The 2015 Russian Sukhoi Su-24 shootdown by Turkish F-16; Events, Context and Dispute

On the 24th of November, a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber aircraft near the Syria–Turkey border, as the aircraft was returning to Khmeimim Air Base. According to Turkey, the aircraft was fired upon while in Turkish airspace because it violated the border up to a depth of 2.19 kilometres (1.36 miles) for about 17 seconds after being warned to change its heading 10 times over a period of five minutes. The Russia Defence Ministry denied the aircraft ever left Syrian airspace, counter-claiming that their satellite data showed that the Sukhoi was about 1,000 metres inside Syrian airspace when it was shot down. The U.S. State Department said that the U.S. independently confirmed that the aircraft’s flight path violated Turkish territory, and that the Turks gave multiple warnings to the pilot, to which they received no response. The Turkish government also said that it did not know the nationality of the aircraft at the time of the incident. Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the U.S. knew the flight path of the Russian jet and should have informed Turkey; two U.S. officials said that Russia did not inform the U.S. military of its jet’s flight plan.

The Russian pilot and weapon systems officer both ejected from the aircraft. The weapon systems officer was rescued; the pilot was shot and killed while parachuting in mid-air by Syrian Turkmen rebels. A Russian naval infantryman from the search-and-rescue team launched to retrieve the two airmen was also killed when a rescue helicopter was shot down by the rebels. The shootdown was the first destruction of a Russian or Soviet Air Forces warplane by a NATO member state since the Korean War. Reactions to the incident included harsh denunciation from Russia and an attempt to defuse the situation by NATO afterwards. Few hours after the incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke from Sochi, where he was meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, saying that it was a “stab in the back by terrorist accomplices,” and that Russia would not put up with attacks like this one, hence resulting in Russia–Turkey relations would be affected. Russia deployed the guided missile cruiser Moskva armed with S-300F (SA-N-6 Grumble) long-range SAM missiles off the Syrian coast near Latakia and S-400 mobile SAM systems to Khmeimim Air Base.

Some interesting contexts include:

  • After the 2012 shooting of a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet, Turkey altered the “Rule of Engagement”. “The engagement rules for the Turkish armed forces have been changed from Syria if there are any military instruments or troops approach to the Turkish borders from the Syrian side in the form of a threat they will be perceived as military threats and will be acted accordingly from now on,” Erdogan said. While no official reports or details are publicly announced (which is respected by NATO), it is evident that the Rules of Engagement swiftly enacted on little relaxation and buffer time, along with less flexibility for international military-capable aircraft to enter Turkish airspace. Discussions between top officials to alter the Rules of Engagement was made from 3-15th of October, with little to no results or conclusive moves.
  • Syria’s direct involvement in combatting ISIS, along with other rebel groups (as allies with Bashar Al Assad). Russia’s air campaign began on the 30th September 2015, while bases within Syria were established for logistical purposes for further involvement (ground troops potentially, but of course mere speculation as of now).
  • Russia exports volumes of goods valued total of $25,203,172,978 in 2015 (and growing rapidly), while Turkey clocked more than $5,900,000,000 to Russia. Turkey imports 55% of its natural gas from Russia, and 30% of its oil, with previous talks and discussion over hydro-energy and nuclear energy sustainability projects. Trade mostly under minerals, precious stones, industrial machinery, manpower, financial services, chemical manufacturing, banking, avionics/aviation-services, parts and vegetables.
  • Turkey is one of most popular tourism destinations for Russian leisure travelers (while business accounts much of the share too), directly and indirectly generating $96,000,000,000 into Turkey’s GDP and 2.1 million jobs. Most seems to be at stake thanks to tension-induced sanctions. Punitive measures include embargoing Russian businesses from hiring any new Turkish nationals as well as import restrictions on certain Turkish goods (and vice versa in a more limited manner).
  • Russia is to ban air charters between Russia and Turkey, expect for special flights for the return of tourists remaining in the country, as well as to take additional measures aimed at ensuring transport (aviation) safety when conducting regular flights with the Turkish republic, according to government statements on economic sanctions. The government plans to axe visa-free travel facilitations. Russia’s Aeroflot (and operator groups Donavia and Rossiya) and I-fly plans to cut frequencies and some destinations from the announcement. The Kremlin is also considering banning Turkish operators such as Turkish Airlines (TK, Istanbul Atatürk) from transiting Russian airspace. Turkish carriers serving Russia will also be subject to increased checks and controls “for security reasons”. The new measures come into effect from January 1, 2016. Turkey’s biggest airline is offering Russian customers alternate flight dates or destinations for free after the Kremlin raised the possibility of a flight ban between the two countries. This involves tickets from November 25 to February 28 next year if they were purchased after November 25, Interfax reports, quoting the company. The Russian travellers can swap tickets by December 1. Turkish airlines spokesman Serhan Yucel said the company would continue to fly to Russia as usual, despite deteriorating relations after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in Syria. Pegasus and Borajet also plans to reconsider their Russian services.


