The Tsar and the Sultan I: Examining Russo-Turkish Tensions

Russo-Turkish relations are old and complex. From an imperial rivalry in the 19th century, being Cold War adversaries in the 20th, and to contemporary competition for influence in the Middle East and Caucasus, Moscow and Ankara have long been the main actors in an often volatile borderland between the East and the West. How does this long history influence current events? Leksika's Sean Crowley offers an in-depth look of the background to the current rivalry.


Background

In the 18th and 19th centuries, an expanding tsarist Russia fought a series of wars with Ottoman Turkey. The Russians were the victors in most cases, expanding to the north of the Black Sea and seizing Ottoman lands in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Russia saw itself as the “Third Rome,” the heir to the Byzantine Empire and the standard-bearers of Orthodox Christianity. Likewise, the Ottoman Empire was widely recognized in the Muslim world as the vanguard of Islam. The sultans were the spiritual successors of the caliphs and were to lead the jihad. The Ottomans were responsible for overthrowing the Byzantine Empire, and the tsars sought to conquer the Ottoman capital Istanbul (formerly Constantinople until it was conquered by the Turks in 1453) to gain access to the warm water ports of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. In the 17th Century, Russia joined the Holy League, an alliance with Poland and the Habsburg Empire which sought to wrest control of territory from the Ottomans. It failed to capture Crimea, though.

Russia achieved a number of victories against Turkey under the tsarina Catherine the Great. It took control of the northern Black Sea region in the 1768-74 Russo-Turkish War. The Russo-Turkish War also led to the creation of an independent Bulgarian state. Crimea became independent until it was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1783. The war also marked the first time that the Ottoman Empire lost Muslim territory to a Christian state. In the 1850s, the Crimean War broke out. A coalition of European states fought in defense of the Ottomans against the Russian bear in one of the first conflicts that involved trench warfare.

Russia also attempted to destabilize its rival’s empire by sponsoring nationalist movements in the Ottomans’ Balkan and Eastern European territories. These included revolutions in Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. However, these efforts only put Russia in competition with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A number of wars also broke out before the First World War such as the various Balkan Wars. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim refugees also fled many of the Ottoman Empire’s cultural centers, namely its ports, further accelerating its deterioration.

Russia’s quest led to mass deportation and extermination campaigns against the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus and Black Sea regions. The Russians were responsible for what some historians call the first modern European genocide when they massacred tens of thousands of Circassians. Those that were not killed died of the cold or starvation as they were sent into exile. At least 1 million Circassians – half of the total population at the time – died. Today, up to 5 million Turks claim Caucasian or Circassian ancestry.

The Ottomans struck back in World War I by ordering the mass deportation and killing of vast numbers of Armenians, whom they believed were sympathetic to the Russians. The majority of these people lived in eastern and central Turkey. The process began in 1915 as the Ottomans forced many Armenians to be killed, raped, or march to their own deaths through the desert. Five million Armenians reportedly died between 1915 and 1922 in what many scholars classify as a genocide. Those Armenians that survived – many of them Christians – settled in Russian lands, mostly in present day Armenia, which was once a Muslim-majority Ottoman territory.

Following the First World War, relations improved between the Soviet Union and the secular Kemalist Turkey. The U.S.S.R. abandoned its claims to the Turkish Straits and to parts of northeastern Turkey. The 1936 Montreux Convention increased tensions when it returned control of the straits to Turkey. During the Second World War, though Turkey was officially neutral, it allowed Nazi ships to pass through its waters to attack the U.S.S.R. This angered the Soviets who found themselves at odds with the Turks during the Cold War.

Turkey received immense military aid from the U.S. during the Cold War as a result of the so-called Truman Doctrine in 1947, which sought to contain communism. Relations between Turkey and the U.S.S.R. eased in 1953 after the death of Josef Stalin. Turkey also became more disillusioned with its Western allies. The Soviets offered economic aid to Turkey following the latter’s internationally-condemned invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, becoming the second member state to share a border with the U.S.S.R. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis forced the U.S. to remove missiles based in Turkey. Relations between the two states improved after the Cold War, and both Turkey and Russia developed an extensive economic partnership.

Nevertheless, the fall of the U.S.S.R. also brought about renewed tensions between Turkey and Russia. Turkey did not approve of Russia’s increased influence in Azerbaijan and other Turkish-speaking former Soviet republics. Tensions have also emerged between Turkey and Russia’s major ally in Central Asia, Armenia. Turkey supports Azerbaijan in its strife over the Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia. Chechens also received widespread support from Turkey during Russia’s two major post-Soviet wars in the republic. Moscow, in turn, has supported the separatist Kurdish Labor Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê; PKK). Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds has put it at odds with its Western allies over Syria. Turkey also supports Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in Syria. Relations between Syria and Turkey were actually quite positive before the Civil War began. Some observers would argue that they were in fact improving.

Non-IS rebels dominate the Hatay province. Turkey supports a “safe zone” in northern Syria to secure the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Turkey and the European Union. However, the real objective is to thwart Kurdish efforts to declare an independent state in Syria. Russia is bombing the area of the proposed safe zone.     

Turkey changed its rules of engagement (ROEs) after it shot down a Syrian plane in 2012. Also in that year, Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish surveillance jet, killing both pilots. Again in 2012, Syrian ground fire brought down a Turkish F-4 Phantom II jet. Then, under the new guidelines, Turkey shot down a Syrian helicopter in 2013 and a warplane in 2014. Turkey shot down another aircraft in May 2015. Ankara claimed that it was a helicopter while Damascus said that it was an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). In early October 2015, Turkey reported that over 18 Russian warships passed through the Bosphorus Strait. 

Turkey protested on numerous occasions when Russian aircraft violated the country’s 900-kilometer border with Syria. With Russia’s actions, border patrolling by the Turkish air force only became more aggressive. Russian incursions into Turkish airspace began shortly after Russia’s bombing campaign commenced. The Russian air force also deployed electronic jamming equipment to interfere with Turkish radars. The message being sent to the Turkish air force, a U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) adviser said, was: “We’re going to fly our fighter planes where we want and when we want and jam your radar. Do not fuck with us. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was letting the Turks know what they were up against.”

