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In downing Russian plane, Turkey calls Putin's bluff

By shooting down a Russian warplane, Turkey caught Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom many regard as a master tactician, off guard.

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But for all his public fury, Russia's president is unlikely to let the incident spiral into full-fledged conflict, says FRANCE 24's international affairs editor, Douglas Herbert.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

For the first time since Russia launched its go-it-alone air campaign in the skies over Syria in September, the Kremlin's military intervention has veered badly off script. Turkey's shooting down of a Russian Su-24 striker aircraft that is says had strayed into its airspace (which Russia denies) has left Putin in an angry – and vengeful – mood.

Overnight, Turkey has gone from being an often difficult but valued ally, in Russia's eyes, to a "back-stabbing" abettor of terrorists, to be avoided at all costs. Turkey is the second-most-popular tourist destination for Russians after Egypt – more than 4 million visited last year. But in the wake of the Su-24 downing, Russian officials are advising their compatriots to stay away. One Russian newspaper likened the incident to a new Cuban Missile Crisis – putting it on a par with the notorious 1962 showdown that led the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse.

The incident is believed to be the first such action by a NATO member against Russia, or its Soviet predecessor, since the height of the Cold War. But for many observers, it was an accident waiting to happen after repeated warnings from Turkey that it would shoot down any warplane that violated its airspace.

It also follows a recent pattern of near incursions by Russian aircraft in and around the airspace of NATO members. Where Europe sees needlessly provocative behaviour by a Russia keen to test the West, Russia sees Western scare-mongering about a non-existent threat.

Whatever the case, the Syrian conflict is pivotal to Putin's strategy of reasserting Russia's role as a global player. And Turkey relies on Russia for a large share of its energy. Which is why both sides will be looking for ways to de-escalate and avoid a more dangerous clash.

This article was originally published on November 25, 2015.

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