As Russia slaps sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for the November 24 downing of a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border, the standoff between Russia and the West has taken a dangerous new turn. One day, Russian President Vladimir Putin is courted by Western leaders reeling from the Paris attacks; the next, he’s locked in a confrontation with a NATO member that prompted a spike in social media posts raising the possibility of World War III.
Unpredictability has been a hallmark of the Kremlin’s foreign policy since before Russia invaded Georgia almost eight years ago. Although the current course of events may appear confounding, however, it follows a consistent logic dictated by Putin’s spinning of his global role. His moves toward rapprochement, no less than his hostility, are aimed not at building a genuine anti-terror coalition but at challenging the West to a high-stakes game of chicken. His zero-sum reasoning is dangerous for all, and Western countries must understand it to craft their response.
Putin’s swagger is an integral part of the Kremlin’s formula for manufacturing the truth. In this latest case, evidence that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace is irrelevant. When the Russian military trotted out a man it claimed was the surviving crew member, he denied receiving any warnings to leave Turkish airspace. Never mind that the orchestrated-looking video showed him only from behind and failed to conceal him from appearing to read his answers from cue cards.
In Russia, outrage about the crash is enabling the Kremlin to expand on its Soviet-style narrative about the West spreading global instability, sponsoring a fascist war in Ukraine, and seeking to steal Russia’s natural resources. Now state-approved opinion-makers are tapping into an older trope: their country’s cultural ties to Byzantium, to which the Russian Orthodox Church traces its roots. Social media seethes with vows to “take back” Constantinople—as Istanbul was called before its sacking in 1453, of course—and television the Islamic State (ISIS) in addition to organized crime. Capturing the sentiment, last week a prominent former general warned on a prime-time talk show that “if we don’t respond to the Turks, we’ll be trampled.” He characterized the Russian plane’s downing as an act of war.
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