On 3 October at 1200 hours, two American-made Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons belonging to the Turkish air force were scrambled after Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace over the Yayladagi/Hatay region near the Syrian border. The Russian aircraft departed after it was intercepted. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly had warnings from Moscow. Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador following the incident. The chances of escalation were serious. Turkish aircraft or AA systems could shoot down Russian planes, or Turkey could invoke Article V, which stipulates that an attack on one NATO member state is an attack on the entire Alliance.

Russia admitted that the 3 October violation over the Yayladagi region of Turkey’s Hatay province was “a mistake.” The F-16s were conducting combat air patrols (CAPs) when they intercepted the Russian jet. A spokesman for the Russian defense industry stated that the incident occurred “under certain weather conditions.” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman General Igor Konashenkov added, “You shouldn’t look for conspiracy theories.” Even Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the violation was a mistake. Violations of Turkish airspace by Sukhoi Su-30s (NATO reporting name: “Flanker”) and Su-24s (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) occurred on 3 and 4 October. This marked the first violation of Turkish airspace by a Russian aircraft and another occurred on 4 October. Two more occurred on 5 and 6 October.

On 5 October, the Turkish minster of foreign affairs summoned the Russian ambassador to Ankara. This was two days after he was first summoned to certain similar incident. The Flankers involved were equipped with R-27 (NATO reporting name: AA-10 “Alamo”) and R-73 (NATO reporting name: AA-11 “Archer”) short-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs).

On 6 October, a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 (NATO reporting name: “Fulcrum”) of an unidentified national origin interfered with eight Turkish F-16s on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish jets were put under radar lock by the Fulcrum for four minutes and 30 seconds. The Fulcrums were likely Syrian. General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian MoD spokesman, claimed that the Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace by accident in bad weather as it approached Latakia, 29 km from the Turkish border. U.S. officials, however, claimed that the pilots knew exactly where they were going. In another incident, Turkish radar locked onto a Russian plane bombing targets in Syria. Had it crossed into Turkish airspace, it would have likely been attacked.

In late October 2015, Turkey downed a UAV near its border with Syria. The aircraft was ordered three times to turn back before it was fired on by Turkish jets patrolling the border. Russia’s General Konashenkov said that none of its aircraft were downed. The UAV went down in the village of Deliosman in Kilis province. This borders the Aleppo province in Syria where Russia was working with Syria to launch an offensive at the time. The UAV crossed the border and flew 3 km into Turkey before it was shot down. The UAV resembled the Russian Orlan-10. Both Russia and Syria operate UAVs near the border.

Though President Putin personally apologized for the multiple airspace violations, the Turkish government would be forced to apologize about a month later.  

Leave No Man Behind

Tuesday. 24 November 2015. 0924 hours.  

The Sukhoi Su-24M fighter-bomber of Oleg Peshkov, a 45-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily; VKS) soared over the mountainous border region between Syria and Turkey’s Hatay Province. Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s Fencer was an all-weather bomber, primarily designed for low-altitude bombing. Upgraded versions can perform electronic attack (EA), reconnaissance, and other missions. The Su-24M – the variant flown by Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov – has digital maps, helmet-mounted cueing, advanced navigation, and color multifunction displays (MFDs). For self-defense, Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s swept-wing Fencer carried either Archer or R-60 (NATO reporting name: AA-8 “Aphid”) AAMs.

Responsible for operating those weapons systems was Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s navigator, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin. If the bombs and missiles under Captain Murakhtin’s control were not enough to dole out punishment against the enemy, another Fencer flew alongside Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s. At the moment, though, it was unlikely that anyone aboard the two Fencers expected any immediate need for weapons usage. The aircraft were returning to Hmeymin, Russia’s main air base in Syria. Both aircraft were flying near the southernmost tip of Turkey at an altitude of 19,000 feet when two other fighters approached them.

The bandits were American-made Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons, namely Block 50+ variants in service with the Turkish air force. They were in the midst of a combat air patrol or CAP. The Vipers’ General Electric (GE) F110-GE-129 motors powered the engines of the small, agile, and lightweight multirole dogfighters that were approaching the Fencers. (“Viper” is nickname given to F-16s by those who fly them because of the fighters’ snakelike appearance as well as their perceived similarity to the Colonial Viper Mark VII starfighter from the television series Battlestar Galactica.) The motors produced nearly 30,000 pounds of thrust in the interceptors’ afterburners as they gained on the strike fighters.

Captain Murakhtin weighed his options for self-defense in case the Viper pilots decided to make the situation more – “kinetic.” The Aphids and Archers on his plane were close-range, infrared (IR)-only weapons. The Fencer could not carry beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles as it had no air-to-air radar. The missiles had to lock onto a heat-source to be effective. The Aphid was a Vietnam-era relic with limited range and aspect capabilities meaning that a hostile had to be close and offensive to be considered a threat.

In contrast, the Archer had helmet-mounted cueing, a high-off boresight capability, and an excellent minimum range. However, it was much more capable when equipped on a 4th Generation fighter. His pursuers, in contrast, had the joint helmet-mounted cueing system (JHMCS). All in all, the missiles that Captain Murakhtin had at his disposal were only good enough to take out helicopters. The Fencer’s terrible turn performance also made it unsuitable for dogfighting, especially against a Viper. Its reliance on speed and low-altitude to dispatch its targets is what made it a strike fighter.

Suddenly, the Fencer flying alongside Lieutenant Colonel Pehskov and Captain Murakhtin made a sharp turn, a tactic referred to in the fighter community as “hubcapping.” As the Fencer lead kept flying into Turkish airspace, he hubcapped the other Fencer with a turn to the south. With their escort flying to the safety of Hmeymim Air Base, Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov and Captain Murakhtin were left to deal with the Turkish F-16s. Their Fencer actually crossed into Turkish airspace for no less than 17 seconds.

The Turkish fighters, however, were apparently operating under aggressive ROEs. ("The Turkish armed forces are clearly instructed. Even if it is a flying bird it will be intercepted," then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once said.) It was over Syrian airspace, though, that the Turks decided to escalate the situation. The accounts as to the type of ordnance used vary, but it was around this time that either an AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range AMM (SRAAM) or an AIM-120C Slammer advanced medium-range AAM (AMRAAM) spat out from a hardpoint on one of the Viper’s wings to the shouts of either “Fox Two” or “Fox Three” from a Turkish pilot. (One source says that the missile was an AIM-120 while the United States Defense Department says that an IR-guided AIM-9 was used.)

