A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."
But some pro-Western politicians in Yerevan said the incident proves the unreliability of the security guarantees provided it by Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. "They endlessly assure us that our country's border is faithfully guarded by the CSTO and Russian armed forces. And it has become clear that in no case will there be any sort of response," said opposition politician Anush Serdakyan. Others appealed to a different power: Member of parliament Tevan Poghosyan this week demanded an apology from NATO for the violation.
Then, last week, Turkish jets shot down a drone that violated its airspace, again having crossed from Syria. Photos of the wreckage indicated that the drone was Russian-made, but Russia has denied that it was theirs and Turkey, at least publicly, accepted that explanation. "The drone was produced by Russia. However, it could have belonged to the forces of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, or the Kurdish militias, or to other forces," Prime Minister Ahmed Davotoglu said.
Others in Turkey were not so trusting. “This is a strategic effort, under Russian cover, to render Turkey’s rules of engagement practically meaningless; and the tactical purpose is to test Turkey’s capacity and response time,” said Can Kasapoglu of the Istanbul think tank Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies.
Some in Russia even called it a provocation -- by Turkey. "Turkey feels like it's on the sidelines of processes now happening in Syria, and is using various methods to call attention to itself," said Igor Korotchenko, a hawkish military expert in Moscow. "Is this a provocation or not? It's not a military aircraft. And it's not surprising that it's Russian: our private firms have sold dozens of similar drones to various countries."
A similar line was taken by a commentary this week in the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. "Instead of a real fight against terrorist organizations, which Russia has called for, the Turkish authorities are relying on Russophobia and escalating anti-Kurdish hysteria to reduce the level of social discontent that has been growing in the country. Ankara has sharply criticized Russia's air strikes in Syria and has blown up a scandal out of isolated incidents of Russian aircraft crossing Turkish airspace. It has come to veiled threats by Ankara against Moscow."
It doesn't take a military expert to recognize how dangerous a situation it could be if Turkey shoots down a manned Russian aircraft, or vice versa.