MOSCOW — On Tuesday morning after Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian Su-24 warplane, and even after Ankara confirmed the incident officially, Moscow at first could not or would not believe it was true.
Only late in the afternoon did President Vladimir Putin speak about “serious consequences” for the relations between Russia and Turkey. “We always treated Turkey not only as a neighbor but as a friendly state. I don’t know who needed this, but not us, for sure,” Putin said.
“This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism,” Putin said. “Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives. But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists.”
Putin was angry that instead of immediately getting in touch with Russia, Turkey appealed to its NATO partners, “as if it were Russia who shot down its own plane. Do they want to put NATO at the service of ISIS?” Putin wondered.
The remarks came after a long day of confused responses.
The Russian defense ministry at first denied the Turkish reports, evidently unwilling to acknowledge Russia’s close friend and business partner acted like an enemy. A direct conflict with Turkey would be a serious turning point in the opinion of many Russians about the war in Syria. Among other things, Turkey was a favorite tourist destination for millions of Russians. There are also those who remember that the last Russian adventure abroad was the disastrous war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Turkish military said that Russian pilots were warned 10 times in five minutes before their plane was shot down. The Kremlin’s spokesman admitted that what happened was “a very serious incident.” But Moscow still refused to believe Ankara’s version and looked for its own. The Russian Defense Ministry published its version: “Today, most likely as a result of a strike from the ground, an Su-24 plane from the Russian aviation group in the Syrian Arab Republic crashed in the territory of Syria," the Defense Ministry stated.
A Russian Arabist, Leonid Isayev, said on Echo of Moscow, “It is time to admit that Turkey declared war on us.” Russian warplanes have been attacking rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Turkmens with especially close ties to Ankara.
Isayev suggested that Turkey cannot stop supporting these forces, saying that would be like Russia giving up support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. “Turkish leader Erdogan has invested too much in the last five years to give up his Syrian project,” Isayev said.
In the afternoon international reports said that both Russia pilots were killed in the incident. A car with Russian journalists was under fire earlier on Tuesday. Three reporters were wounded in another serious incident.
The Russian people were expecting Putin to make a statement in reaction to another loss. Hours passed. Putin remained silent. It would be a serious deal for the Russian president to admit publicly, that out of all NATO countries, Russia’s good friend Turkey was the first one to act as an enemy.
State media called the incident “a Turkish provocation independent from the rest of NATO.”
Even before this incident, some in the Duma already were demanding a ban on all flights between Russia and Turkey, claiming that Turkey has been in league with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. “In these conditions, when the Turkish government does not relate to terrorist Islamic State negatively, there is a risk of terrorists coming to Turkish airports,” said the vice speaker of the Duma, Nikolai Lenitive.
Turkey had previously given Russia warnings for violating it airspace repeatedly, but the relations between the two countries had remained friendly and businesslike. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast the Turkish ambassador at the Council of Europe, Erdoğan Şerif Işcan, referred to Russian diplomats in Strasbourg as “angels” and said: “Nothing can spoil Turkey-Russian friendship, our countries are very close, best partners.” Now it would be hard to make that argument.
Why did Russian pilots fly so close to the Turkish border, violating Russia’s “best partner’s” airspace?
“The thing is that most insurgencies, including Chechen jihadists from Northern Caucasus, were crossing into Syria through Turkey and attacked our base in Latakia,” a Russian retired colonel and military observer Vladimir Mukhin said on Echo of Moscow.