With their plane damaged by an AAM, Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov and Captain Murakhtin were left with only one option if they wished to survive – eject. The standard ejection seat for Russian aircraft such as the Fencer is the NPP Zvezda K-36. It comes in several variants. Its operational envelope allows the pilot to eject at zero speed/zero altitude. (In other words, the pilot could have ejected while his craft was stationary on a runway.) Its operational envelope is as high as 82,000 feet MSL and Mach 2.5. It is equipped with automatic stability control systems and passive limb restraints. It also has a progressive boost rocket to control forces exerted on the pilot.

The K-36’s success even made the U.S. Air Force consider installing it on future aircraft. The Air Force conducted a series of tests in the mid-1990s using the K-36. It is also one of the safest escape seats with 97 percent of the pilots who used it able to serve and return to flight status. More than 12,000 K-36s have been produced.

The pilots prepared for ejection, following the standard procedure. They sat upright with their elbows tucked in. With their feet back, they pulled the ejection handles between their legs. As the canopy blew open, the rocket engines on their K-36s ignited, propelling the pilots upward. Each seat propelled itself in opposite directions so that the pilots would not collide with each other as they exited the aircraft. The seats’ onboard sensors controlled the tumbling and the angle at which the rocket fired.

The pilots were now in freefall with onboard oxygen systems feeding them as they fell below 12,000 feet. At a preset level, both pilots were released from their seats along with their respective survival kits. The survival kits were stored under the seats and tethered to each pilot’s parachute harness. The pilots’ parachutes gradually deployed to reduce the chance of injury.

The Fencer went down in a wooded area known to the Turks as “Turkmen Mountain” near Syria’s Bayirbucak region. It crashed in the Jabal Turkmen area of Syria’s Latakia province. The Islamic State (IS) has no known presence in the area. Despite this, President Putin said following the incident, "They were carrying out an operation against [Islamic State militants] in the mountains of northern Latakia, where militants who originate from Russian territory are concentrated. So they were carrying the key task of preventative attacks against those who could return to Russia at any time." Before the incident, government forces had engaged rebels and there was an aerial bombardment. The rebels in the area are the Turkmens, an ethnic group in Syria with links to Ankara. 

Both of the Fencer’s pilots managed to eject and deploy their parachutes. Turkey’s Haberturk TV later received video footage of them descending. They tried to land in government-controlled areas, but then gunfire erupted from below. Captain Murakhtin managed to avoid the flak, but Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov was not so lucky. Blood and other organic detritus squirted from his body as the bullets from below tore through his flesh.

A deputy Turkmen commander confirmed that the rebels fired on both pilots as they descended. At first, they believed that they killed both pilots. According to Alpaslan Celik, a deputy commander in the Turkmen brigade, his comrades “opened fire into the air and [the pilots] died in the air.” He was speaking near the Syrian town of Yamadi. The Geneva Convention forbids firing on personnel in distress parachuting from a crashing aircraft. The protocol further stipulates that if the person in distress is not acting in a hostile manner, he is to be given a chance to surrender after reaching the ground. Celik held what was supposedly a piece of a parachute as he made this announcement. A Turkish official maintained that one of the pilots could have survived. “It’s not a fact but a possibility. We’re trying to verify the information and taking all necessary steps to facilitate their return,” he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s body was seized by the Alweya Al-Ashar (Brigade of the 10th), a Turkmen rebel group with strong links to Turkey. After the incident, the group launched a counter-offensive against Russian and Syrian forces in the Turkmen Mountains. Rebels later claimed to have recovered both of the pilots’ bodies. Initial reports maintained that Captain Murakhtin died in the crash.

The rebels released a video of themselves approaching the Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov, blond-haired and with a bruised face. One can be heard saying, “A Russian pilot.” Video footage showed rebels gathered around his bodying chanting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is great!” in Arabic. Jahad Ahmad, a member of the rebel group, said that the rebels would be willing to exchange the body of the Russian pilot for prisoners held by the Syrian government. 

It was relatively easy for journalists to verify that the individual featured in the rebels’ video was indeed Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov. His gear clearly matched that of other Russian pilots stationed in Latakia, namely the orange straps and blue bags that made up his parachute. The patch on the side of his flight suit was also identical the shoulder patches of Russian pilots in Latakia. His vest and helmet were also a match.  

Captain Murakhtin, contrary to the initial reports, in fact survived the crash. He awaited rescue, ready to put his well-honed survival skills to the test. Russia’s underdeveloped wilderness areas actually rival Canada in size. Any settlements that do exist are scattered across large distances. Only so much access is provided by road and water systems. This area of over 3.5 million square miles of what is almost entirely wilderness is very often overflown by the Russian air force. Russian pilots fly over more types of desolate landscapes –tundra, desert, plain, jungle, mountain – within their own borders than any other air force in the world. Therefore, should an accident occur, they find themselves in the highest likelihood of being placed in a wilderness survival situation.

In addition to specialized flight clothing, every Russian pilot is equipped with an NAZ “Portable Emergency Kit.” Nothing it the kit is particularly high-tech, but each item has been carefully chosen based on experience with a wide variety of harsh conditions. Many of the items in the NAZ are actually the same used by Russian cosmonauts. The first item is a life raft which can be used on land as a makeshift tent or bed. Being international orange, it is also easy for rescuers – or pursuers – to locate. The NAZ also includes weather-proof matches and fire starters. A machete can aid in fire building as well as hammering stakes for a potential shelter. The machete’s bright Nickel finish also makes it an effective signaling device. The NAZ also includes a pocket knife and a wire saw. The pilot’s parachute can be used as a hammock, shelter, bed, wind barrier, or backpack. 

For personal defense, every Russian pilot carries, in the internal holster of his flight suit, a Makarov PM sidearm and extra magazine. The NAZ has 16 additional rounds for the Makarov. If all else failed, he could even use his Makarov as a signal. The kit even has a pair of sunglasses. For navigation, the pilot’s lit included a mission map, lensatic compass, and a handhold Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. Russia also has its own equivalent of the GPS called GLONASS; the two are especially powerful when combined.

