The Real Reason to Worry About Turkey and Russia

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

Siege of Akhaltsikhe 1828, by January Suchodolski. A battle under the walls of Akhaltsikhe during the Russo-Turkish War, 1828–1829 on August 9 between 9,000 Russians under Field-Marshal Paskevich and 30,000 Turks under Kios-Mahomet-Pasha. The Russians were victorious.
“This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”

As soon as the news broke about Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter, my mind flashed to a scene in The Hunt for the Red October. I heard Fred Thompson’s character tell CIA-analyst Jack Ryan, “This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”

Right now, it seems the situation is not quite so dire, but this is a scenario many defense policy analysts have been dreading since Russia entered the conflict in Syria— confusion in the skies, multiple belligerents bombing all sides in a multi-way civil war, NATO versus Russia, Russian-supplied SAMs fired at American-built aircraft (and vice versa). Then the Free Syrian Army’s First Coastal Division killed at least one of the Russian pilots on the ground and subsequently blew up a Russian helicopter with a US-supplied TOW — on film. It’s the stuff of Tom Clancy and Larry Bond…and not in a good way.

Upon further reflection, though, there is something underlying the whole thing that is even more troubling than these interactions, if that’s possible. That something is a single word being used to describe the rebels under attack by the downed Russian aircraft: Turkmen. By now, after years of hearing conflicts in the Middle East described in binary ethnic terms — Jews versus Palestinians, Arabs versus Jews, Arabs versus Kurds, and Persians versus all of these — it is difficult to doubt the importance of ethnic identity in the region. And while they are often ignored in discussions of Middle Eastern ethnic tension, Turkmen represent substantial minority populations in both Syria and Iraq. What’s more, during some of the darkest days of the Iraq War Turkey threatened to act as the guarantor of security for the ethnic Turkmen population there.

Yet Turkey claims the only reason they shot down the aircraft — which Russia still claims was in Syrian airspace, acting with the blessing of the UN-recognized Assad government — was its violation of Turkish airspace. No mention of ethnicity by the Turkish government thus far. One can’t help but wonder, though.

…bringing ethnicity into the mix hearkens back to the dark days of 1914 and 1939, to say nothing of the long, bloody history between Eastern Orthodox Russia and Muslim Turkey.

Would the Turkish government have been so quick to swat down an aircraft attacking PKK or YPG targets? Does Turkey care so much about a single Russian aircraft violating Turkish airspace they would rather confront one of the world’s most powerful — and recently expeditionary — militaries than summon the Russian ambassador to an emergency meeting? Is it possible ethnic identity was a significant factor — or perhaps the real reason — Turkey intervened in this case?

If so, the danger goes far beyond immediate Russian responses to the destruction of a single aircraft. While ethnicity is not the only reason for past conflicts between Russia and Turkey, bringing ethnicity into the mix hearkens back to the dark days of 1914 and 1939, to say nothing of the long, bloody history between Eastern Orthodox Russia and Muslim Turkey. Irredentism is a force that, once unleashed, is hard to harness. Once nation-states begin to act as nations rather than states, they act with the emotion history rather than the logic of the current situation…and any assumptions about the rationality of the actors gets tossed out the window.

Faulkner said “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” For the world’s sake, everybody should hope he was wrong.


David Dixon is a former active duty Armor officer who now serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the South Carolina National Guard, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.


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