Russian President Vladimir Putin seems intent on using military force to stir up more trouble in the Middle East, just like he has in Eastern Europe. Not only has Russia recently established a major military base in Syria, it has already flown dozens of military sorties against various rebel groups opposing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
More proof of Putin’s ugly intentions materialized over the weekend as a Russian MIG 29 fighter plane apparently intentionally violated Turkey’s airspace. NATO publicly rebuked Russia on Monday, and the U.S. has undertaken urgent consultations with Turkey following the interception of a Russian warplane that entered its airspace on Saturday by Turkish F16s.
NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg commented after a meeting with Turkey’s foreign minister that Russia’s actions were “an unacceptable violation” of Turkish airspace. Stoltenberg continued to note that “Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who spoke from the sidelines of a meeting in Madrid, said that American officials were consulting closely with Turkey on steps to take to prevent similar incidents in the future.
More on Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace
Eventually, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Turkey informed the news service Interfax on Monday that the Ministry of Defense had admitted an accidental crossing into Turkish airspace by a Russian aircraft and had given an explanation to the Turkish military attaché in Moscow.
That said, Russia showed no sign that it was backing down in its military campaign in Syria. In a clear sign of a deepening of Russia’s commitment to Assad, Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, the chairman of the armed forces committee in Russia’s Parliament, has recently commented that Russian veterans of the conflict in eastern Ukraine will “likely” be formed into a volunteer battalion in Syria.
The violation of Turkish airspace occurred on Saturday, in the Hatay sector along the Syrian border, when a Russian MIG29 entered, then “exited Turkish airspace into Syria after being intercepted by two F-16s from the Turkish Air Force, which was conducting patrols in the region,” according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
The foreign ministry also called Russia’s ambassador to Ankara to a meeting, and insisted that the violation not happen again, Moreover, Russia would be solely responsible for any further escalations.
Analysts point out that Russia’s new campaign in Syria is undermining Turkey’s Syria policy, which seeks the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and setting up a “safe zone” free of Islamic State militants where Syrian refugees can return to in the future.
U.S. official says airspace violation “not a mistake”
“I don’t believe this was an accident,” noted a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment publicly.
“Along with quite a bit of Russia’s behavior, this just affirms our deep concern over what they’re doing,” she continued, saying that Russia’s behavior “raises questions about basic safe conduct in the skies.”
Russia – Turkey relations damaged
Russia’s stepping up its military presence in Syria is leading to a deterioration of of diplomatic relations between Russia and Turkey. “The steps Russia is taking and the bombing campaign in Syria are quite unacceptable to Turkey,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented to the media Istanbul on Sunday. “Unfortunately, Russia is making a grave mistake.”
Political analysts point out that Turkey and Russia have had a strong relationship for a number of years, but the relationship has weakened over the last few months because of strongly held differing views over Syria and the de facto postponement of a multi-billion dollar pipeline for transporting Russian gas to Turkey (and to eventually flow from Turkey to Europe).
When the media inquired if he thought the current brouhaha over the airspace violation could have a negative effect on relations between the two countries, the Russian presidential press spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told the media at a presser on Monday that Russia’s bilateral relations with Turkey were “comprehensive and have a very solid foundation in terms of mutually profitable relations.”
It’s not so clear that the government of Turkey feels the same way, however. President Erdogan warned in a fiery speech on Sunday that more strikes on Syrian rebels by Russian aircraft would only further “isolate Russia in the region.”