To eat, the Captain Murakhtin had canned meats, candy, sugar and biscuits. A canteen, and a water desalination kit provide him with liquid nourishment. Even his parachute could serve as a water filtration system. Para cord stripped to its inner fibers could be used to create snares as could the wire saw. He could also create snares using the nylon line from the fishing kit that he otherwise had no use for in the desert environment along the Syrian-Turkish border. In another scenario, he could have crafted a pole from a piece of wood using his machete and would have had complementary lures in the fishing kit.

The NAZ was equipped with even more means of signaling including a signal mirror, orange smoke flares, and pen flares that could be seen up to 15 miles away. The pen flare’s visual range at night is actually 20 miles. The orange dye that could stain a large area of water was, unfortunately, useless in this environment. Then, of course, he had the quintessential signaling device: a radio. The radio was equipped with a large remote battery that can be kept warm while under clothes and still be available for use. The antenna is a segmented design with a central cable. When the cable is snapped, the antenna become rigid and activate. It can also be stored in a pocket without risk of damaging it. Another cable allows the radio to connect to the earphones in the flight helmet and the microphone in the oxygen mask. This is especially convenient in poor weather. The radio transmits and receives voices on the two international distress frequencies and transmits a beeper on them as well.

The captain’s medical kit was rather sub-par, at least by Western standards. There was a minimal amount of medical supplies and no tape. The pilot would have to use para cord as a tourniquet and parachute materials as slings and wound dressing. The NAZ’s medical kit also included a number of pills such as caffeine, sulfide, water purification, and Aspirin. It also included two morphine syrettes and mosquito repellant. A manual was included that had basic survival and medical information. Another compartment could either hold 1.5 liters of water or snowshoes depending on the operational area.

Meanwhile, Russia dispatched a search and rescue (SAR) team to locate the pilots. The task force included two Mil Mi-24 (NATO reporting name: “Hind”) helicopter gunships and Mi-8 (NATO reporting name: “Hip”) helicopters. The Hip was actually a gunship version of the Mi-8, the Mi-8AMTSh “Terminator.” One of the Terminators came under fire from anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) – either 12.7, 14.5, or 22-mm cannons. This fire caused mechanical issues, forcing the chopper to make an emergency landing. The crew was initially under the impression that it was landing in Syrian government-controlled territory.

Once the Terminator was on the ground it came under fire again, this time from missiles. An American-made Raytheon BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) missile struck the helicopter and killed a Russian marine. The U.S. has produced the missile since the 1970s. It has a range of up to 4,200 meters and an armor penetration of between 600 and 800 millimeters depending on the model. The rest of the Terminator crew were evacuated to Hmeymim following the missile attack.

According to Russian state media, the marine was killed by Free Syrian Army (FSA) “TOW hunters,” the nickname for militant fighters that employ the BGM-71. The group in question was the 10th Brigade of the Coast. The rebel group later released videos of its fighters assembling an American-made TOW missile on a hillside and then firing on the rescue helicopters using said missile. One missile did hit the helicopter before it made an emergency landing. As the missile impacts, a narrator shouts “Allahu Akbar!” It was unknown at the time whether there were any Russian military personnel in the helicopter when it exploded.

The 10th Division actually has connections to the U.S. The group has close links a joint operations center (JOC) run by the U.S. and its allies, Musterek Opersyon Merkezi (MOM). This group provides vetted commanders with money and weapons. Many Turkmen militias have received training from Turkish security services. Most operate under the Syrian Turkmen Brigades banner. Around 2,000 Turkmen are fighting Syrian forces.

The Turkmen are related to the Turks by language and ethnicity and have lived in the region for over 1,000 years. Syria’s ruling Ba‘ath party heavily repressed the Turkmen. The Turkmen have been fighting the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and Hizbullah for years in the area where the Russian Fencer was shot down.

Russia announced the death of the marine. “With the aim of evacuating the Russian pilots from where they landed, a search and rescue mission was carried out with the use of two Mi-8 helicopters,” said Lieutenant General Sergey Rudskiy during an MoD briefing. The general also announced the suspension of all defense contracts with Turkey. The marine killed was contracted. Rebel forces later finished off the damaged Terminator with mortar fire. Despite this setback, the search for the Captain Murakhtin continued.

In ravines close to government territory, Captain Murakhtin waited for over 12 hours until Syrian commandos rescued him. The Russian MoD said that the rescue mission was a joint Russian-Syrian operation. Other reports indicate that Lebanese Hizbullah was involved. Russian and Syrian forces penetrated 4.5 kilometers into an area controlled by terrorists to conduct the rescue operation. Russia pinpointed the co-pilot’s location through GPS so that Syrian commandos could rescue him. The commandos spent hours try to get the co-pilot to a safe area and then he was airlifted back to Latakia. The rescue mission lasted 12 hours.

The surviving Russian pilot said that he and his crewmate “knew the region like the back of their hand.” He insisted that the Fencer did not fly over Turkey and that the Turkish aircraft provided no visual or audio warnings. "If they wanted to warn us, they could have shown themselves by taking a parallel course. There was nothing. And the missile hit the tail of our aircraft suddenly, we did not see it in time to do an anti-missile maneuver," he said from a hospital in Latakia. He also added, "I could see perfectly on the map and on the ground where the border was and where we were. There was no danger of entering Turkey."

He Said, She Said

The incident marked the first time since 1953 that a NATO military power had engaged a Russian air asset in combat and the first time since 1989 that Russian military hardware was damaged by American-armed Muslim insurgents. Moscow demanded an apology for the shoot-down, but President Erdogan refused. According to the Turkish military, the Fencer was shot down after it ignored ten warnings in five minutes to leave Turkish airspace. The Fencer, and a second plane, supposedly flew more than a mile into Turkish territory for 17 seconds. “The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” said a Turkish official, “We warned them to avoid entering Turkish airspace before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish airspace was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly.”

Turkey later maintained that the aircraft was unidentified when shot down. According to Turkey, the Fencer entered Turkish airspace that morning over the border province of Hatay near the town of Yayladagi. Turkey maintains that the Fencer did not turn back after ten warnings in five minutes. As a result, Turkey’s air force scrambled two F-16 multirole fighters. The Fencers reportedly violated Turkish airspace 17 times at depth of 1.15 miles and 1.36 miles respectively. The Turkmen Mountains where the fighter crashed in Syria are two miles from the country’s border with Turkey. 

