Russia is an active player and a necessary participant in any potential Syrian cease-fire and solution. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has worked overtime with his Russian counterpart to find an acceptable compromise under very difficult and bloody circumstances.
America rightfully continues to object to Russia’s Crimean annexation and unwavering support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Despite this reality, the Obama administration seems prepared to work with Russia toward a more important and immediate goal: Jointly fighting and defeating ISIS.
Achieving a real Russian-American anti-ISIS fight is tough enough in this environment, and there is added pressure for collaboration following the Paris, Sharm el Sheikh and San Bernardino terror attacks.
Despite the poisoned political climate, Russia and the United States were making diplomatic progress … until America’s NATO ally Turkey shot down a transgressing Russian fighter jet. As a result, Turkey derailed talks and temporarily killed any Russo-American deal.
Even worse, when Turkey downed the Russian Su-24, it could have triggered immediate Russian retaliation. Tensions between NATO and Russia reached a post-Cold War peak. Some analysts suggested Turkey’s hair-trigger action brought us to the brink of World War III.
Why would any American ally take such risks and put NATO’s military alliance in such a tough confrontational position? After all, allies like Turkey are supposed to help, not entrap their partners. Economists and political scientists call this behavior “moral hazard” – the act of taking extraordinary risks and letting others pay the price.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan engages in moral hazard. He knows that any retaliatory Russian military attack on Turkey for the downed jet could be interpreted as an attack against all of NATO. The NATO alliance treaty’s Article 5 could press the military alliance into fighting Ankara’s war.
NATO’s Article 5 has been invoked only once, following the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Article 5 justifies NATO’s ongoing war in Afghanistan – America’s longest war.
Russia’s arrogant and stupid 17 seconds over Turkish territory gave Erdogan the legal basis for shooting down the fighter jet. It also forces NATO members to face an excruciatingly difficult question if pressed by Ankara: Is NATO ready and willing to defend Turkey and militarily confront Russia?
Whether “yes” or “no,” Erdogan has likely calculated that either response is an upside for him and a costly mess for everyone else.
NATO appropriately does not want this fight. France, Germany and the United States moved quickly to de-escalate tensions – but it was an expensive move. In return for holstering his gun and tightening his borders, Erdogan’s allies recently gave him money, European Union visa concessions, military assurances and an unarticulated promise to look the other way regarding his iron-fisted rule at home and adventures in Kurdistan.
He shot down an errant warplane and effectively blackmailed his NATO partners and EU member states. What they got in return was a halfhearted and grudging stand-down with the Russians and a slowdown of the refugee flow from Turkey.
Erdogan’s unchallenged power in Turkey has whetted his appetite for a greater regional role. He bristles at and wants to counter Russia’s aligning and allying with Turkish adversaries in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Erdogan likely believes that if the United States and its allies could start a war in 2003 and, ultimately, win Iraq for the Shiites and Iranians, then the Western alliance should win the Sunni world for him and his vision for regional leadership.
Money or power will be Turkey’s payoff for downing the Russian jet. From Erdogan’s perspective it’s all political upside. He can act recklessly and the costs get passed to others.
NATO allies have no good options today, but Turkey should not be an added and active wedge between Russia and America. The two must try to work together to fight ISIS, stop the bloodshed and stanch the refugee flow. Sometimes it is better to hold our nose than pull our trigger.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@ stanford.edu. Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.