Despite both the ongoing tensions in Ukraine as well as Russia’s out-of-area air campaign in Syria, much of the focus of the Russian political-military elite is currently on Turkey, which Russian propaganda has demonized following the November 24 downing of the Su-24M over the Turkish-Syrian border area. President Vladimir Putin authorized a range of counter measures against Ankara, mainly passing economic sanctions and canceling visa-free travel arrangements, while also boosting air defense and electronic warfare assets as part of Russia’s military deployment in Syria. Additionally, Putin has ordered the Russian Armed Forces to act in a tough manner to counter any threat to the country’s military in the course of conducting their combat missions in Syria (Interfax, December 13; Rossiya One TV, December 11).
As if to underscore the near collapse in Russo-Turkish relations and the dangers of escalation between these powers, the Russian defense ministry issued a statement, on December 13, concerning an incident on the same day in the Aegean Sea involving a Turkish fishing vessel and the Russian frigate Smetlivy. According to the ministry’s version of events, the Turkish vessel approached the Russian Navy ship within 600 meters, resulting in the use of small arms fire to persuade it to change course. The Russian naval action was justified in terms of attempting to avoid a collision at sea; and Turkey’s military attaché was duly summoned by Moscow. Russian commentators represent the incident as a fresh attempt by Ankara to test or even provoke Moscow into some type of military response (Kp.ru, December 13).
Moreover, since the downing of the Su-24M that had violated Turkey’s airspace, Moscow has conducted an information campaign against the Turkish state aimed to promote its own version of events, warn Ankara against repeating such actions, and to internationally discredit President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. One illustration of the third objective was seen during a Russian defense ministry briefing on December 2, during which senior defense officials followed the Kremlin line concerning the alleged links between the Turkish government and the illegal cross-border oil trade with the Islamic State (IS). Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov described the IS as the “real monster of international terrorism,” and then labeled the Erdoğan family as “smeared by oil thieves.” Senior Russian military officers displayed numerous reconnaissance photographs showing the steady traffic of oil tankers toward the Turkish border. Additional presentations alleged that the Turkish president’s family is involved in the oil trade with the Islamic State under the cover of BMZ Group, owned by Erdoğan’s son Bilal and other family members (Novaya Gazeta, December 9).
In some ways it is unsurprising that Tukey is now on the receiving end of a Russian information campaign; last month’s downing of the Su-24M by a Turkish F-16 clearly took Moscow by surprise, and its overreaction is partly calculated to send a message to Erdoğan that Russian air power will continue to be used even in areas close to the Turkish border. However, the “spat” is much deeper, and serves as an opportunity for Moscow to send “signals” to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is still characterized in the Russian media as hungry for expansion. NATO’s offer of membership to Montenegro has been taken up by the Russian security elite to fit the pseudo-paranoid narrative of the Alliance continuing to expand and threaten Russia as a result (Gazeta.ru, December 9).
During an enlarged defense ministry collegium, conducted through the National Defense Management Center (NTsUO), the NATO enlargement theme was even more prominent than ongoing operations in Syria (Mil.ru, December 11). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu delivered an “all is well” report on the transformation and modernization of the Russian Armed Forces, but turned to the North Atlantic Alliance issue by reminding his NTsUO audience of previous rounds of NATO enlargement, then referring to Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine as countries aspiring to Alliance membership. Shoigu added that Finland, Sweden, Serbia and Moldova are treated by NATO as falling into its areas of interest, and noted increased NATO activity close to Russia’s borders in the Baltic States and in Eastern Europe (Mil.ru, December 12).
Although concerns about the Russian military campaign in Syria periodically surface in the Russian media regarding Moscow’s objectives and whether this conflict is “winnable,” the top brass continue to see dividends from being involved. This relates to testing weapons systems, promoting a better image of the country’s military, and boosting its diplomatic standing, especially linked to any future settlement of the Syrian civil war. The Commander of the Russian Ground Forces, Colonel-General Oleg Salyukov, offered insights on current top brass thinking in an interview with Moskovskiy Komsomolets. Salyukov stated that the Syrian intervention marks a shift in Russian defense strategy toward aerospace- rather than land-based operations, but argues that such conflicts in the future will require a role for the Russian Army (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, December 9).
Salyukov certainly appreciates that the Army is receiving modern weapons and equipment, and he especially refers to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as an indicator of this positive trend. On August 27, the defense ministry approved long-term planning for “the construction and development of application systems with unmanned aerial vehicles of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for the period until 2030.” Salyukov notes that this divides UAV use into strategic (long-range), operational-strategic (medium-range) and operational-tactical (short-range) use. And given the integrated use of artillery and UAVs in Ukraine, it seems the Russian defense ministry is serious about these capabilities and further broadening the spectrum of coverage (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, December 9).
In this context, with the prestige of Russia’s military markedly boosted by the Syria operation, while still covertly involved in the developing frozen conflict in Ukraine’s East, Putin has seized the opportunity of the Su-24M incident to pressure Turkey and, in turn, test NATO unity and resolve. He has upped the ante but carefully avoided escalation in order to establish whether the Turkey issue becomes an Alliance question, or as it remains for now, seen by major NATO actors to be a bilateral issue between Ankara and Moscow (Kommersant, Vedomosti, December 11). If Putin can provide evidence to his supporters within Moscow’s elite that he compelled Erdoğan to back down, he will soon spin this into a major success over NATO. The risks and potential benefits involved in this course of action, seen from Moscow, far outweigh the potential “quagmire” in Syria.