The Fencer did violate Turkish airspace but only for a few seconds. The warnings came when the Fencers were near the border. Crossing the border would have taken seconds, not minutes. 

The Fencers were warned multiple times until one strayed into Turkish airspace. The F-16Cs subsequently shot down the Fencers, but the Russian Defense Minister would later question this narrative. The MoD maintained that the Fencer was flying 6,000 meters from the Syria-Turkish border and was brought down by ground fire and not heat-seeking air-to-air missiles (AAMs). A Turkmen militia commander later told Turkish media that his group brought down the Fencer with a surface-to-missile (SAM). However, it is unknown if this group possesses such weapons. A few days before the incident, Turkmen commanders asked Turkey for SAMs to defend against Russian airstrikes, and accused Ankara of abandoning the Turkmens in Syria. Later reports confirmed that it was Turkish F-16s that shot down the Fencers, not SAMs.

Radar surveillance data from Hmyeymin indicated that Turkish F-16s violated Syrian airspace. "According to accurate data of objective monitoring, our plane did not cross the Turkish border," said chief of the main operations department of the Russian General Staff General Sergey Rudskoy. "It is confirmed by the data from Syria’s missile defense system. Moreover, the Hmeymim airfield’s radar surveillance data registered violation of the Syria airspace by the attacking Turkish jet."

"Presumably, the plane was hit by a short-range missile with an infra-red seeker," the general continued. "Objective monitoring devices registered no attempts by the Turkish plane to establish radio or visual contact with our crew. The Su-24 plane was hit by a missile over Syria’s territory. It fell down in the Syrian territory four kilometers off the border." Turkey later released what it said was an audio recording of its forces warning the Fencer crew. A voice in English says, “Change your heading.” 

Russia believed that the downing of the jet was a planned provocation. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cited the lack of proper communication between Russia and Turkey as well as the amount of footage that was released after the shoot down.  Another Turkish official maintained that the act was not directed against a particular state and was simply an attempt to defend Turkey’s sovereignty within its rules of engagement. President Erdogan insisted that Turkey’s “cool-headedness” had prevented worse incidents in the past. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s then-prime minister, insisted that Turkey had a right to defend itself from aerial incursions. 

The U.S. backed up Turkey’s claims that the Fencer ignored ten warnings in ten minutes. The spokesman for the U.S. coalition in Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, stated that he heard all ten warnings on “open channels.” Colonel Warren called Russia’s actions an “incursion” and insisted that the U.S. was studying radar and radio chatter to make a definite conclusion. “The incident happened at the border,” Colonel Warren said. “These things are not as clean as they are in the movies.” He also maintained that the matter was strictly between Russia and Turkey. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook later said that Russia did “violate [Turkish] air space,” at least according to Turkey. He maintained that the U.S. still remained unsure. He mentioned previous Russian aerial incursions across Turkey’s border with Syria, and said that, “Turkey has a right to defend its airspace.”

However, the Russian Defense Ministry disputed the Turkish government’s narrative, and maintained that the Fencer did not violate Turkish airspace and was flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters. An official Defense Ministry statement maintained that “for the entire duration of the flight, the aircraft was exclusively over Syrian territory.” The Turkish government released a radar map to prove that the Fencer had indeed violated Turkish airspace, but the Russian military remained unconvinced. Other observers noted that the radar map contradicted Turkey’s previous statements about a five-minute warning noting that the Fencer would needed less than one minute to enter and exit Turkish airspace at the indicated location. Russian radar at the Hmeymin Air Base indicated that it was the Turkish F-16s that violated Syrian airspace to shoot down the Fencer. Russia also maintained that the F-16 pilots made no attempt to contact the Fencer.  

In a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the Russian resort city of Sochi, President Putin said that the Fencer went down over Syrian territory, one kilometer from the Turkish border after being hit by an AAM from a Turkish F-16. It crashed in a Syrian territory four kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border. At the meeting with the Jordanian king, The New York Times reported that President Putin was “speaking slowly and clearly angry.”  Russian media reported that the shoot-down of the Fencer was a trap orchestrated by President Erdogan. The president supposedly wanted to test Russia’s response and to manipulate NATO to increase anti-Russian sentiments within the Alliance.

Despite Turkey’s insistence that the Fencer ignored ten warnings in five minutes to leave Turkish airspace, Russia’s assertions that the Fencer was only over Turkish airspace for 17 seconds were backed up by an unlikely source – Turkey. A leaked letter from Turkey’s Ambassador to the United Nations Halit Cevik addressed to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) read, “Disregarding these warnings, both planes, at an altitude of 19,000 feet, violated Turkish national airspace to a depth of 1.36 miles and 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds from 9:24:05 local time.” The document also reiterated Turkey’s narrative that Ankara’s F-16s warned the Fencer ten times in five minutes via emergency channels to change direction. Ambassador Cevik then explained how one plane changed course while the F-16s fired on the other. The ambassador claimed that the F-16s did so while the second Fencer was over Turkish airspace. The Fencer then went down over Syrian airspace. The leaked document was published by Al Jazeera and the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

There remains the possibility that the Fencers were flying near Turkish airspace in order to prepare for an attack on rebel targets. Russia has also assassinated Chechen fundraisers in Turkey. Given the current tensions, it would not be unlikely if Moscow its increased its cover activities inside Turkey.

After a recovery by Syrian commandos with Russian air support, the Fencer’s black box was presented to President Putin by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. President Putin wanted the flight recorder opened only in the presence of international experts who, according to him, only cared about the truth of what happened.

Constantinople and Istanbul

President Putin also warned of “serious consequences” for “the accomplices of terrorists.” He called the incident a crime and a “stab in the back.”  He also warned of serious consequences for Russo-Turkish relations. After the incident, President Putin reportedly called an emergency meeting. Russia supposedly dispatched a warship from the Dardanelles in the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. At another press conference President Putin stated that relations between Russia and Turkey were damaged beyond repair and that the Turkish leadership had “decided to lick the Americans in a certain place.” A State Duma (one of the houses of Russia’s parliament) deputy, Vladimir Zhirinovskiy, promised destructive bombing that leave half of Turkey in ruins if the country “acts as a hooligan.” 

