There aren’t a lot of ways the Syrian civil war can get worse, but one of the feared scenarios has just happened: Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane. Here’s what’s happening, and why it’s a big deal.
First off, why a Russian plane in Turkey? Turkey borders Syria, and Russia has recently decided to make a show of force in the region in support of the Assad regime. In most of the country, that means throwing bombs out of helicopters and hoping they hit the intended target. But near the groups Putin wants to pound his chest about how great Russia is, that means you’ll see plenty of Russian warplanes. Russia also has a tendency to buzz the airspace of powers it views as a rival, sort of a geopolitical version of “I’m not touching you!”
That strategy appears to have finally gone wrong, as Turkish fighters shot down a Russian warplane. The pilots ejected before the warplane crashed, but one is reported dead and the status of the other is currently unknown.
Exactly why the warplane was shot down is a matter of dispute. Turkey claims their airspace was violated, that they warned the Russian fighter 10 times in five minutes to get out of their country, and followed the rules of engagement established after Syrian aircraft began wandering over their border. Turkey, not unreasonably, views the Syrian conflict as a serious security threat that might spill over into its own country and has taken a hard line to keep the fighting on the Syrian side of the border.
Putin, for his part, called it a “stab in the back” and that Turkey are the “accomplices of terrorists.” He also claims he can prove the plane never violated Turkish airspace, although unlike Turkish authorities, Russia has yet to provide any documentation about the incident.
NATO is having an emergency meeting about the fight, but mostly what happens next comes down to Putin and whether he keeps pushing NATO’s buttons. It could have been a genuine mistake: The warplane crossed a very small section of Turkey. That said, Turkey has never been shy about shooting down anybody who invades its airspace, something the Russians would be fully aware of. The issue is that Putin wants to convince his people he’s a strong leader, so the question really comes down to this: Will Putin’s ego eclipse his common sense?