Tensions Flare as Putin Calls Turkey's Downing of Russian Jet 'Stab in the Back'
Volatile situation as Moscow and Ankara express mutual disgust and worries reverberate over regional and global implications of latest incident along Syrian border
Turkey has taken responsibility for shooting down a Russian fighter jet near the border with neighboring Syria on Tuesday, as both Moscow and Ankara put forth conflicting narratives about what led to the incident which has sparked an emergency meeting of NATO allies and strong rebuke from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Though some factual details remain contested, Reuters reports how this marks "the first time a NATO member's armed forces have downed a Russian or Soviet military aircraft since the 1950s and Russian and Turkish assets fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies."
Early reports indicated that both Russian pilots had been able to eject from the plane before it crashed, but subsequent information has diverged about whether both, only one, or neither survived.
Officials in Turkey have said the plane was shot down by a Turkish F-16 after the Russian pilots ignored repeated warnings to leave Turkish airspace. One Turkish official was quoted as saying:"This isn’t an action against any specific country: Our F-16s took necessary steps to defend Turkey’s sovereign territory."
Russian officials, however, have disputed the plane was in violation and slammed Turkey's behavior. Putin, speaking from the city of Sochi ahead of a scheduled meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, called the incident a "stab in the back" and said the Russian plane was flying over Syrian territory when it was brought down.
"The loss today is a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists. I can’t describe it in any other way," Putin said. "Our aircraft was downed over the territory of Syria, using air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16. It fell on the Syrian territory 4km from Turkey. Neither our pilots nor our jet threatened the territory of Turkey. This is obvious."
Turkey has made no secret that it dislikes how Russia has come to the aid of embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and has repeatedly made warnings about Russian fighters jets crossing into its airspace and condemned the targeting of Syrian Turkmen and other rebel forces fighting against Assad who it views as allies. Following the incident and a request by Turkey, an emergency NATO meeting in Brussles has now been scheduled for all member states .
Footage of what is said to be the Russian SU-24 fighter going down and then bursting into flames just before impact was released on Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency:
Putin voiced disgust with the situation even as he said his government would assess all information before taking action. "We will analyse everything," Putin said, "and today’s tragic event will have significant consequences, including for Russia-Turkish relations. We have always treated Turkey as a friendly state. I don’t know who was interested in what happened today, certainly not us. And instead of immediately getting in contact with us, as far as we know, the Turkish side immediately turned to their partners from Nato to discuss this incident, as if we shot down their plane and not they ours."
According to the Guardian:
The latest incident highlights the grave risks of clashes of arms between the various international forces that have intervened in Syria. A coalition led by the US is conducting an campaign against Isis in the country, and American and Russian officials have worked on ensuring there are no clashes between their forces as they pursue their separate campaigns.
But the shooting down of the Russian plane is an escalation that leaves open the possibility of a clash between a Nato member and Russia, whose intervention shows an increasing assertiveness in international affairs.