By Egehan H. Altınbay
At a time when various strategies regarding how to effectively formulate the combat against ISIS and scenarios concerning the future reshaping of Syrian domestic political status were being discussed among the related parties, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet on 24 November 2015 came as a shock; since it was marked as the first downing of a Russian warplane in the post-Cold War period by a NATO country, an event which was last observed in 1952 when US and Soviet aircrafts exchanged fire over the Yalu River, during the Korean War. 
The shooting down of the Russian warplane in the middle of already heated tensions was surely an unexpected, rare, and confusing event – or was it? The assessment of the incident through the conceptual frame of the perception-misperception model, however, does not indicate so, and thereby assists us in reaching a reasonable answer to the inquiries regarding why the Russia-Turkey roulette over Syria reached such a culminating point, and what to expect in the future. By stressing the influences of perception and false understanding of credibility within state behavior, a close examination of the event clarifies how the Russian-Turkish response patterns evolved from a failed deterrence into a more complicated spiral of active punishment and escalation.
Misperception, Appeasement, and False Beliefs in International Politics
The occurrence of a conflict and its intensification in international relations is attributed to the existence of diverse conditions; however, there is one major element that is truly crucial in the ideational sparking of the contention – the issue of misperception, specifically when a false understanding of state motives prompts unexpected responses or reactions.
Two major issues aggravate the conflict-prone action-reaction cycle. One may arise when a state falsely anticipates that appeasement will bring out a more favorable response from the other side, actually triggers the opposite. This instance occurs when the other state, believing that the appeaser is weak in capability, credible deterrence, or resolve, dismisses its warnings and presses harder to gain more concessions, prestige, or influence. This reaction from the other state eventually results in forcing the appeaser to decide whether to back down or to implement a harsh response in order to display its ability and willingness to wage war when a particular threshold is reached. It is noteworthy to indicate that if a backed-down appeaser at some point decides not to further retreat, it would face more difficulty in inducing the other that it is now more determined than before, thereby, seeking the adoption of harsher response policies to signal that its stance has changed. The second type of escalation occurs following an act of punishment, when a state expects or misperceives that a punishing behavior will result in better outcomes. Such an instance takes place when the punishment triggers the transpiration of an insecurity spiral, as the punished state, not dissuaded by the punishment and angered by infliction, responds more boldly to protect its interests, expecting that it needs to dissuade the other from inflicting further punishment, thereby heightening the tensions.
The Downing of the Russian Jet
The Turkish-Russian strategic interaction that witnessed tensions following the initiation of the Russian bombing campaign in Syria is observed to be an example of the former reaction cycle, while the temporal dimension of the bilateral relations from the downing of the Russian plane and onwards provides an example to the latter. An analysis of events from the last two months displays how Turkey’s appeasement policy, based on the belief that Russia would comply with Turkish warnings, failed to restrain Russian actions, as diplomatic notifications, NATO meetings, scrambles, and even shooting down a drone did not force Russia to back down. It is possible to argue that, on the contrary, Turkey’s beliefs and actions actually led Russia to adopt a more aggressive policy, since it perceived that it could coerce or intimidate its counterpart, gain concessions, or press further for curbing of the Turkish influence over Syria. Hence, it is possible to argue that Russia, in some ways, assessed that Turkey is actually not credible in terms of implementing its threat of using the rules of engagement, or Turkey is simply weak in confronting a more capable Russia.
If Turkey’s statements, despite heavy probing of Russian aircrafts in Turkish airspace, are taken into consideration – for instance, the ones related to the Russian violations of Turkish airspace on the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 16th of October as well as on the 20th of November – it is possible to observe that Turkey adopted a pacification policy to ease the tensions and tried to enhance its credibility to deter Russia. Such a strategic approach was marked by the Turkish statements such as: “violation should not be repeated or the Russian Federation will be responsible for any undesired incident” or “the crisis in Syria is not a Turkish-Russian one and we do not want this to turn into a Russia-NATO crisis”. Despite these declarations, and even after Turkey shot down a Russian drone and demanded an immediate NATO meeting, Russia not only rebuffed Turkey’s demands but also possibly misperceived Turkey’s appeasement policy to cool down tensions as a weakness, and therefore, perceiving it to be a non-credible threat to its presence.
These events and statements imply that Turkey’s expectation that appeasement would elicit better behavior from the Russians actually produced the opposite. For the Russians, possessing the belief that a non-credible deterrent, indeterminate, or an appeasing Turkey can be further suppressed through increased provocations provided them the ideational foundation to enhance their own influence over Northern Syria. Even though Turkey attempted to abandon this policy several times after perceiving that its threats fell on the deaf ears of Russia, the government found it difficult to re-present its determination and credibility. For this reason, Turkey sought a bold move to signal the Russians that it is actually resolute and unwavering. Thus, the plane-downing event was the culminating point of this action-reaction process, since Turkey, now aware that it had failed to deter Russia with warnings, and the appeasement policy produced outcomes favorable for Russia, sought to reassert its deterrent capacity through such an operation.
Repercussions to Future Events
In reference to the conceptual framework discussed above, it is possible to argue that after the downing of the Russian jet, Turkish-Russian tensions began to move away from the appeasement policy model and entered into an insecurity spiral phase. Turkey’s punishing move clearly angered Russia and led to a counter move in the form of the deployment of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Theoretical prescriptions within the International Relations Theory assert that, assuming both states have correctly read each other’s motives and intentions, there are two pathways that might be preferred henceforth. The first option is seeking conciliation and downgrading the spiral via assurances, mediation, and confidence building. The second strategy is to play an escalation game, which either heightens the tensions until one side backs down due to the threat of war, or ultimately ends with both sides accepting open conflict. Hence, it is up to the Turkish and Russian decision makers to evaluate the utilities of these two distant strategies and choose the most prudent pathway.
- On the theoretical conceptualization of these concepts see: Robert Jervis. “War and Misperception” in The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars, ed. Robert I Rotberg & Theodore K. Rabb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 101-127.
Egehan H. Altınbay is a PhD candidate at Middle East Technical University, Department of International Relations.