On November 24, 2015 a Russian Su-24M frontline bomber was shot down on its mission against Islamist militants on the Syrian-Turkish border. An air-to-air missile launched by a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter not only destroyed a Russian aircraft and killed one pilot, but also undermined the Russian-Turkish relations, which had supposedly thrived and gained momentum for recent years.
By Leonid Nersisyan, military correspondent
Hybrid Warfare and Its Consequences
Now, the level of relations between both countries is close to prewar conditions – Russia has imposed sanctions against Turkey; many joint projects have been frozen (for example, Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, Akkuyu NPP construction project). Established just after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian government’s policy for closer relations with Turkey was terminated in an instant. Traditional confrontation in this region has resumed. History repeats itself.
From a political point of view two main questions arise – 1) Is there any actual probability of war between Russia and Turkey, and 2) Was the military and technical cooperation between both countries significant (of course, this cooperation is now terminated).
Turkey used to be one of key countries for Russian arms export
The history of the military and technical cooperation between Russia and Turkey dates back to the period just after the collapse of the USSR. In 1993, Turkey had already received Russian armored personnel carriers such as the BTR-80 (174 APSs) and the BTR-60 (23 APCs), plus 19 Mi-17 military transport helicopters. Besides, Russia supplied a certain amount of firearms and 4 small auxiliary ships. The total amount of transactions was nearly $200 million, but approx. 50% of this amount was spent to pay the state debt of Russia to Turkey.
Later, both countries often held talks about the procurement and/or co-development of various types of military equipment – from tanks to combat helicopters and tactical missile systems. However, large-scale projects were not implemented due to political rather than economic reasons. A vivid example here is the ATAK tender (Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance Helicopter), the winner of which should have received a contract for licensed production of 145 attack and tactical reconnaissance helicopters in Turkey. As a tender bid, Russia offered the special modification of the Ka-50 attack helicopter designated as the Ka-50-2 “Erdogan” co-developed by Russia and Israel. The distinctive feature of this modification in comparison to the original model was the two-pilot configuration of the helicopter (the base model was a single-pilot helicopter) and advanced avionics. The U.S. Bell АН-1Z “Super Cobra” helicopter became the key competitor of this model. Russia offered very profitable contract terms, a lot of discounts and preferences; as a result, Turkey was likely to prefer the Russian helicopter in 2003, but at the last moment after Turkey’s MoD staff reshuffle in 2004 the tender was cancelled . Later, a new tender was undertaken and won by the Italian Agusta A129 Mangusta helicopter, the most doubtful tender bid in 2007. Now, the Turkish modification of this helicopter is produced as the T129 model. In fact, the main reason for such weird preference was the politics – for many years the Turkish government has been doing its best to “break into” the EC.
A similar situation took place during the tender for the Turkish Long Range Air And Missile Defence System (T-LORAMIDS) with such participants as Lockheed and Rаytheon offering the Patriot-PAC3 AA missile system, Rosoboronexport offering the S-300 AA missile system, CPMIEC (China Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp.), a Chinese company offering the HQ-9 AA missile system (an unlicensed copy of the Russian S-300 system), and French-Italian Consortium Eurosam offering the SAMP-T AA missile system. The tender was conducted in 2007; the Chinese HQ-9 system was announced the winner of the tender in 2013. However, the tender was eventually cancelled – this time around, Chinese participants apparently became a "bargaining chip” to deal with Western suppliers: nobody has ever purchased the HQ-9 system (despite its low price) while its official system specifications that comply with the Russian S-300PMU-2 system raise doubts.
As for the latest transactions, we should mention the procurement contract to supply for Turkey a certain amount of the Kornet-E anti-tank missile systems – it appears that all 80 missile launch systems have not been supplied prior to termination of the military and technical cooperation. Besides, there is information about already terminated contracts to supply a small amount of firearms and artillery systems, including components for the existing Soviet and Russian military equipment.
“We will provide a reliable support for our forces remaining in Syria, for their smaller part – it will be air, naval, and ground support”.
Sergey Ivanov, Chief of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation
As for supplies from Turkey to Russia, the scope of supply is still far from significant amounts. Some sources say that when Anatoly Serdyukov was the Russian Minister of Defence, Russia started to purchase Turkish optical systems for some Russian submarine periscopes (despite available Russian equivalents). Cessation of deliveries would not become a serious problem, with regard to fast development of the industry for recent years.
It is also known that some textile products for the Russian army have been purchased in Turkey for further supply as "made in Russia" products. Definitely, resellers are not affected by cessation of deliveries – everything you want may be purchased in China or in other Asian countries, not to mention that, with regard to the reasonable import substitution policy, it would be better for our market to be supplied with real home-produced military outfits instead of pseudo-domestic products.
Finally, we may conclude for certain that the military and technical cooperation between Russia and Turkey has never been very significant and both countries have nothing to lose in this respect. The issue related to spare parts for servicing Russian military equipment would not become a headache for the Turks – such parts may be purchased in other countries through closed tenders.
