Petr Pavel, left, chairman of the NATO military committee.

Photographer: MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images

NATO Confronts Russian Base on Turkey's Border

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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When Turkey shot down a Russian jet Tuesday, NATO was facing its worst fear: a direct confrontation with the Russian military. The problem on NATO’s southern border is much bigger than this one incident; the new Russian base near Turkey presents a larger strategic challenge for the alliance that if ignored could lead to ongoing clashes.

Two days ago, Petr Pavel, the chairman of the NATO military committee and top military adviser to NATO’s secretary general, warned me about the long-term implications of the new Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria. The Czech general did not know then that the Russian presence in Syria would cause an international crisis so soon. But he already knew that NATO needed to figure out a comprehensive policy to push back against Russia’s new base.

Pavel said that the base is not just intended to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

“Of course it is one of the objectives of Russian activities in the Middle East, not to just to support Assad’s regime, but also to get their forces into the area, have presence, and through this presence exert some influence,” Pavel told me at the Halifax International Security Forum.

He said the base in Latakia was part of a broader Russian policy to increase its permanent military presence on several of NATO’s borders. This installation serves the Russian agenda in Syria while also attempting to deny NATO access to this area.

“There are different ways NATO can react," Pavel said. Facing Russia's attempt to impose anti-access, area-denial capability near Turkey, he said, "the most brutal way of how to resolve the issue … is to suppress it.”

But using military assets to challenge Russia’s new protected zone around its base would take a lot of resources and carries risks of further confrontation, he warned. Pavel would rather that NATO use less "brutal" tools to bear against Moscow.

“We can use different kinds of pressures, starting from political, diplomatic, economic and also military in other areas, rather than pushing through the wall,” he said.

Pavel predicted two days ago that NATO would have to meet to discuss the Russian presence in Latakia soon. He was right. NATO will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the Turkish downing of the Russian jet.

At the top of the agenda will be determining just what happened in the skies over the Syria-Turkey border Tuesday. The Turkish government issued a statement saying the Russian jet entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yayladagi, was warned 10 times in 5 minutes, and then was shot down.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said that the issue was not only Russian incursion into Turkish airspace. The Turkish government had been protesting what it says were Russian attacks on Turkmen villages on the Syrian side of the border, whose citizens Ankara feels a responsibility to protect because of their Turkish heritage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted angrily to the incident and called the Turkish government “accomplices of terrorists,” accusing Ankara of supporting radical Syrian rebel groups. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled a planned Wednesday visit to Turkey. Escalating tensions, Syrian rebels reportedly used a U.S.-provided TOW anti-tank missile to shoot down a Russian rescue helicopter as well.

The clash between Russia and Turkey is destabilizing, but the real destabilizing move was Putin’s decision to place a new power-projection and access-denial base just miles from a NATO country without any consultation. NATO chose not to deal with that dangerous situation for months. Now the alliance has no choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net