When was the last time a Russian fighter was shot down? I’m guessing in the 1950s or so. The fact that Turkey was willing to shoot down a Russian jet, under any circumstances, is a major game changer.
The image of Russia
If you think about it, Russia has spent years building its image as the big, bad bear that has risen again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By invading Georgia, annexing Crimea, and leveling Chechnya, the image of Moscow as a tough, major power has been firmly established—at least in the minds of many Americans. Images of Putin doing various “manly” things with his shirt off have been used in Russia to express the same idea: Don’t mess with the Russians!
Russia’s decision to move into Syria also had the same basis. While the U.S. would not act, Russia would. While western forces were ineffective, Russian forces would blast the “bad” guys—with a definition of bad that was carefully chosen by Russia. Russia would be the kind of forceful country that could get things done.
Provoking the bear
Funny thing is, though, the warring parties in the Middle East don’t seem that impressed. ISIS apparently took down a Russian airliner with a bomb. Turkey made a deliberate decision to take down a Russian fighter. For many of the Mujahideen, and those who know them, the Russians were beaten in Afghanistan and are certainly beatable again. There is no reluctance to provoke the bear.
The Russian military is actually pretty good, certainly much better than it was in the Chechen or Georgian wars. The fact that both ISIS and the Turks are not intimidated suggests that even a forceful approach by a strong military from outside the area is not enough to frighten anyone there.
Signs of change
This is a change, however. Most of the international peace in the Middle East, such as it has been, has been achieved under the threat of force from the U.S., from Russia, or from Israel, with their dominant militaries. Internal peace, in Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, has also been driven by a strong military component to the governments. It made no sense to fight back against overwhelming force—so no one did.
Now, those forces don’t look overwhelming at all. Governments across the region have either collapsed or are under threat from internal challenges. Independent armies have risen—ISIS, the Yemeni rebels, and others. They are able, in many cases, to take on government and even international forces; even if they don't prevail, they at least live to fight another day.
The real risk
This is a different set of risk factors than what we have been used to. Existing strategies will not work, as we are seeing across the region. Other areas are seeing the same forces, such as Scotland and Catalonia, albeit in a less violent way, but the Middle East is where they are playing out the fastest.
What does this mean to the U.S.? The best way I can express the risk in one sentence is with the question, “What if ISIS actually wins?” That is to say, what if ISIS can establish a functioning state and keep it running despite everything the west and the local governments might do? This really would change the world.
I will write more about this next week, as one of the side effects of the Turkish downing of the Russian jet is that it will be much harder for the out-of-area forces to continue to fight ISIS, either diplomatically or militarily. The real winner of that event was ISIS, and we need to focus much more on what might actually happen if ISIS continues to gain strength.