Points raised by both sides are (and undertakings):

  • What are the freedoms and tolerance levels of any border crossing before sovereignty is infringed, and states have the right to protect themselves? Were the defined internationally recognized parameters complied with? What would make this an exception? Why and how could this be altered? Can parameters of sovereignty be dictated (Le Domaine Aérien et le Régime Juridique des Aérostats (1901) / Johanna Nijeholt’s Air Sovereignty (1910) / Harold Hazeltines’ The law of the Air (1911).
  • Russia argues that the Paris Convention of 1919 dictated that “international airspace (article 1) gave authority to each individual operating an aircraft to act in accordance with the law of the state of registration”. Turkey counters that the convention also respects absolute sovereignty over borders, in which Rules of Engagements must be respected.
  • Whether Turkey has the right to exercise its sovereignty by crossing into foreign airspace (let alone engage and shoot down a plane granted rights within Syria).
  • Legitimacy of data presented by respective governments namely radar images and shown below


  • Russia argues, mostly under ICAO’s definitions of sovereignty, that “State sovereignty is closely connected to the definition of States obligations under Article 28 of the Chicago Convention. The text and spirit of Article 28 do not oblige States to provide air navigation services and border protection over their territory themselves. Rather, Article 28 prescribes that when and where”. This allows Russia to be a legitimate force. Furthermore; “States elect to provide facilities and services to support international air navigation and enforcement of sovereignty, and these facilities and services must comply with ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices.” This allows Russia’s military to be an ANSP and legitimate military force to uphold borders based in the Latakia region thanks to approved placement and ties with the sovereign and recognized government. Russia continues to argue that the violation of airspace went both ways.
  • Turkey argues here, that unlike the examples of cross-border ANSP, the separate geography doesn’t apply (unlike what New Zealand, Australia and the US does). Turkey also touches on Bashar Al Assad’s popularity (classifying the state in “civil limbo”), and also stating that if Russia stays true to the accusations, Syria’s current government is also responsible for the airspace infringement. Both countries urge for the UN and NATO to assemble upon and discuss accusations.
  • Whether Russia in turn, abides by the above specifics mentioned, especially with dealings and positioning on the MH17 (with evidence pointing towards Russian Separatists within Ukraine).^
  • Reports Turkey may have been at the receiving end: Russian ARAAMs targeted (manned proximate to Jisr-Al-Shughur) at Turkish fighters upholding the border-intrusion shoot-down. Moscow also reacting by bringing the notorious S-400 to Latakia. This allows Turkey’s right to defend itself (beyond the shooting down of the Russian fighter, further legitimizing the move).
  • Whether the flight was considered as an ally/neutral “armed attack” status (which gives Moscow greater freedom in Turkish Airspace, and where Ankara is expected to relax the scramble).
  • Whether Russian pilots received or enacted their training to constantly tune into 121.5/243.0 mhz, follow orders, observe warnings beacons/flares/shots, and stay 10 nautical miles from any border. All fighter pilots are trained under International Law for recognition of aircraft emergency guard frequencies, observe the International Air/Military Distress signals, and respect borders and distancing facilitative of all forms of Rules of Engagement and its natural classification being of ratification-capable domestic law (and associated relaxations independent of each nation)
  • Bad weather was a factor, according to Russia.
  • Relationships between Russia, Assad and the development with the Kurds for strategic and definitive diplomatic divides. -Turkey’s violation of Greek airspace tallied at 2244 last year (a gain of 400%).
  • Turkey’s excessive enforced power on civilian/friendly aircraft (independent of Rules of Engagement and under civil and public international aviation law , especially over the Bosphorus International waterways mentioned under the Montreaux Convention allowed full power contingent for freedom during peace time, being breached (as argued by Russia)
  • Russia set to bring citizens home from Turkey, and findings from investigations will uncover Turkey’s intentions, dealings, polices, and legal-adherence (with all to uncover whether Russia has the right by international standards to exercise self-defense)


In conclusion, it is certainly a very interesting case and sequence of events between Moscow and Ankara following the downing of a Russian SU-24 by a Turkish F-16. Seems both nations are avoiding war, yet are taking their own cases into their own hands, avoiding international oversight over bias claims, and feeding a “tit for tat” policies while questioning the other nation’s (and affiliates) commitment and placement in the eradication of ISIL, and civil unrest in Syria Both parties will need to be treating this like an accident, with Daesh being the only greatest threat hindering the investigation. Differences must be set aside and common grounding must be observed to keep the peace.



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