Putin’s dilemma

Putin’s dilemma

Russian strongman Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s warmongering acts of sending his warplanes dangerously close to Baltic States’ territorial airspace had forced these Baltic NATO member-states to scramble their fighter jets to intercept the intruding Russian warplanes. And, as always, after being warned by the NATO interceptors, they turned around and high-tailed it home. It’s a game the Russians play to test the readiness of NATO. And NATO is always ready especially at this time when Putin seems like he is itching for a fight. But he is aware that he has less firepower than the cumulative combat forces of the 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has been fortifying its eastern border with the Russian Federation.

In particular are the small Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. As former Soviet republics in the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Baltic States are vulnerable to Russian invasion. Unable to defend themselves from their former communist rulers, they opted to join NATO after the collapse of USSR in 1991. And Putin, who has been dreaming of the revival of the glorious Russian Empire of Catherine the Great, couldn’t stop himself from telling the whole world that he could roll his tanks to Russia’s former satellite and client states — the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria – and capture their capitals within two days.

But if Putin did that, the invaded NATO countries would invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would obligate the NATO alliance to come to their defense. The question is: Would Russia resort to nuclear warfare in such an event? And this poses the greatest threat not only to the NATO members but also to the whole world community.

Cold War

During the Cold War when the Western alliance and the Soviet Union had some 8,000 nuclear warheads each ready to be used against each other. In the event of a nuclear war of this magnitude, the two warring sides would annihilate each other, and that would be the end of Earth, which happens to be the only livable planet in our solar system. And the result of this nuclear holocaust is MAD; that is, mutually assured destruction, which will make Planet Earth uninhabitable for at least 1,000 years.

Last September, Putin started sending Russian fighter jets and bombers to Syria to drop bombs and cruise missiles on the Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator who refused to abdicate his hated regime and surrender power to a motley group of rebels.

Putin-Obama relationship

Now, with Russian fighter jets and bombers deployed to a Syrian airbase in Latakia, the civil war is fragmented into autonomous rebel groups with no central authority to coalesce them into a united front.

It soon become apparent that Putin’s real objective was to protect the Assad regime and prevent its fall to the “moderate” rebels – the Free Syrian Army, Kurds, Turkmen, and other groups that have ties to the U.S. While it is known that the Sunni groups are anti-Assad, the Russians didn’t seem to go after them like they do with the “moderates.” And this puts Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama at odds over their ultimate objectives, to wit: Putin wants the destruction of all rebel groups – particularly the anti-Assad “moderates” — and keep Assad in power; while Obama wants to remove Assad from power and put the “moderates” in control of the government.

With an uneasy relationship between Putin and Obama, their warplanes could easily cross paths that could result in an accidental firefight. So far, there has been no accidental encounter yet.

Turkish-Russian encounter

Last October, Turkish warplanes intercepted a Russian-made drone in Turkish air space near Syria. But Russia said that the unmanned drone did not belong to her. According to the Turkish military, the drone was shot down after it continued its flight path and ignored three warnings.

The second incident happened last Nov. 24 when two Russian Su-24 bombers intruded into Turkish airspace. Turkey immediately scrambled F-16 fighter jets to intercept them. Turkey claimed that the Turkish pilots warned the Russian pilots 10 times over five minutes. One of the Russian warplanes turned around and went back to Syrian airspace while the other continued its flight inside Turkish airspace. The Turkish F-16s fired at the second Russian plane, which was hit and crashed inside Syria. The two pilots parachuted but were fired upon by Syrian rebels killing one of them. A Russian helicopter tried to rescue the other pilot but was driven away by heavy fire from the ground.

Putin was furious at what happened. He called the incident “stab at the back.” Russian officials also said that there would be consequences; however, they did not specify what kind of action the Russians would take.

Undeterred by the Russians’ threat of retaliation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Russian warplanes’ alleged violation of Turkish airspace. He called the incident an infringement of Turkey’s sovereignty. He accused Russia of propping up the Assad regime, which he said was inflicting terrorism on its own people.

Putin’s dilemma

The downing of the Russian aircraft by a NATO member-state was the first since the Cold War era more than half-century ago. Putin is faced with a dilemma: If he does nothing, then he’d lose face plus it would shatter his image as a fearless and strong leader who wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons against his adversaries, notably, the U.S. If he did something – like shooting down a Turkish warplane or launch a cruise missile attack on a military installation or naval warship — it could compel Turkey to counter-attack or invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which states that an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies. If that happens, it could trigger World War III.

But considering Putin’s cockiness and penchant for brinkmanship, he’d probably wait for an opportune time to get even with Turkey. Some experts were saying that Putin might impose economic sanctions or cancel some oil and gas cooperative ventures that would benefit Turkey economically. Putin could also punish the anti-Assad Turkmen rebels that have close affinity to the Turkish people and whom the Turkish government protects and supports in their war against the Assad government.

War or peace

The day after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia would deploy anti-aircraft S-400 missiles to its Hmeymim air base in Syria, which is less than 30 miles away from the Turkish border. With a range of 155 miles, the missiles – armed with conventional or nuclear warheads — could hit a wide swath of Turkish territory. With both Putin and Erdogan blaming each other for the incident, the Syrian civil war has expanded with the entry of Russian and Turkish military forces.

At the end of the day, unless cooler heads bring Russia and Turkey to the peace table, the situation could explode into a war nobody wants to start. And by the time they realize that they had irreversibly set in motion the events that would lead to the annihilation of mankind, it’s too late. At that time, they can only pray.