Turcoman rebels by ordering the plane shot down. It was bombing those rebels as it allegedly crossed Turkish territory. If so, one strongman leader appears to have misread another. Now escorted by interceptors and under the umbrella of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles, Russian bombers are hitting harder than before, including attacking an aid convoy possibly bringing in weapons under the guise of aid.
The question is whether Putin will be content to hammer Ankara’s proxies and enact sanctions on Turkish imports and tourism. Both of the latter are certainly a big deal for Turkey, and Russia is Turkey’s second-largest trading partner. But these measures lack the visceral appeal of more direct operations. However, Turkey is a NATO member, and while its allies are often unenthusiastic about Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions and are eager to calm this latest spat, they would feel obliged to involve themselves if Russia moved any more directly against Ankara. Besides, any open confrontation raises the risk that Turkey would try to close the Turkish Straits, which connect the Black Sea to the world’s sea links. This passage is vital to Russia’s resupply chain to its expeditionary force in Syria. Not least — and here’s an irony of today’s “hot peace” — using cargo ships chartered from the Turks.
So, in this age of covert and indirect conflict, will the Russians be tempted to turn to their extensive options in the shadows? There is, after all, much Moscow could do to punish and warn Ankara, if it is willing to risk escalating the situation.
The first and most obvious option would be to provide more support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist-Leninist and ethnic group whom the Soviets enthusiastically supported during the Cold War, and Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are among the most effective forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Syrian Kurds aligned with the PKK have set up statelets along the northern border with Turkey; the longer these persist, the more the pressure on Ankara from Turkey’s own Kurds will increase. Moscow need not directly arm the PKK to increase this pressure. Simply providing or laundering money for the group will undercut Turkey’s ability to control the Kurdish political movement.
Beyond the Syrian theater, the Russians could seek to foment violence inside Turkey. Although there is no evidence to suggest such a link, it is unsurprising that after the recent murder of Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci in Diyarbakir — possibly directly assassinated, possibly caught in the crossfire when assailants shot at police — people speculated about a Russian connection. After all, Moscow’s assassins have been killing Chechen rebel fundraisers and organizers inside Turkey for years, so it is not inconceivable that they may have decided instead to stage an attack bound to stir up trouble between the Turks and the Kurds. Regardless of the facts behind this incident, it certainly indicates another potential angle of attack through provocations in an already volatile country. ISIL has already staged bloody bombings in the country, and the PKK has accused the government of conniving at attacks on its rallies, too. It might not take much to set faction against faction — and scare off foreign tourists and investors.
Turkey is also one of the world’s great heroin-trafficking hubs and as such organized crime groups are very active there, which also presents opportunities to the Kremlin. Many of the organized crime groups involved in the trafficking of Afghan opiates are closely linked to the government, but there are others that are not. Besides, even those close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are opportunists and also are tied to many other criminal groups, including in Iran and the South Caucasus, where Russian organized crime and Russia’s intelligence agencies (the two are often connected) are active. It would be possible to use these gangsters as violent proxies, something Moscow has done in Ukraine. Or the Russians could simply seek to provoke inter-gang conflicts, such as by selective interdictions of heroin shipments. After all, not only does this create violence on the streets, it raises the possibility that gangs’ respective political patrons get sucked in, leading to further disruption.
However, there are serious political risks and costs associated with such operations in the shadows. Every intelligence service has to accept that nothing stays secret forever. The more active and aggressive the campaign, the greater the chance that it gets dragged out of the shadows. Something will go wrong, or else the simple accumulation of circumstantial evidence becomes too great to be written off as paranoia or conspiracy theory. An agent gets caught, and even if he (or she) refuses to talk, their identity, movements, and aims will be traced, fingering their sponsor. A financial transaction, however many jurisdictions it is bounced through, gets tracked to a Russian account. A traceable piece of equipment expected to be destroyed or removed somehow survives or gets left behind.
In those circumstances, Ankara — which at the moment is regarded even in Europe as an over-aggressive and problematic partner — would get to paint itself as the victim of Russian aggression. The shootdown, which may have been in breach of established protocol, would be retrospectively justified. More to the point, Moscow would lose much of its newfound status as a fellow victim of jihadist groups and a potential ally in the Middle East. Following the Paris attacks, ISIL’s apparent downing of a Russian airliner, and French President Francois Hollande’s visit to Moscow, the Russians are looking more legitimate than at any point since they seized Crimea last year. Given that Moscow’s underlying motivation for intervention in Syria is less about defending Assad (let alone fighting ISIL) than about breaking out of its current isolation and reaching some grand bargain over Ukraine, this would undermine the whole purpose of the venture.
Common sense would say that Putin should confine himself to operations inside Syria, sanctions, and perhaps some political mischief-making with the Kurds. But then again, common sense would have said Russia ought not to have annexed Crimea or intervened in southeast Ukraine. This is a classic clash between head and heart, and one of the reasons the Kremlin has caught the West by surprise so often in recent years (and let’s be honest: it has) is precisely because we still do not have a clear sense of which is driving Russia’s strategic calculus. In the first two Putin administrations, for all his outspoken and sometimes intemperate rhetoric, the head was definitely in charge. These days, that’s not quite so clear — so we should watch events inside Turkey with particular attention and concern.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. His most recent book is Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces (Osprey, 2015).
Photo credit: kremlin.ru