Russia Security Update: November 18-25, 2015

Turkey sharply escalated Russian-NATO relations on November 24 by downing a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey reported that the Russian bomber had violated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings before Turkish F-16s shot the aircraft down. Syrian rebels killed one Russian pilot, and a subsequent search-and-rescue mission in northern Syria resulted in the death of a Russian marine and the destruction of a Russian helicopter. Russia is likely to take escalatory measures to project force against NATO’s southern flank in response to Turkey’s actions. Russia has already announced the deployment of its most advanced S-400 air defense system to the Russian airbase in Latakia and the resumption of fighter jet escorts of its bombers, a practice reportedly halted in the wake of an October 20 memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Russia also announced that its flagship missile cruiser near the Syrian coast would “destroy” any aircraft threatening posing a threat to its warplanes. The first downing of a Russian plane by a NATO member since the Korean War represents a direct challenge to the great power image President Putin seeks to cultivate and is likely to accelerate Russia’s intervention in the region. 

The expansion of Russian military activity in the region underscores Russia’s primary grand strategic objective, to assert itself as a great power rival to the U.S. and a direct rival to NATO. Russia’s escalation, which increased sharply after the ISIS attacks in Paris on November 13, accelerated further with the transit of long-range strategic bombers around Western Europe’s coast and the launch of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea on November 20. This escalation signaled Russia’s intent to challenge Western states while it claims to conduct counter-terrorism operations. The U.K. scrambled jets as Russian long-range bombers passed near its airspace and has reportedly been conducting joint search operations with Canada and France for a Russian submarine, though it is unclear that the submarine is destined for Syria. Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles from the Caspian disrupted air traffic in Iraq, including U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition flights out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Russia also disrupted air traffic into and out of Lebanon over the Mediterranean.

As Russia projects aggression against its opponents, it continues to pursue deeper ties with its new regional partners, namely Iran and Egypt. Russia loosened a ban on the export of nuclear equipment and technology to Iran and signed an agreement to help build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Iran for the first time since 2007 to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who called for “closer interaction” with Russia to counter the U.S. in the Middle East. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu later met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, where he said Russia was ready to “closely cooperate” against ISIS’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. Russia’s efforts to expand its partnerships with Iran and Egypt are a key component of its intervention in the Middle East which aims to project Russian military power at the expense of U.S. influence in the region. Russia views France as both a potential partner and rival to its military intervention. France confirmed that its newly deployed Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier began deconflicting operations with Russian naval assets near the Syrian coast. Russia seeks to draw France and some U.S. regional partners into its proposed alternative counterterrorism alliance without sacrificing its freedom of action in Syria. French President Francois Hollande signaled that he would be unwilling to partner with Russia if Russia continues to strike non-terrorist targets on behalf of the Syrian regime ahead of his meeting with Vladimir Putin on November 26.