On deteriorating Russia-Turkey relations!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Turkey-Russia relations have worsened after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane on the Turkey-Syrian border for violation of its air space more than once. Denying the allegations, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident a “stab in the back”, and warned of serious consequences for bilateral relations.
It was first time that a NATO member has shot down a Russian plane since 1952 — has hammered ties between the two rival players in the Syria conflict. Putin did meet US President Barack Obama, who expressed his regret over the loss of life in the plane downing and called for de-escalation between Russia and Turkey. Moscow could retaliate against Ankara by cutting or reducing its gas supplies or threatening gas price hikes and their common planned energy projects could likely be derailed.
Angered by the shooting down of its warplane by Turkey, Russia on November 26 suspended all military contacts with Turkey as ties between the two countries plummeted, including the so-called hotline set up in order to avoid incidents during Russia’s air campaign against terrorist infrastructure in Syria. Moscow has revealed that the S-400 missile defence system has been put on combat duty at the Hmeimim base of the Russian air force in Syria.
Russia came stronger displaying its former super power status upon the plane incident. After the downing of its jet Moscow has bolstered its firepower in Syria — where it is flying a bombing campaign at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and said its planes were now equipped with air-to-air missiles. That means the Kremlin is Syria for a full fledged war – if not a permanent war that the USA seeks. .
As part of targeting Muslims in Syria as terrorists and members of so-called ISIS, Russian aircraft has conducted more than 130 missions in the past three days, hitting some 450 targets in eight provinces. Russian air force has ratcheted up attacks against “terrorist” targets in areas where one of the two pilots of the downed jet was rescued. Total number of casualties is not revealed by Russian government.
Further, Russia laid out more details of retaliatory economic sanctions aimed at denting Turkey’s key tourism and agricultural sectors. Moscow announced it will halt fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey after Putin signed a decree over the weekend banning charter flights and the sale of package holidays, and scrapping Russia’s visa-free regime with the country. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the moves a “first step” as Moscow also said it would limit Turkish transport firms and tighten controls on construction contracts. The authorities however stopped short of targeting Russia’s major joint energy projects with Turkey.
Russian media has portrayed the handover of the remains as a goodwill gesture on the part of Ankara after several days of heated rhetoric, but neither side has looked willing to back down. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted once again that Ankara would not apologize over the downing of the plane. “Protection of our airspace, our border is not only a right but a duty for my government and no Turkish premier or president … will apologize for doing our duty,” he told a joint press conference with Nato head Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. Davutoglu decried Russia’s sanctions against Turkey and called on Moscow to reconsider these measures in both our interests, while reiterating once again Ankara’s willingness to talk.
Turkey has maintained a lower profile and less of an assertive foreign policy presence in Central Asia than during any other republic government. Ankara has been careful not to make an entrance into Putin’s energy basin in any way that would openly compete with Russia. In fact, under the AKP, Ankara went as far as declaring some of the Turkistan opposition in China “terrorists” so as to maintain good relations with Beijing; while making it clear it stood on the side of land unity for China, Ankara also appealed to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to take it on as a member, saying “save us from the gates of the EU.”
Both Russia and Turkey have been involved in operations in war-torn Syria, but with different aims. Russia publicly supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey opposes him. Turkey, which has trained and supplied rebel fighters in Syria, has also been accused of providing weapons to Islamic State group. Putin has said Assad’s future should be determined by the Syrian people, but the official US position is that the Syrian leader must be removed from office that is identical with that of Turkey.
Through the entire course of the history of the Turkish Republic, it is possible that relations between Turkey and Russia were never as good as they had been with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin in power. The two leaders have had — until now — a relationship based on mutual trust, with clear red lines and “gentlemen’s agreements” shaping things. Even the fact that Turkey and Russia were supporting different sides in Syria didn’t seem to affect the Putin-Erdoğan relations. The common denominator that has bound Erdoğan and his “friend” Putin until today has been their mutual tendency to resist political values such as Western style democracy, pluralism, transparency and accountability. They have also both been interested in cooperating when it comes to arenas of easy profit, notably energy. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule,
Russian and Turkish leaders continued to trade insults and accusations on Nov. 27 as Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the USA may have had a hand in destroying a Russian jet that was shot down. According to the Daily Mail, the Russian Su-24 jet was shot down on Nov. 24 as it clipped Turkey’s southern border during operations over Syria. Since then, Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan have refused to speak to each other directly while ratcheting up accusations in public. In a press conference on Thanksgiving Day, Putin accused the USA of either being complicit in the Turkish attack or of being incompetent and failing to safeguard real time tactical information. “The American side, which leads the NATO coalition that Turkey belongs to, knew about the location and time of our planes’ flights, and we were hit exactly there and at that time,” Putin said.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities again pledged not to apologize over the incident, as Moscow rolled out its sanctions aimed at exacting economic revenge. Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ankara of shooting down a Russian warplane to protect supplies of oil from the Islamic State group to Turkey, after snubbing his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s at a climate conference in France. After rejecting Turkish President Erdogan’s offer of face-to-face talks on the sidelines of a UN climate summit outside Paris, Putin accused Ankara of seeking to protect Islamic State oil exports.