New Russian-Turkish War: There’s a Slight Chance but Russia is Ready
For the past half-year there were two occasions when the scenario involving direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey might become real: First of all, after a Russian fighter bomber was brought down, and then after a large part of the Syrian-Turkish border was swept from pro-Turkish fighters by Kurdish militants and the Syrian government forces. After Turkey lost control over the situation in Syria, the Turkish artillery started to attack the Kurdish militia while the activities of Turkish troops indicated preparation for invasion in Syria’s border areas (some Turkish officials even made appropriate threatening statements). However, such approach from Turkey was not approved even by its Western allies – in fact, they clearly stated that if Turkey's invasion in Syria might result in clashes with Russia, the NATO members would not intervene in a conflict. Moreover, a bit later Bashar al-Assad and the “moderate” Syrian opposition forces signed a ceasefire treaty, which made possible Turkey's invasion look like madness.
Nonetheless, Russia made preparations for the worst scenario – this process started immediately after the above-mentioned Su-24 aircraft had been shot down. First of all, the S-400 AA missile systems and advanced electronic warfare systems have been deployed at Khmeimim air base in Syria, where Russian aerospace forces are stationed. The Moskva guided-missile cruiser (Project 1164) was sent to Latakia. It was replaced with the Varyag cruiser (of the same project). Both ships were equipped with the S-300F AA missile system. Later, an air unit with the most advanced Russian Su-35S fighters was deployed at Latakia air base. After the main part of Russian aerospace forces was withdrawn from Syria, the Su-30SM and Su-35S fighter as well as the ground-based air defence forces were left where deployed. Moreover, the “Iskander-M” Tactical Ballistic Missile System (TBMS) was spotted in Syria. This system is likely to be deployed as a deterrent device in order to prevent Turkey from any risky undertaking. Such forces are able to ensure efficient countermeasures against multiple Turkish air forces operating over 200 U.S. F-16 fighters.
While Russia strengthens its position on the Syrian-Turkish Border, it also reinforces its influence on the Armenian-Turkish border. Erebuni air base near Erevan has been reinforced with the Mi-24 attack helicopters and the Mi-8 military transport helicopters; the MiG-29 fighters have passed overhaul and partial upgrade. Russia’s air base 102 located in Gyumri (South Caucasus) is rapidly being equipped with new communication systems, and the advanced Ratnik combat outfit. The deployed S-300B AA missile systems along with the S-300PS systems operated by the Armenian armed forces (both countries have already signed the joint air defense system treaty) are able to deter possible air attacks by the Turkish AF in this threat axis.
Neither personnel strength nor the amount of ground military equipment at these bases has been reinforced, probably, due to low probability of the direct confrontation. A weak point of the Syrian armed forces is, probably, quite insufficient ground support – no more than 2,500 troops – equipped with a quite limited amount of military equipment. On the other side, at the first phase large Turkish armed forces will have to break through the Kurdish forces and the Bashar al-Assad’s government forces in the complex terrain of Latakia, i.e. in woodland and mountain country conditions with a limited amount of suitable roads. That is why the Russian military command will have enough time for decision making and implementation.
Hybrid Warfare – from Syria to Nagorny Karabakh
Nonetheless, the hybrid warfare against Turkey is on its way – pro-Turkish militants in Syria are still fighting the government forces and the Kurdish militia, who are known to be supported by Russia openly through air strikes and weapons supply.
Besides, Turkey intensifies its collaboration with a small group of Crimean Tatars, who are dissatisfied with the Crimea-Russia reunion. For example, we can mention here the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, which has been relocated to Ukraine. Some data proves that Turkish instructors train some Crimean Tatars for terrorist activities, while the President of Turkey extensively communicates with his Ukrainian counterpart; Turkey and Ukraine are conducting joint military exercises: the relations between both countries are drastically improved in terms of their anti-Russian policy.
For purposes of such hybrid warfare, Ankara has also used its closest ally – Azerbaijan, which has initiated military actions (which make no sense for Russia) against the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (supported by Armenia, probably, the closest ally of the Russian Federation as a member of the CSTO). Such approach is intended to sideline Moscow‘s influence on Baku – since Russia is liable for military support of Armenia under the bilateral arrangements (according to the latest agreement, Russia's base 102 in South Caucasus shall protect Moscow's interests as well as Erevan’s interests) and under the CSTO agreements. However, Azerbaijan is a “honey pot” for the world’s major political players due to its energy resources and access to the Caspian Sea with plenty of offshore fields. That is why the last thing Moscow wants is a full-scale war in this region along with a change of status quo, which may eventually result in Azerbaijan’s fall under the influence of Turkey and Western countries as well as in real projects for construction of gas and oil pipelines to Europe to compete with the Russian Federation. The implementation of such projects has often been announced, but the cause is all hype with no substance.