A Necessary Conversation

The clash between the Turkish Air Force and Russia is dangerous because it violates the first rule of proxy warfare which is principals don't fight principals. The whole point of proxy warfare is that only the seconds are allowed to cross swords. The duelists are forbidden from engaging each other directly, a convention intended to limit the scope of war.

This is exactly what failed to happen when Turkey shot down an Russian SU-24 on its border with Syria.

Charles Krauthaummer argues that since the Turks could not have been spurred into action by such minor Russian intrusion into their airspace, their true motive must have been to signal Moscow to lay off one its proxies, the Turkmen. They were willing to violate the 'no clash between principals' rule to emphasize the point.

This I think sort of highlights that, the Turks are the most opposed to Assad of anybody on the ground. It wasn’t only that the Russian airplane went into Turkish air space. It’s that the bombing run was against Turkmen, who a minority in Syria, ethnically Turkish that the Turks have always felt they have to defend. And, whether or not it was in Turkish air space or not, matters not. They were attacking these Turkmen opposition leaders. Turkey defended them I think as a signal to the Russians that we are not going to allow you to do that. I think that’s a result of this; harder for Russia to become our ally.

But in the hierarchy of vassaldom which constitutes the rule-based international order, one man's lord is another man's stooge. So Putin must have wanted to know what the president of the US was going to say. President Obama's press conference at the White House actually repeats Krauthammer's point in a roundabout way. Obama's take on the shootdown centered not on the narrow issue of Turkish sovereignty but his perception that Russia was bombing the wrong people. Obama said: (emphasis mine)

Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace. ... I do think that this points to a ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after a moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries....

The challenge has been Russia’s focus on propping up Assad rather than focusing on ISIL. ... Until that happens, it’s very difficult. It’s difficult because if their priority is attacking the moderate opposition that might be future members of an inclusive Syrian government, Russia is not going to get the support of us or a range of other members of the coalition.

Putin's reaction to the incident on the occasion of his meeting with the King of Jordan describes the same strategic picture, albeit viewed from the other side of the lines. It is also set in the context of proxy war. But there is one key difference. in Putin's telling Turkey's offense isn't bombing Assad.  Damascus was a proxy and proxies get bombed in a proxy war.  It is their tough luck. His outrage is against Turkey's violation of the unwritten rules. When the Turkish air force came after the SU-24, they violated the Prime Directive and shot directly at a principal, something he did not expect ("stab in the back") and therefore could not let pass unpunished.

Putin is brutally frank.  He seems to say:  'we know Erdogan is making money but my agreement with Washington was that we were out of bounds.'  The Russian president said: (emphasis mine)

We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from ISIS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving. Now they are stabbing us in the back by hitting our planes that are fighting terrorism. This is happening despite the agreement we have signed with our American partners to prevent air incidents, and, as you know, Turkey is among those who are supposed to be fighting terrorism within the American coalition.

If ISIS is making so much money – we are talking about tens or maybe even hundreds of millions, possibly billions of dollars – in oil trade and they are supported by the armed forces of an entire state, it is clear why they are being so daring and impudent, why they are killing people in such gruesome ways, why they are committing terrorist attacks all over the world, including in the heart of Europe.

We will of course carefully analyse what has happened and today’s tragic event will have significant consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.

We have always treated Turkey not merely as a close neighbour, but as a friendly state. I do not know who benefits from what has happened today. We certainly do not. Moreover, instead of immediately establishing contacts with us, as far as we know Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident. As if we had hit their plane and not the other way around.

Putin is clearly holding Washington accountable for keeping Turkey to the proxy war rules.   The most singular thing about the president's press conference was how completely he avoided addressing the issue of whether Erdogan was a loose cannon.  Instead he flew off into the most bizarre tangent possible at such a moment.

next week, I will be joining President Hollande and world leaders in Paris for the global climate conference. What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children.

But there was no indication he was taking the Turkish wolf or the Russian bear in hand.  Both were left to roam in the wild for the present. Interestingly, it was the French president, not Obama, who was most alive to the danger. Hollande is flying to Moscow to meet Putin whether to deliver an ultimatum or reassure the Russian president is unclear. In either case it is doubtful Putin will fully credit Hollande who is after all only a junior partner in NATO and can neither control Erdogan nor completely speak for Obama.

On Thursday, I will be traveling to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. And I will tell him that France can work together with Russia if Russia concentrates its military action on Daesh, against ISIL, and if Russia fully commits to the political solution in Syria. ...

The event that took place is a serious one, and we can only regret it. Turkey is currently providing all of the information to NATO so that we can find out what truly happened and whether Turkey’s airspace indeed was entered into. But we must prevent an escalation; that would be extremely damageable. The only purpose is to fight against terrorism and Daesh. This is what we must do, all of us -- we, Turkey, Russia.

There were loose ends Hollande could not tie up. The British were apparently trying to make up the difference behind the scenes as if to take up the slack. "David Cameron has urged his Turkish counterpart to ensure that Ankara maintains direct communications with Moscow to avoid an escalation in tensions after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane." Other institutions were at also work.  The remarks of the NATO secretary general following an emergency meeting held a few hours ago are eloquent in what they do not describe. (emphasis mine)

Q (Reuters): Wondered if you had any contacts with the Russians or planned any contacts with the Russians over this incident?

Secretary General: There has been contacts between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey and Russia but so far there has been no direct contact between NATO and Russia. But we have been in contact with Turkey, a NATO ally, which has directly been in contact with Russian authorities.

But Obama remained publicly serene, if that is the word for the occasion. The direct question Putin implicitly posed has so far not been clearly answered by the Leader of the Free World.  In the meantime the Kremlin has upped the ante, announcing measures which would hold NATO assets at risk. The Washington Post reports:

Russia also said Wednesday it would take new measures in Syria to protect its aircraft, deploying powerful S-400 anti-air missile systems, which have a range of nearly 250 miles, to Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Syria. The airbase is located a little under 20 miles from the Turkish border, and has the potential to create headaches for Turkish and other aircraft in a U.S.-led coalition that are carrying out a separate airstrike campaign in Syria.

It remains to be seen whether tensions will diminish or go up.  If the Russians move up their big SAMs it can only mean they are raising the stakes.

Perhaps the president means to be ambiguous and provide the Kremlin with a "teaching moment" on what happens when you "do stupid stuff".  But it is equally likely the White House is continuing its long established game of Leading -- in this case De-Escalating -- from Behind.  That would be the kindest construction to put on events.

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