Annoyed by wild accusations of Russia, Erdogan said he would be ready to resign if the allegations were proved true. Challenging Putin, who has refused to meet the Turkish leader after the shooting down of a Russian military jet, Erdogan added: “And I tell Mr. Putin ‘would you stay in that office?’ I say this clearly.”
Meanwhile, Erdogan said Russia’s response was “emotional,” and cautioned Russian leaders against making rash accusative decisions that could permanently sour relations between the two countries. The Russians, Erdogan said, should not “play with fire.” “We really attach a lot of importance to our relations with Russia … We don’t want these relations to suffer harm in any way,” Erdogan said.
Even before this downing of the warplane, Moscow’s airstrikes in Syria already raised tensions between Turkey and Russia due to military operations being uncomfortably close to the Turkish border and Russian bombings of Syrian villages inhabited by Ankara-supported Turkmens. President Obama has likewise been critical of Moscow’s strikes against moderate rebel groups rather than ISIS, seemingly aimed to propping up the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
As the only Islamic nation in entire west, both USA and Europe, Turkey faces certain specific problems and a dilemma. While pursuing Islamist governance, hated by European nations, Turkey has all along tried to avoid confrontation with Russia but its seems Russia took the former Ottoman Empire for granted and deliberately violated its air space.
Also, both the USA and EU seems to have succeeded in creating a powerful rift in Russo-Turkey relations – and Israel, annoyed with Turkey for breaking military ties over its attack of Turkish aidship bound for Gaza Strip to breach the Israeli terror blockades, killing many volunteers, may have got shots in arm. Assertive foreign policy has not done Ankara any good for the time being.
Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian warplane for violating its airspace near the Syrian border will challenge Turkish-Russian and US-Russian relations that were already under increasing strain. The deterioration of relations between Russia and NATO’s member Turkey could further strain relations between the Moscow and the West as the former is increasingly taking an active geopolitical role all while the two consider a common approach towards ISIS despite tensions over Ukraine.
The deterioration of relations between Moscow and Ankara will have broader consequences. The earlier political affinity between Russian and Turkish Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan due to shared energy interests is likely fizzle out for the foreseeable future.
Russian and NATO relations will be strained and will also likely lead to a reassessment of Russia’s freehand in violating the airspace and territorial waters of neighboring countries as it has been increasingly doing since 2014 in Scandinavia and Baltic States.
The downing of Russian warplane will spell political tensions between Moscow and Ankara that will first be felt in the energy sphere and will reverberate in the broader relations between Moscow and the West. For the USA and its European allies, the weakening alliance between Turkey and Russia may spell good news for energy diversification projects, though it may mean heightened tensions in forging a coalition in the struggle against ISIS and normalizing relations with Russia in light of its agenda in Syria and Ukraine.
The plane incident will have ramifications for broader Turkey and Russia’s energy cooperation. Turkey’s geographic position makes it a strategic participant as a transit and energy hub country for both Europe and Eurasia’s energy projects. Thus, Moscow sought to gain Turkey’s participation in the Eurasian energy union, which within the framework of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, is designed to coordinate energy policies over much of Eurasia. Now that cooperation and coordination with Ankara will be more difficult to achieve.
Most immediately, the downing of the warplane will tensions put pressure on Ankara-Moscow’s energy rapprochement built over the last decade and centered on increased gas trade, new gas infrastructure projects and plans for an energy union. Turkey had started receiving Russian gas via the Blue Stream gas pipeline in 2003 and had increasingly grown dependent on Gazprom to meet its booming demand for energy. Though Russian-Turkish plans to implement the new Turkish Stream gas pipeline to carry Russian gas via Turkey to Southern Europe were already delayed due to Russia’s financial woes, this new crisis could table plans indefinitely. An official cancellation of Turkish Stream however would keep Turkey more committed to Europe’s Southern Corridor gas pipeline project that seeks to bring non-Russian Caspian gas from Azerbaijan to the EU via Turkey.
Erdogan and Putin had an opportunity to speak in person at an upcoming climate change conference in Paris, beginning Nov. 30 but thus far no news of realignment. However, an all out energy war between Ankara and Moscow is unlikely. While wielding the energy weapon–cutting gas supplies or raising gas prices–is one of Moscow’s favored policy tools towards unfriendly or uncooperative states, it highly uncertain if it will be used this time. As it faces sanctions from the West and depends on dwindling energy revenues due to low global energy prices, Russia would have to consider carefully before cutting off Turkey which has come to be one of Gazprom’s largest European regional gas markets. The Turkish gas market has been even more significant in light of the fact that post the 2009 Ukrainian-Russian gas crisis and the conflict in Ukraine since 2014, the European Union been more cautious about Russian gas imports and has been focusing on diversification programs, new energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, and renewable programs.
All said and done, it is for sure that Russia trying to patch up with USA and NATO has no reasons to escalate its good ties with Turkey, a powerful NATO member at this juncture.