Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Inevitable Clash of Petty Titans

"President Putin had to get there before Assad fell so that Russia could retain its foothold in the Middle East with its airport and naval base."
"Secondly, he wanted to show his domestic population and the world that Russia is a global power. And finally, he needed to distract the world's attention from Ukraine."
Lt.-Gen.Ben Hodges, commander, U.S. Army in Europe
Syrian Turkmen fighters are seen with an anti-aircraft artillery weapon near the northern Syrian village of Yamadi, near the Turkish-Syrian border, Syria, November 24, 2015. Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday    Reuters/Stringer

This can be viewed in a number of ways. Moscow feels hard done by, taken advantage of, held to a standard that represents the West's interests, not that of the Russian Federation. After all, it is NATO and the United States that have trespassed in eastern Europe, Russia's bailiwick. Pushing Moscow around, courting the eastern European countries that once comprised a proud part of the Soviet Union, convincing them that their futures will advance with an alliance with the West, scorning Vladimir Putin's efforts to revisit the glory days of the USSR.

And since the West's advance into the near-abroad of Russia is seen as perfectly fair in a geopolitical chess game of nerve and reaction, why then, it's perfectly fine for Moscow to venture into Western airspace and sea lanes, just to test things out; in the process leaving some nervous European leaders worrying about their sovereignty, and Western leaders in a state of suspense over what it all means, but few taking steps to counter-challenge Mr. Putin's moves of verve and nerve.

So Russian bombers have flown down the coast of the U.S., closed in on Iceland's air space, and flittered about Europe. Britain's Royal Air Force has ushered Russian jets from British air space, and the Nordic countries have blanched at Russian planes at their frontier while the Baltic coujntries complain of Russian incursions into their air space. NATO's air patrol mission is the response to these nervous reactions.

Russian submarines have been pursued in Swedish waters, and even Japan has experienced Russian planes probing its air space, while a Russian task force appeared off the coast of Australia during last year's G20 meeting in Brisbane. Russian bombers fly at the edge of the Canadian Arctic and past Iceland. Russian bombers turn their transponders off as they did flying into Irish airspace necessitating that civilian air traffic be rerouted urgently, in response. The nuclear-powered carrier USS Ronald Reagan launched fighter jets when Russian warplanes closed in, refusing radio contact.

Turkey shot down a drone in October in its airspace which the U.S. announced conformed with Russian designs. All of these ploys to elicit notice and to challenge a response have been met with frustration and puzzlement. What, precisely, is being achieved? Other than providing titillation for the Russian public back home and in the process building the popular esteem of a man with a Napoleon complex.

This time a NATO country responded to a clear provocation and with reason enough given the complex situation.
A combination picture taken from video shows a war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border November 24, 2015.
Reuters/Reuters TV/Haberturk

And now two countries known for their belligerence, knitting together two leaders whose personal style resembles one the other, have each in their own way committed offences against the other. The Turkish slap-down of Russian insolence has thus far cost two Russian lives; one of the warplane's pilots, and a Russian marine in a helicopter that was also shot down by Turkomen rebels, emulating from the ground what a sophisticated missile accomplished from the air.

That Turkey and NATO had repeatedly given warning to Moscow over its fightrer jets violating Turkish air space, and should they continue there was a risk they would be shot down, had not, evidently been taken very seriously by the leadership of a country that supplies energy, wheat, nuclear technology and tourists to the country doing the warning. On the other hand, by targeting Turkmen opposed to Assad's regime on the border between Syria and Turkey, events were weighted to occur.

Alpaslan Celik, a deputy commander in a Syrian Turkmen brigade (C), holds handles believed to be parts of a parachute of the downed Russian warplane near the northern Syrian village of Yamadi, near the Turkish-Syrian border, Syria, November 24, 2015.   Reuters/Stringer

One warplane shot down another warplane. And a diplomatic emergency of some critical measure has ensued. The shooting might be viewed as entirely unwarranted, a product of one leader's bad humour against another, that cost the lives of two soldiers. On the other hand, those soldiers were in the process of annihilating the lives of ethnic Turks in Syria, opposing the regime that Russia has been championing, even while the U.S. alliance is striking at Islamic State, a menace toward the region.

What next? Support by Russia to Turkish Kurd separatists? Turkish backing for Crimean Tatars ill-treated by Moscow in Crimea?

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