The confusion over what really happened over the Turkish border with Syria on November 24 that ended with a Russian SU24 bomber being shot down is pea-soup thick.
The Russians are clearly outraged and claim their plane was “ambushed”. It backs this up with an alleged leaked letter to the UN from Turkey that says the plane spent just 17 seconds inside Turkish airspace before it was shot down.
The letter also says the Russian pilot was given 10 warnings before a Turkish F-16 opened fire. To back up its account, Turkey released an audio recording that it claims shows the pilot received multiple warnings to "change your heading south". The pilot has claimed he received no such warnings.
The problem is that after over a year of misinformation and deliberately muddying the waters in the Ukraine conflict, even if Russia is a victim here of a political scheme of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, no one will believe it. The Russians long ago blew their credibility as a counterparty in international diplomacy, and now the world is facing a serious terrorist threat, that may come back to bite them.
Despite the opacity of the facts, the silhouette of some of the details appear to be emerging that back up some of the Russian version of events.
“Even taking Ankara’s account at face value, the Su-24 was in their airspace for just 17 seconds before being attacked, and was making no hostile moves against the Turks. Incursions, even if usually in less politically-tense contexts, happen all the time, and generally you’d expect warning shots fired and then attempts to force the intruder to leave national airspace or to land,” Professor Mark Galeotti said in his blog “In Moscow’s Shadows”.
“Turkey’s response went way beyond the usual practice. Don’t believe me? In 2012, the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet, which had entered its airspace, and Erdogan’s furious response at the time was that 'a short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack'.” writes Galeotti.
Certainly, the Russia reaction has been explosive, with even the outspoken Putin going for the strongest language possible. Nearly the entire Russian establishment came out the next day promising retribution – albeit economic and not military – and leading tourist agencies withdrew their Turkish Christmas holiday packages in solidarity with the official line. This was a major outpouring of anger even by the increasingly jingoistic Russian standards.
Still, Russia has rather walked into this one. It has been bombing rebels along the Turkish border that are backed by Turkey and in a de-facto “safety buffer”, which Erdogan has been trying to make official with international support, to little effect so far. Turkey regards those rebels as “ours” and the irony here is that supposed “allies” in the war against Islamic State (IS) are shooting each other out of the sky instead of the rebels on the ground.
The US has unsurprisingly backed Turkey, with which it still has a very uncomfortable relationship. The US State Department spokesman defended Turkey’s “right to defend itself” in a press conference dedicated to the plane incident. However, that is to assume that Russia was attacking Turkey, which clearly was not the case. And the spokesperson was immediately peppered with a barrage of awkward questions like: “Does the US then also acknowledge Assad’s right to defend himself?”
However, despite the war talk on Moscow’s streets (the domestic press has taken the story and run with it to the maximum dramatic effect), no one wants the conflict between Russia and Turkey to escalate.
Russia can't attack Turkey, as it has been a Nato member since 1952. And if it did, Ankara would invoke Article 5 of the treaty that would bring the entire alliance down on Russia’s neck. On the flip side the West doesn’t want to see an escalation, as it would be dragged into a war with Russia it doesn’t want, perhaps just on the basis of reckless action taken by Turkey.
Despite Putin’s emotional outburst, his room for maneuver is limited, because Turkey remains a big economic partner and an important ally - albeit a prickly one - in Europe, where Putin needs all the friends he can get right now.