Since the retreat of the United States from the Middle East, Russia has been flexing its muscle, antagonizing regional players with unprecedented determination. It was only a matter of time before the Russian bear, the skeleton of the former Soviet imperial state, clashed with the heirs to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey.
Both Turkey and Russia are governed by militaristic strongmen driven to resurrect the glory of Empire. President Erdogan of Turkey has even reversed decades of secularization, initiating an Islamization of the NATO-affiliated country. When Turkey shot down a Russian jet earlier this week for violating its airspace, it knew full well that the Russians would register the move as an act of aggression.
Turkey’s direct attack against a Russian military asset could have easily been the shot heard around the world, the fuse that lit the next World War. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is not a man that takes insults lightly, let alone military hostilities.
Russia has already imposed economic sanctions on Turkey in an effort to damage its economy and undermine the country’s geopolitical influence. Erdogan’s own stubbornness may portend demise for the once flourishing Middle Eastern state. In an exclusive interview with CNN in Ankara Thursday, Erdogan made clear that he would not apologize for downing the Russian fighter jet.
"I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us," said President Erdogan. "Those who violated our airspace are the ones who need to apologize. Our pilots and our armed forces, they simply fulfilled their duties, which consisted of responding to ... violations of the rules of engagement."
While it’s unlikely that Russia and Turkey will engage in further acts of aggression to the point of full-blown war, Erdogan’s obstinacy combined with Putin’s cunning foreign policy calculus puts NATO between a rock and a hard place. Turkey is again a NATO ally, meaning that allied nations are essentially required to support Turkey’s military might, especially when confronted with Russian hostility, under the provisions of the treaty.
However, NATO will not go to war for Turkey; Russia is simply too powerful and the stakes are far too high to escalate conflict with the intractable Russian leader. This catch-22 effectively undermines NATO’s integrity as a collective military body. The Russians and the entire world now know that NATO does not have the same force and will to confront aggression head-on, essentially leaving Erdogan to tilt with Putin alone on the world stage.