M D Nalapat
- The law of unintended consequences can work its way through a host of decisions, and has been visible in several of the geopolitical measures taken during previous years. Bill Clinton as President of the US, ensured strong (if sometimes covert) backing to the Taliban, in line with signature doctrine of western powers that any enemy of an enemy is a friend, including those potentially far more toxic than the immediate threats being encountered, as the Taliban and its later mutations eventually proved to be in comparison with a Soviet Union which had been moribund for over a decade before its 1992 collapse.
Coming to recent events, would Ankara have taken the risk of shooting down a Russian bomber without prior consultations with Washington about such an eventuality, or did Recip Tayyip Erdogan misconstrue stray comments by an influential but non-official interlocutor from St Petersburg when he asked what the nuclear superpower’s approach would be were Turkey to exercise the “right of self defence” and shoot down an intruding Russian military aircraft? Memories bubble up about Ambassador April Glaspie, who responded with less than disapproving remarks when given a hint by Saddam Hussein of his intention to invade Kuwait, possibly deluding the Iraqi dictator into believing that Washington would confine itself to tough words and diplomatic gestures but not gunfire, in the event his troops occupied Kuwait.
There have been reports swirling around Ankara of a “close personal friend” of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visiting Ankara during the past month and meeting policymakers in that fissile capital. This worthy is supposed to have given the response that while hot words would follow any interdiction of a Russian military jet inside Turkish territory, there would be nothing “hot” i-e of a military nature. Medvedev is known in Paris, Berlin and London to be a “civilised” person in contrast to his present boss, or in other words, an individual amenable to persuasion by friends based in the UK, France and Germany. Did Erdogan read too much into what this presumed “friend of Medvedev” told him about the likely response of Moscow, and did this embolden Turkey’s ruler into taking the reckless course of downing a jet belonging to the military of a nuclear superpower?
The Russian bomber that - at most – was in Turkish air space for 17 seconds before being shot down was configured in its defensive weaponry to deflect ground attack,and was therefore defenseless against the F-16s sent to bring it down. In case the Turkish military believed that the aircraft was about to bomb Turkey (a belief Hollande, Cameron and Obama evidently share) and therefore needed to be shot down, there is reason to worry about the capacity of that force to differentiate between a substantive threat and a mere affront to the ego of President Erdogan, which is what aircraft represented and which was brought down on presumption that Moscow would respond only by words and symbols rather than in a substantive way.
Apart from the reality of Vladimir Putin being very different in his chemistry from Dmitry Medvedev, there is another reason why Moscow will need to respond in a visible and robust manner to the hostile action by the Turkish air force. Russia depends for its foreign exchange principally on petroproducts, the price of which has fallen to levels not seen after the heady (for the oil industry) days of George W Bush and his numerous price-boosting geopolitical moves. Hence the necessity of ensuring a steady rise in that other foreign exchange earner, weaponry. Should a rickety F-16 be allowed to bring down a Russian military aircraft and the feat go unchallenged, it would be a poor advertisement for advanced Russian military hardware.
Until some F-16s are brought down in retaliation for the destruction of the Russian bomber, thereby establishing the superiority of Russian systems over that supplied by the US, Moscow’s weapons trade will find itself at a still bigger disadvantage over competition from the US than it presently it, including in the important market of India. There is therefore a strong commercial motive for Russia to double up on its intervention in Syria, an intervention that is helping its defence industry to showcase the efficacy of some of its most advanced products. In seeking to rescue the Turkomans living in the border regions of Turkey and Syria from bombardment by Russia, it is likely that Erdogan has pressed a switch which will intensify such attacks.
There were signs that the Little European lobby represented by Medvedev, who gives the appearance of being ready to accept Russian entry into the EU at a level below that of France and Germany, was gaining traction in efforts at getting the Kremlin to sacrifice Bashar Assad for the sake of western concessions in the economic sphere. However, the Turkish decision to take out a military aircraft belonging to the Russian Federation has had the effect of boosting the influence of the Great Russian lobby that is congregating around Vladimir Putin. This lobby is aware that the sacrifice of Assad would discredit Moscow as a false friend in the few capitals where it has effective primacy over Washington, such as in Teheran.
To call ISIS a “Sunni” organisation is wrong, for there is nothing of the mainstream Sunni in its activities and personnel. The extreme theology it espouses is alien to the moderate and tolerant spirit of the mainstream Sunni community. Hence it is wrong to believe that Putin’s war on ISIS and other terror groups in Syria will affect the goodwill of Sunnis for Russia. Apart from this, Moscow has gained significant traction within the Shia community worldwide by its attacks on ISIS, which is the precise reason why Obama and Hollande have been insistent that it abandon its independent line and march behind France and the US in their strategy of making the removal of Assad rather than al Baghdadi the priority.
Should NATO decide to stand by Turkey once Russia delivers its retaliatory strikes on Ankara’s military machine, we would be entering a fresh Cuban missile crisis, with the risk of a spill over of conflict into the European theatre real. NATO needs to understand that in Moscow, despite Medvedev, it is Great Russia that is in control and not Little Europe.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.