Turkey had similar tough rhetoric for the Kremlin. Serdar Kilic, Ankara’s ambassador to the U.S. posted on his Twitter account that Turkey was a country whose “words and warnings must be heeded.” He also warned, “Don’t test our patience,” a possible reference to Russia, though Ambassador Kilic named no country in the post. Turkey also requested that NATO hold an extraordinary session following the incident to which the Alliance agreed. The session took place at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. "At the request of Turkey, the North Atlantic Council will hold an extraordinary meeting at (1600 GMT). The aim of this extraordinary NAC is for Turkey to inform Allies about the downing of a Russian airplane," according to an Alliance statement. The NAC includes ambassadors from the NATO member states. The NAC warned Russia that it was courting “extreme danger” by sending aircraft toward Turkish airspace. President Putin found Turkey’s decision to call an emergency NATO meeting curious considering it was a Russian and not a Turkish aircraft that had been shot down. Turkey also called the NATO meeting before informing Russia of the incident.   

Both United States President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande discouraged escalation while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that the Alliance stood with Turkey. The U.S. also denied any involvement in the Fencer’s downing. The escalation in tensions could also have consequences for President Hollande’s efforts to build a unified coalition to combat IS. Both Turkey and Russia summoned diplomatic representatives. Foreign Minister Lavrov canceled a meeting in Turkey scheduled for that Wednesday. The Russian MoD said it was preparing measures to respond to such incidents in the future. 

Any escalation of tensions would have disastrous consequences for Turkey as the country depends heavily on natural gas from Moscow. Before the incident, Turkey was attempting to improve relations with Russia even though both states were on opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War. 

Following the incident, President Obama came out in support of  President Erdogan. The two actually met in private on 1 December 2015, and after that meeting concluded President Obama told reporters at a press conference that the U.S. remained “very much committed to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty.” President Obama made similar claims in a press conference with French President Francois Hollande, defending Turkey’s right to protect its borders. President Hollande also said it was “a matter of urgency” that Turkey defend itself from terrorists.

In the press conference, President Obama said that, "Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace." President Hollande’s objective in flying to Washington was to persuade President Obama to join the European Union in a declaration of war against IS. When President Obama refused, the Europeans went to NATO of which Turkey is not only a member but its second largest military contributor.   

Following the incident, Russian state media made assurances that Turkey’s provocation was “independent from the rest of NATO.” Interestingly, such incidents have never occurred when Russia violates the airspace of Baltic and Nordic states both deliberately and accidentally.

Following the incident, Russia’s main stock index fell more than four percent, and both the ruble and the lira decreased in value. Foreign Minister Lavrov discouraged Russians from taking vacations to Turkey while one of Russia’s largest tourist agencies announced that it was suspending the sale of tickets to Turkey. Because Turkey was such a popular tourist destination for many Russians, the Kremlin’s decision to isolate the country could result in negative pushback from the Russian populace. Russia could cut off gas supply to Turkey but this could have consequences for both countries.

Russia is Turkey’s number two trading partner. Turkey’s lira depreciated 0.6 percent to 2.8679 against the U.S. dollar. It weakened the most out of 24 currencies across emerging markets. Though Turkish stocks and bonds fell, the state’s central bank did not change interest rates. Turkish has already been experiencing economic instability thanks to its war with IS and the Kurds. In recent months, Turkey has experienced increased inflation, slow growth, increased fiscal expenditures, high unemployment and a drop in export competitiveness after relative economic growth in the 2000s. Its GDP is expected to grow only three percent in 2015 and 2016.

In September 2015, Finance Minister Mehmet Sismek said that Turkey’s economy was at risk from political instability. Before the shoot down, Russo-Turkish economic relations were relatively positive. In 2013, trade between Russia and Turkey was around USD 32.7 billion, and Russia also had plans to construct a USD 20 billion nuclear power plant in the country. Natali Tours, one of Russia’s largest tourism agencies, announced that it was suspending sales packages to Turkey and did not announce when it would resume them.

"The direct consequences could lead to our refusal to take part in a whole raft of important joint projects and Turkish companies losing their positions on the Russian market," said Russian Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev. Russia is also a major supplier of grain to Turkey and has threatened to mothball certain deals with Turkish film producers. The Turkish military banned personnel from vacationing in Russia.

The Russian domestic response was also harsh. Hundreds of activists hurled stones and eggs at the Turkish Embassy in Moscow. Their activities led to several of the embassy’s windows being broken. Moscow police looked on, urging the activists to stop, but they did not directly intervene. Some chanted slurs against President Erdogan while others held up placards with slogans such as “Turkey you will remain without gas.”

One course of action that Turkey could not undertake is closing the Turkish Straits to Russia. This is the path Russia uses to transport military equipment and personnel two Syria. According to international law – specifically the Montreux Convention – this can only be done if the two countries are formally at war with each other.

For a time, there was a possibility that Turkey would go through with closing the Bosporus Strait. The strait served then and now as a key transit point for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Reports indicate that Russian ships from the Black Sea Fleet were delayed or denied passage through the strait in the weeks following the Fencer shoot down incident. Russian-flagged cargo ships also received such interference. Local officials said they were awaiting “special permissions” to allow the ships to pass. Russia uses this route to deliver much of the material it uses to sustain its air campaign in Syria. The Montreux Convention was signed in 1936 and allows merchant ships to freely traverse the Bosporus Strait. It also allows free passage for naval ships of small- or medium-size (under 15,000 tons). Naval ships belonging to Black Sea countries are allowed free passage. 

Turkey called for a UNSC meeting to address attacks on the local Turkmens, Syrians of Turkish descent. The week before the Fencer went down, Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to discuss the bombing of Turkmen villages. In the three days leading up to the shoot-down, over 1,700 fled the mountainous region because of intense fighting namely between rebel groups and Syrian government forces who are in turn supported by Russian airpower. Turkish media speculated that the offensive was part of an attempt by Russia and Syria to gain territory – specifically to reclaim the Idlib province – before a ceasefire. Idlib is held by the Army of Conquest, a rebel coalition that includes the al-Qa‘ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Another group operating in the area is the 2nd Coastal Division which is composed of local Turkmen fighters. The Turkish foreign ministry warned Russia that there would be “serious consequences” if it did not immediately stop bombing “civilian Turkmen villages” in the Bayir Bucak area. 

