NATO survived Cold War, but downed Russian jet provides biggest threat

Updated 6:35 PM EST, Wed November 25, 2015
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Story highlights

The NATO alliance survived decades of tension during the Cold War

But Turkey's shooting down of Russian warplane may undermine NATO unity

NATO partners can now only look at Turkey's President as a loose cannon

(CNN) —  

The cool, calm, clear thinking that kept the NATO alliance intact as it weathered the Cold War with the Soviet Union has been shattered.  

Decades of careful diplomacy and nail-biting inaction during the potentially world-annihilating nuclear arms race of the 1950s, 60s and 70s appears to have been sacrificed in a few brief seconds by Turkey.

During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the deployment of nuclear weapons in western Europe in the 1980s and many other causes of strife, NATO did not take on the Soviet Union or Russia directly and Moscow did not attack any NATO country.

That all changed when Turkish air force jets shot down a Russian bomber Tuesday – the first time a NATO country has taken such action since 1952.

Putin calls jet’s downing ‘stab in the back’; Turkey says warning ignored

Any chance of a quick end to the war in Syria seems to have gone up in smoke. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to undermine the unity of NATO for years. Whether it’s been Russian planes flying in Baltic airspace, aging bombers buzzing the coast of Britain, the destabilization of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, he has needled NATO, testing its resolve and probing for division. The downing of Russia’s fighter plane may help Putin reach his goal of destabilizing and dividing NATO.

Five things to know about downed fighter

Back then NATO – a military alliance formed after World War II by countries in North America and Western Europe that now has 28 member states committed to defending each other – stood firmly as one.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that was still the case Tuesday after an emergency meeting arranged for Turkey to tell its allies what had happened.

“As we have repeatedly made clear, we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey,” he said.

But, already, German and Czech officials are expressing surprise at Turkey’s action – taken after the Russian plane was inside Turkish airspace for 30 seconds or less, according to U.S. calculations.

President Barack Obama said Turkey had a right to defend its airspace and added that he expected to speak to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the coming days to learn more.

Bush backs Obama, Turkey in Russian warplane dispute

Opportunity lost?

Obama and his White House guest, French President Francois Hollande, urged Russia to strike at ISIS targets in Syria, in concert with their coalition – rather than going it alone.

Opinion: How is this not World War III?

Perhaps that seemed more possible this week, with both France and Russia mourning losses from ISIS terror and when they were collectively trading their national tragedies for compromises to find a solution in Syria.

Hollande lost 130 people to ISIS in the Paris attacks this month and Putin 224 to terrorist bombers who blew up a Russian passenger jet a few weeks earlier. Both have a moral authority to galvanize collective action.

It was a rare moment in international diplomacy and some diplomats were beginning to think Russia’s policy on Syria and its support for Bashar al-Assad could be changed. Not quickly, or easily, but the chance was there.

And Erdogan has squandered it.

Gain for Putin

The downing of the Russian jet smacks of what Erdogan’s enemies accuse him of – of aspirations to resurrect the Ottoman Empire – and leaves him open to claims he is too soft on radical Islamists. Putin has gone further – saying that Erdogan, the head of state of a NATO member, is siding with the terrorists. 

Turkish President: Country not sending arms to terrorists in Syria

And that’s why – at first analysis – this looks like a disaster, beyond the loss of life of one pilot and a would-be rescuer.

It may also be a gain for Putin.

For all those years he has was trying to undermine NATO unity, Erdogan’s hasty move has handed it to him on a plate.

We may learn what led up to the strike, but the deed is done.

Opinion: Why Turkey should fear itself

Erdogan’s NATO partners can now only look at him as a loose cannon, an unstable element in a very combustible situation. Not a steady partner capable of calm nerve that saw the alliance last the Cold War. Erdogan has thrown the whole card table in the air.

Turkey puts Kurdish targets over ISIS

In Turkey, as internationally, Erdogan has a history of pushing his own agenda, whether it’s against the tide or not.

There’s almost no freedom of the press there – just ask the journalists locked up while covering the recent elections, in which Erdogan’s party did surprisingly well after a summer poll flop.

Conflict with Kurdish people inside and outside Turkey continues. Turkey took no action against ISIS for a year and a half as the group advanced across the border in northern Syria.

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And when Erdogan finally decided to act militarily in July, the targets were more often Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic extremists, rather than ISIS itself. Turkey did grant the United States permission to use one of its air bases for anti-ISIS missions after a suspected suicide bomber attacked the Turkish city of Suruc, but the two allies have different agendas.

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Even as the United States sees Kurdish fighting groups as a hope to beat ISIS, Turkey continues to attack them. To many in Turkey, the prospect of an independent state for the Kurds is seen as a greater threat than the religious extremism of ISIS. To much domestic acclaim, Erdogan has moved Turkey away from its secular past and resurrected Islamism in Turkish politics.

Opinion: ISIS or Kurdish rebels: Who is Turkey really fighting anyway?

Indeed, Erdogan appears to pin hopes on the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood of Syria to thwart real radicals, but he could be getting played.

And then there’s taking on Russia, which is also nominally targeting the common enemy of ISIS.

A month ago, Turkey shot down what it said was an unmanned drone that entered its airspace. So the firing at the Russian jet was an escalation in an already volatile situation.

Putin may have dirty hands – but so does Erdogan.

And elsewhere, ISIS watches.

Opinion: Assad only winner after Russian jet downed