In a move raising the potential threat of a Russia-NATO conflict, Russia said Wednesday it will deploy long-range air defense missiles to its base in Syria and destroy any target that may threaten its warplanes following the downing of a Russian military jet by Turkey.
The incident was the first time in half a century that a NATO member shot down a Russian plane. If Russia responds by downing a Turkish plane, NATO member Turkey could proclaim itself under attack and ask the alliance for military assistance.
Most observers believe that a direct military confrontation is unlikely, but that the shooting down of the plane will further fuel the Syrian conflict and complicate international peace efforts. The situation is also alarming because the Russian and Turkish presidents both pose as strong leaders and would be reluctant to back down and seek a compromise.
The S-400 missiles, which Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered sent to the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the border with Turkey, are capable of striking targets within a 400-kilometer (250-mile) range with deadly precision.
The military also moved the navy missile cruiser Moskva closer to the shore to help protect Russian warplanes with its long-range Fort air defense system.
“It will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a meeting with military officials. He also announced the severance of all military ties with Turkey and said that from now on, Russian bombers will always be escorted by fighters on combat missions over Syria.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said it is possible Russia could down a Turkish plane. “Turkish planes violate the Syrian border daily, either for reconnaissance flights or for anti-IS operations,” he said. “In the same way that Turkey argues it has rules of engagement, Russia could also declare its own rules of engagement, saying it has the right to protect the skies of its ally.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has often been compared to Putin for his authoritarian ways, said Wednesday that his country doesn’t wish to escalate tensions with Russia.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in turn said that the downing of the plane “highlights the need to strengthen mechanisms to avoid such incidents in the future.” “We should not sleepwalk into unintended escalation,” he wrote in an op-ed that is to be published Thursday and was made available to The Associated Press.
Iran meanwhile lashed out at Turkey, with the official IRNA news agency quoting Presidednt Hassan Rouhani as saying Ankara is responsible for the heightened tensions in the region. One of the Russian pilots was killed by militants in Syria after bailing out, while his crewmate was rescued by Syrian army commandos and delivered in good condition to the Russian base early Wednesday. A Russian marine was also killed by the militants during the rescue mission.
Speaking in televised comments from the Russian base in Syria, the surviving navigator of the downed plane, Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin, denied that his jet veered into Turkey’s airspace “even for a single second.” He also rejected Turkey’s claim that it had issued repeated warnings to the Russian crew before shooting down the plane.
Putin said the Foreign Ministry’s warning for Russians not to visit Turkey was needed “because we can’t exclude some other incidents following what happened yesterday and our citizens in Turkey could be in significant danger.”
Osman Ayik, the head of the Turkish Hoteliers Federation, told Taraf newpaper Wednesday that a decline in Russian tourists visiting Turkey would be a “disaster” for the tourism sector. If Russia-Turkey tensions escalate further, both countries potentially could inflict significant pain on each other in many areas.
Russia was the biggest source of Turkish imports last year, worth $25 billion, which mostly accounted for Russian gas supplies. Most Turkish exports to Russia are textiles and food, and Turkish construction companies have won a sizable niche of the Russian market.
Unluhisarcikli said that along with economic moves, Russia may also increase its support to Syrian Kurdish groups, which have been fighting against IS but not against the Syrian regime. So far, Russia has refrained from doing so as not to anger Turkey, but now it could go ahead with plans to open an office in the Syrian Kurdish regions and supply arms to the fighters, Unluhisarcikli said.
Analysts said Turkey doesn’t have the option of closing the Turkish Straits to Russia, which has used the route that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to supply its forces in Syria. According to the Montreux Convention, which sets out international rules for using the straits, Turkey can only make the move if the two countries are formally at war.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Turkish action was a “planned provocation” and rejected his Turkish counterpart’s proposal to meet at the sidelines of some international forum in the coming days to try to ease tensions.
Before Tuesday’s incident, Russia and the West appeared to be inching toward joining efforts to fight the Islamic State group following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris and the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai desert. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both attacks.