Russia media did, however, have kind words for the Turkmens. Rossiya 24’s Yevgeniy Satanovskiy said that “nothing should be left” of the Syrian-Turkmen population in the area where the Fencer was shot down if it was confirmed that they had been killed. “The response should be harsh…this territory should be destroyed,” said his colleague Yevgeniy Primakov.

President Erdogan insisted that Turkey had a right to defend "our brothers and sisters — Turkmen." The Turkmen – also known as the Turkomans – are a Sunni Muslim community living in mountains between Syria and Turkey. The Turkmen trace their ancestry back to Turks who invaded the Middle East from Central Asia during the 10th century. Their villages in Syria were established by the Ottoman Empire to counter Arab influences in the region. They reportedly number around 200,000, but Turkmen leaders maintain that the numbers are actually closer to 3.5 million with many Turkmen having been “Arabized” over the centuries. Syrian Turkmen groups reportedly have the backing of Ankara.

They were among the first groups to take up arms against President Assad. Mahmoud Suleiman, a Turkmen commander, said, "We want to overthrow Assad’s regime and set up a democracy in Syria, where all ethnic and religious groups can live together in peace.” Turkey sees such groups as bulwarks not only against President Assad and IS, but also against the Kurds even though a number of Turkmen militias are allied with the Kurds.  

While Russia has claimed that its purpose in Syria is to fight IS, Turkey claims that the Turkmen have been unfairly targeted. This was one of the issues discussed with the Russian ambassador in Ankara. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, "It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences."

The role of the Turkmens in the Syrian Civil War is relatively obscure. Even exact numbers are unknown. Turkey has used this group as proxies before. Following the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ankara attempted to employ them against the Kurds, but the plan backfired on them. The Turkmen proved to be more loyal to their Shi’a identity than to Turkey, and in the first post-war elections the Turkmen party received a low number of votes. Turkmen militias were also involved in a plot to kill the governor of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Turkey has always used the Turkmen against the Kurds even though there are more Kurds.   

In Syria, however, Ankara believes that the Turkmen can be more reliable as the Turkmen there are Sunni and not Shi’a. (Turkey is a Sunni-majority country.) The Turkmen have received arms and training from Ankara throughout the Syrian Civil War. The support is provided at Turkish military bases along the Syrian-Turkish border.

A Turkmen community leader stated that Russia’s air campaign in the region was designed specifically to drive out the Turkmen population. The leader, Abdurrahman Mustafa, accused Russia of intentionally trying to clear out the area in order to create an enclave for the Syrian government. Thousands of Turkmen civilians have been forced from their homes.

The area that the Turkmen occupy, Latakia, is also the ancestral homeland of the Assad family. This may explain the determination of Russia and its Shi’a partners to force the Turkmen from the coastal region. Mustafa stated that Russian forces bombed an ambulance as well as a camp for displaced civilians.

The Turkmen rebel groups are considered “moderate,” though they occasionally cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa‘ida franchise in Syria. Mustafa denies that such a relationship exits; he maintains that al-Nusra operates in other parts of Syria. However, videos have been released showing al-Nusra jihadists fighting on Mount Zawiya which was recently secured by the 2nd Coastal Division, a Turkmen unit. Fighting around the mountaintop continues. The Syrian government’s war in the Turkmen’s lands also involves Hizbullah. The Turkmen, like their brothers in Ankara, also distrust the Kurds. Syria has also accused Turkey of firing artillery shells across the border.

Russia later announced that it had wiped out Syrian rebel groups in the areas where the Fencer was downed. As soon as the Fencer co-pilot was rescued. Russian bombers and Syrian artillery pounded the area. MoD official General Igor Konashenkov stated that “other mysterious groups” were destroyed. Russian airstrikes helped Syrian forces gain ground in the mountainous area north of Latakia.

As Russia bombed Turkmen positions, it also searched for those who claimed responsibility for the Fencer shoot down. Turkish citizen Alparslan Celik stated in a video following the Fencer’s downing that the plane had been shot down because it had been bombing Turkmen positions. Minutes later, he said, the jet was shot down. “There is no place for a person who has bombed civilian Turkmens every day,” said Celik. He added, “Reprisal is the most natural right.”

Syrian state media stated that the individual responsible for the Fencer shoot down is in the Latakia town of Rabia, recently recaptured from rebels by the SyAA. President Putin maintained that Russia was looking to “take revenge” but did not stipulate exactly what would happen to Celik if he was found. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also ordered Turkey to “take immediate steps to apprehend Alparslan Celik and his accomplices and bring them to justice for the murder of the Russian pilot.” Celik was later detained by Turkey, and it remains to be seen whether he will face punishment in Russia.

Moscow also suspended military cooperation with Ankara. In an MoD briefing, Russian Lieutenant General Sergey Rudskoy announced that “All military contacts with Turkey will be suspended,” and “We warn that every target posing a potential threat will be destroyed.”   

Russia also issued the following directives to its personnel in Syria:

1.      Each and every strike groups’ operation is to be carried out under the guise of fighter jets

2.      Air defense to be boosted with the deployment of Moskva guided missile cruiser off Latakia coast with an aim to destroy any target that may pose danger

3.      Military contacts with Turkey to be suspended

The Moskva is equipped with the S-300F “Fort” (SA-N-6 “Grumble”) air defense system which is similar to the S-300 (NATO reporting name: SA-10 “Grumble”) missile. The system has a range of 150 kilometers. The defense system is meant to protect Russian planes conducting operations in Syria. The vessel is the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and is one of the fleet’s two largest ships. It was stationed in Sevastopol, Ukraine until the summer of 2015 when it deployed with Russia’s Mediterranean fleet. Since 30 September 2015, it has acted as a cover for Russian air assets in Syria while deployed to the eastern Mediterranean.

Depending on the type of missile used, the S-300F has a range between 75 and 150 km. There are 64 missiles on board the Moskva. The cruiser is also equipped with short-range SAMs, two ship cannon variants, torpedo launchers, and depth charge launchers. However, the vessel’s primary weapons are P-1000 Vulkan anti-ship guided missiles. 

