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Turkey warns Russia, 'En garde!'

Following the downing of a Russian jet fighter by the Turkish Air Force last Tuesday, many have been questioning the details surrounding the incident. How did this happen over Middle Eastern skies? How did a Russian jet allegedly penetrating Turkish airspace manage to crash land in Syria, and what are the potential repercussions of this situation not only for Turkish-Russian relations, but also for the ongoing Syrian revolution against the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad? The reality is that this event is unlikely to change the overall conduct of the war in Syria, nor will it have too much of an impact on existing relations beyond muscle-flexing and a war of words.

According to Turkey, and now NATO, two Russian jets were warned to be "en garde" 10 times in 5 minutes by the pilot of a Turkish F-16; he ordered them to change their heading south and away from Turkish airspace after they were picked up on radar as coming uncomfortably close to Turkey's border. The Russian jets seemingly ignored these warnings, and then proceeded to penetrate Turkish airspace over Hatay where one of them was engaged and shot down. The Su-24 crash landed 4 kilometres into Syrian territory. The Russian government disputes this version of events, claiming that their pilots were never warned and that they never entered Turkish territory; Moscow called Turkey's actions "a stab in [Russia's] back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists."

NATO has since come out in defence of Turkey's claims, saying that it has received analyses and intelligence from other NATO members that confirm the Turkish narrative. Similarly, the US has announced separately that the Turkish pilots did indeed repeat their warnings to their Russian counterparts, but were roundly ignored. Nevertheless, all sides appear now to be calling for calm and de-escalation following a war of words between the Turkish and Russian authorities.

So how did a Russian jet engaged over Turkish skies manage to end up 4 kilometres into Syrian territory? The answer is simple. When any warplane opens fire or unleashes an air-to-air missile, the projectile takes time to get from its source to the still-moving target. There is no information about what was used by the Turkish pilot used to shoot down his target, but it seems likely to have been the common "sidewinder" missile. Once fired, the missile accelerates to speeds of around Mach 2.3, and would then have to catch up to the Su-24, which itself can reach speeds of Mach 1.3. It is safe to assume that the Russian jet would have deployed countermeasures to throw the missile off target, and would also have accelerated to maximum speed to escape the incoming missile. It is important to note that, once fired, these missiles cannot be called back, and so it would have continued pursuing the target even if it left Turkish airspace.

WikiLeaks published what appears to be Turkey's statement to the UN regarding this incident; the document shows that Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. Depending on the initial distance of the F-16 that fired the missile, if it was moving at Mach 2.3 then it seems entirely possible for it to catch up to and strike the much slower Su-24 even if it was moving at top speed, which is likely, as I have already explained. As such, it is quite feasible that, after it was struck, the Su-24 was not going to just drop vertically and land in Turkish territory. The sheer momentum of the jet's movement at altitude would mean that it would continue moving in relatively the same direction as when it was hit in by the Turkish missile. It therefore makes complete sense for the Russian jet to have been struck and continued with its forward movement as it was falling out of the sky. When you are moving at speeds of around 1,550 kilometres per hour, 4 kilometres is nothing, and so it is clear why Russia's Su-24 crashed into Syrian territory.

Having cleared up that conundrum, let's look at why this happened. This is not the first time that Russia has been caught provoking Turkey or other NATO members. In April, Britain's Royal Air Force had to dispatch fighter jets to intercept a Russian bomber that was uncomfortably close to British airspace. Even more disturbingly, and also earlier this year, both France and Britain had to deploy ships and specialised aircraft to try to intercept a Russian submarine that was spotted lurking near Scotland. Turkey itself was forced to shoot down a Russian drone last month, and has previously shot down Syrian aircraft (Russia's ally). This is, of course, not to forget Russia's continued provocations and actions in Ukraine and Eastern Europe designed to see whether NATO still has teeth or whether it has developed into a paper tiger (with NATO's complete lack of willingness to respond to Russian intimidation indicating the latter). Turkey, on the other hand, has established repeatedly that it will not tolerate breaches of its sovereignty and has demonstrably shown the Russians now that it is not joking when it says that it will shoot down any unwelcome visitors.

Although Russia has cut off military contact with Turkey and deployed the Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet's flagship, to the Syrian-Turkish coast, it is highly unlikely that Russia will retaliate directly. After all, it is in neither Turkey's nor Russia's interests to escalate matters even further, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already indicated that his country does not want war. Turkey is one of Russia's largest energy customers, and they have a number of joint economic interests, including the construction of a new pipeline for Russian gas through Turkey. Russia will instead continue to show that it is undeterred by Turkey's efforts (indeed, it is still bombing areas near the Turkish border), that it will step up air force protection (via anti-air platforms such as S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems) and that it may even start supporting Kurdish groups linked to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who may conduct further terrorist attacks inside Turkey.

Whatever Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to do next, Turkey has delivered a firm and frank message to Russia: "En garde!"

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleEurope & RussiaIraqMiddle EastOpinionSyriaTurkey
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