There has been much talk of improvement of the relationship between Russia and the West following the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris two weeks ago. Whatever gains have been made on that front will risk being reversed following Tuesday’s incident involving the Russian and Turkish air forces. Although the exact facts are—and likely will remain—disputed, the essence of the incident is known: a Russian fighter jet was shot down in the morning of 24 November by the Turkish military near the Turkish-Syrian border. This post weighs the international law considerations raised by the incident and suggests that on the basis of the available facts, the question from the title should likely be answered in affirmative.
The Russian SU-24 jet was in the region as part of the recent military offensive conducted by the Russian forces with the consent of the government of Syria against a number of armed groups on the Syrian territory, including the notorious Islamic State. The central contested fact is, of course, whether the aircraft had crossed over the border into the Turkish airspace. The Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu emphatically claimed that it had; the Russian president Vladimir Putin denied it in equally strong words. An unnamed US official was reported as having said ‘that the Russian incursion into Turkish airspace lasted a matter of seconds’. Later, a Turkish letter addressed to the President of the Security Council (and duly leaked online) stated the incursion had lasted for exactly 17 seconds.
The legal analysis under international law is reasonably clear if the Russian version of the events is taken as factually accurate. The shooting down of another State’s military aircraft amounts to a use of force against that State. The recognized exceptions of the use of force in self-defence and under the authorization of the Security Council being inapplicable on the facts, the destruction of the jet would be caught by the general prohibition on the use of force under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and thus unlawful.