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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Putin's Turkey Problem

Arthur Herman

On Tuesday two Turkish shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber over Turkish territory.

Given the crowded skies over Syria these days, with American, French, British, Turkish, and now Russian planes all taking part in strikes against ISIS and rebel forces, an accident was bound to happen—except that this was no accident. This was a deliberate shoot-down, as a warning to President Putin not to let his warplanes violate Turkish air space, which they’ve done repeatedly in the last month, and to stop bombing villages belonging to ethnic Turks in Syria.

The real question is what happens next. In a different context, a member of NATO deliberately shooting down a Russian plane could have triggered World War III. Putin’s verbal reaction was swift, condemning the incident as a “stab in the back.” But beyond sending more planes and ground troops into Syria, it’s not clear what his next move will be.

Turkey isn’t Ukraine. There isn’t a large ethnic Russian minority to stir up, one into which Putin can filter his “little green men” to create havoc and civil war. He could punish the Erdogan government with a massive cyberattack by his secret police hackers and the other cyber criminals he has working for him, but Turkey’s economy isn’t so advanced or networked that it would cause irreparable harm. Moscow officials have already ruled out cutting off Turkey’s access to Russia’s natural gas, which feeds more than half its NG needs; with tumbling energy prices Putin can’t afford to lose an important customer, shoot down or no shoot down.

The truth is, the Turks don’t intimidate so easily — and they have cards to play in a confrontation with Putin.

They control the Bosporus Straits through which Putin’s budding expeditionary force in Syria has to be supplied and reinforced. They have an army and air force that are tough and reliable and, above all, integrated with those of other NATO countries, including the United States. An American president who persuades other NATO leaders to evoke Article 5 of the organization’s collective defense obligations in defense of Turkey, could shift the balance of military deterrence sharply to Istanbul’s side.

Besides, the fact that the Turkish government was willing to shoot down the Su-24 fighter, and then boast about it afterwards, suggests they don’t view Putin as the great colossus of the East that many in Europe do — or even in this country, starting with President Obama. Since coming to office, Obama’s entire foreign policy has been predicated on the belief that Russia matters more, and has more international leverage, than it really does. The whole “Reset” strategy with Russia Obama and then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set in motion sprang from that flawed thinking. It’s what led to the dismantling of plans for an anti-ballistic missile defense corridor for Eastern Europe; the tepid response to Putin’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine; and of course the entire Iran nuclear deal, which presupposes Russian cooperation and support in shutting down Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

From where a reasonable observer sits, Russia and Vladimir Putin don’t look so formidable. His response to ISIS’s blowing up of a Russian airliner killing 224, has been slow and hesitant, compared to the US’s response to 9/11 or even the French and Belgian police reaction to the attack in Paris two weeks ago. His expeditionary force in Syria arrived with impressive speed and firepower; but there’s no indication that’s it’s tipped the balance of the fighting, certainly not against ISIS, Putin’s declared Number One enemy. Also, the Russian Air Force’s meager supply of precision guided munitions means they have to do a lot of bombing runs, and drop a lot of bombs, in order to do the kind of damage that a handful of sorties by US F-18’s or B-2’s can do—with a lot more collateral damage.

With some American push back, Putin’s intervention in Syria could turn into as disastrous a fiasco as Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan three decades ago. Russia itself is on the brink of bankruptcy; its military and entire economy are built on the necessity of $100 a barrel oil at a time when oil struggles to stay above $50 a barrel. A foreign adventure turned sour, could tip Putin’s regime over the edge.

America isn’t weak; its leadership is. The next president who understands that can turn this game around, including in the Middle East.

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