Russia also launched a bombardment of the area in the Latakia province where the jet went down. President Putin announced the deployment of weapons system beforehand. "I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights," the president said. Supposedly Russian jets also bombed trucks waiting to go through a rebel-controlled checkpoint near Bab al-Salam near the Turkish border. Syrian jets have struck the area before. The route is also humanitarian in nature, a pathway for refugees fleeing from Syria to Turkey. U.S. and European leaders attempted to calm the situation down by talking on the phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Minster Lavrov said Russia had no intention of fighting a war with Turkey. Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said that because the rebels were mostly located near the Turkish border, Russian strikes in that area would continue.

What grabbed headlines most, though, was Russia’s deployment of S-400 Triumf (NATO reporting name: SA-21 “Growler”) air defense systems at the Hmeymim air base in Latakia. The missiles have a range of 400 kilometers and the Turkish border is less than 50 kilometers from the base. At shorter ranges, the missile can also destroy ballistic missiles. There was initially some confusion over what air defense system Russia was deploying to Syria. President Putin at first said that an older version of the Grumble would be deployed. The Growler is the most recent iteration of the Growler. (It was originally designated the S-300PMU3.) The Growler does share many components with other recent Grumble variants such as the S-300PMU2. These shared systems include some missiles and surveillance radars such as the 96L6 which Russia has already deployed to Syria.   

Some reports indicate that Russia had deployed the Growler to Syria before the Fencer shoot down. The missile system was developed in 2007. The system’s range gives Russia control over the airspaces of all of Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus half of Turkey, parts of Iraq and Jordan, and Israel. American Boeing F-15 Eagle  multirole fighters and even stealthy Northrup Grumman B-2 Spirit bombers are at risk from the Growler.

The Growler can lock onto targets traveling at over 17,000 kilometers per hour. It has a maximum range of 400 km depending on the type of interceptor missiles the erector is outfitted with. It can also shoot down ballistic missiles. Russia also deployed additional tanks and other armored vehicles in response to the shoot down. Russian Defense Minister Shoygu announced that any Russian bombers flying near Turkish airspace would have a fighter escort.

Turkey was also angered and accused Russia of a “provocation” when an individual on a Russian naval vessel passing through the Bosporus Strait appeared to be brandishing a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. The ship was the Caesar Kunikov, a Project 775 (NATO reporting name: “Ropucha-I”) amphibious assault vessel, and was reportedly headed for Syria. "For a Russian soldier to display a rocket launcher or something similar while passing on a Russian warship is a provocation," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. He then warned that if threatened, Turkey will meet those threats with a “necessary response.” The Bosporus is the only passage for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to the world’s oceans.  

Under the Open Skies Treaty, Russia conducted an observation flight over Turkish territory. The flight took place between 14 and 18 December 2015 along an agreed route. Turkish personnel were also onboard the plane to operate the surveillance equipment and observe the treaty provisions. The plane involved was an Antonov An-30B (NATO reporting name: “Clank”). The flight’s maximum range was 930 miles.

The Open Skies Treaty was signed in 1992 by 34 states. It was drafted “to develop transparency, monitor the fulfillment of armament control agreements, and expand capabilities to prevent crises in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international organization.” The treaty went into effect in 2002 with surveillance flights conducted over Canada, Russia, the U.S., and several European states.

Tensions increased even further when a Russian naval ship fired on a Turkish boat when the two vessels threatened to collide. The salvos from the Russian ship were only meant as warning shots. The incident occurred 22 km north of Limos, a Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea. The ship in question was the Kashin-class guided missile destroyer Smetliviy. Russia warned Turkey to cease provocative activities following the incident. The Turkish fishing vessel did not respond to the destroyer’s warnings, according to the Russian MoD. The fishing boat did not change course until after warning shots were fired juts before passing within 500 meters of the warship. 

The destroyer was at anchor at the time. Its watchkeeper reported the Turkish trawler approaching a collision course at 1,600 m. The trawler failed to respond to radio calls, Aldis light signals, or flares. With the fishing boat 600 m out, the destroyer fired warning shots from small arms. The Turkish fishing vessel turned away.

Following the incident, Russia summoned a Turkish military attache. Moscow said that small arms fire was conducted at a “guaranteed survivability distance.” The Turkish military attache was Ahmet Hakam Gunes who was summoned by Russian deputy defense minister Anatoliy Antonov. Summoned on 13 December.

The fishing boat’s captain, Muzzafer Gecici denied that it was his vessel that was fired on. "We passed within a mile of a warship which was at anchor. We didn't even know that it was a Russian ship, we thought it was a NATO ship. We didn't realise we had been fired at," he said. "I would like to warn those who would once again try to organise some sort of provocations against our servicemen," said President Putin.

Turkey also chose to respond militarily to its increased tensions with Russia. Turkey has announced that it is pursuing a strategy to procure offensive missiles for deterrence. "A defence concept under which both offensive and defensive systems could be used simultaneously will also enable deterrence,” said Turkish Defense Industries Undersecretariat (SSM) Ismail Demir to lawmakers at a 7 January meeting of the Turkish Parliament’s National Defense Committee. 

Five days after shooting down the Fencer, Turkey returned Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s body to Russia. His coffin arrived by ambulance on the tarmac of Hatay Airport. It was then flowed to Ankara where Moscow’s ambassador and a military attache retrieved it at an airfield. Turkey did not provide information as to how it recovered Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov’s body. 

On 30 January 2016, Turkey once again claimed that a Russian aircraft had violated its airspace, this time a Su-34  (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) fighter-bomber. The Russian MoD called Turkey’s claims “unsubstantiated propaganda.”  Russia accused Turkey of planning to launch a military incursion into Syria. 

Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov was buried with full military honors in Lipetsk, Russia, 450-km south of Moscow. He was also posthumously awarded Russia’s highest military award, the Hero of the Russian Federation. The award was given to his wife, and his coffin was carried by fellow air force officers to his grave at the snow-covered Lipetsk cemetery. His family paid respects in front of his coffin, which was draped in the Russian flag. Lipetsk residents visited the grave site leaving wreaths and flowers.

Recent reports of Turkey apologizing for the shootdown and the apprehension of the rebel leader responsible for the Fencer’s shootdown could signal a reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara. However, the highlight of the crisis following the Fencer shootdown was an information war waged by the Russian state media against Turkey. Kremlin mouthpieces accused Turkey of a litany of charges from training paramilitaries to fight pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine to aiding jihadist groups such as al-Qa‘ida and IS in Syria.

Some of these allegations are likely true.

 

Concluded in Part II