There is a much bigger lesson to be learned from Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet than that Moscow’s pilots need better map-reading skills. This latest incident stands as object lesson in how Russians conduct foreign policy.
For starters, start by believing this was a deliberate provocation on the part of Putin. “Russia regularly probes and illegally enters the airspace of other NATO members, especially the Baltic states and the United Kingdom,” explains foreign policy analyst Luke Coffey. Further, the Russians were well aware they were encroaching on Turkish airspace. “Moscow knows that the Hatay province is a source of tension between Syria and Turkey,” Coffey adds, “so flying Russian jets near the border serves as a useful way to keep local tensions high while testing Turkey, and by extension NATO’s air defenses.”
But it is not just about the air up there. Russia has a well-established habit of elbowing itself into where it wants to go. That is exactly what they did in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). They tested Estonia in a 2007 cyber-attack.
Moscow also is practiced at elbowing others out of the way. In 2011, for example, Russian military intelligence was responsible for a bomb blast at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, sending the White House a not-so-subtle signal.
Make no mistake that what the latest incident shows is how Moscow plays with others—it pushes the envelope to see what it can get away with—and Russia will do that anywhere and everywhere Russia has an interest to advance.
Predictably, when Turkey pushed back, Moscow tried to change the story with its well-practiced policy of obscuring bad behavior with disinformation. In this case, Putin’s line is that Turkey is protecting ISIS. “Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives. But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists,” Putin proclaimed.
While there may be some on the Turkish side that have some “murky connections” with regional bad guys, that is not really Putin’s problem. He is just trying to change the subject. That is what Moscow always does when it muscles others around—Putin magically becomes the good guy.