Russia hasn’t wasted any time shattering Western illusions in Syria. First, despite initial rhetoric about fighting terror, they bombed every anti-Assad force in sight except ISIS. Then, they killed any hope of a no-fly zone. Russian authorities announced on Friday that the Moskva, a naval cruiser armed with 64 S-300 ship-to-air missiles, and an unspecified number of other ships, were deployed just offshore of Latakia, near the air base set up by the Russians weeks ago.
Meanwhile, a Russian general calibrated his comments in a way that was sure to rattle Brussels: “Panic and desertion has started among them. About 600 mercenaries have left their positions and are trying to flee to Europe. Thus, the Russian airstrikes will not only be continued; their intensiveness will be increased,” he said. Another Russian admiral seemed to indicate that Russian ground troops, in the guise of volunteer veterans of the wars in eastern Ukraine, would make an appearance soon, and that their appearance on the scene “could not be stopped.”
And, just in case you thought this couldn’t sound any more like the Ukraine fight, Russia is violating the airspace of the nearest NATO member. Reuters reports:
The United States and NATO denounced Russia on Monday for violating Turkish airspace and Ankara threatened to respond, reporting two incursions in two days and raising the prospect of direct confrontation between the former Cold War adversaries.
NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels of ambassadors from its 28 member states to respond to what Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace” after a Russian jet crossed its frontier with Syria on Saturday.
A Russian warplane again violated Turkish airspace on Sunday, a Turkish foreign ministry official said late on Monday, prompting Ankara to summon Moscow’s ambassador.
It had done the same following Saturday’s violation, and said Russia would be held “responsible for any undesired incident that may occur” if it were repeated.
“The Russians are not playing ball at deconfliction—they are just saying, ‘keep out of our way,’” a UK-based analyst noted.
Part of Putin’s project recently has been to expose cracks in the Western alliance systems, and the Turkish incursions put NATO in an ugly spot: either the alliance has to make a show of force to protect its member-state’s sovereignty, and so risk conflict with aggressive Russian forces, or it risks appearing to be a paper tiger. Putin may be gambling that Western aversion to the former is strong enough that he can start applying pressure—hopefully, the Kremlin might think, leading to the latter.
And if NATO chooses option B, it wouldn’t just be damaging in its own right: it would likely encourage more such behavior. If Putin thinks he’s found another soft spot in the Western alliance system, he’s going to keep pushing. It’s what he does.