Erdogan’s greatest mistakes
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are remarkably similar: Their achievements for their countries are almost identical. Their temperaments are remarkably similar. They have presided over a golden age in bilateral relations that lasted for 12 years. Yet now they are on a collision course that could have catastrophic consequences for the entire region.
Putin became prime minister of Russia for the first time in September 1999 and president at the beginning of 2000. He has run his country in one or other of those positions since. Erdogan was prime minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and has been president since.
Both men have proved to be strong authoritarian leaders who restored order and a level of prosperity to their countries that was previously unknown.
For 15 years Putin presided over the highest sustained standard of living of ordinary Russians in their nation’s history.
Under Erdogan, Turkey expanded its construction contracts and agricultural and industrial exports throughout Asia and the Middle East. Russian-Turkish bilateral trade boomed.
Both leaders even had parallel concerns over potentially hostile internal minorities — the resurgent Kurds in Turkey and the Chechens in Russia.
However, by a single rash move, Erdogan has squandered all the accumulated goodwill and benefits of those years. He refused to apologise or make other amends for the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 that allegedly briefly strayed into Turkish air space on November 24th.
Russia responded by slamming trade sanctions on Ankara, depriving Turkey of a major export market for its fruit and vegetables. The Kremlin also made clear that 3 million Russian tourists a year will no longer be allowed to flock to Turkish resorts. These moves will certainly hurt Turkey.
Even more ominously, on December 3rd, Putin in his nationally broadcast annual state of the nation address to the Russian parliament pledged more serious retaliation. “We’ll remind them again what they did. They will regret it,” he said.
When the president of Russia uses that kind of language in his most public and important forum of the year, he clearly means it. For Putin, protecting Russia’s traditional friends and punishing its enemies is a debt of honour.
Erdogan still does not seem to realise the dangerous forces he has unleashed. Under Putin, Russia has consistently exercised restraint on Iran. It refused to sell the Iranians Moscow’s most advanced anti-aircraft missiles, the S-400, and it refused to sell all the advanced nuclear technology Iran long craved. Russia also played a constructive and cooperative role with the Western powers in negotiating the P5+1 nuclear agreement.
But even before the shooting down of the Sukhoi 24, that restraint was badly fraying. Moscow had repeatedly warned the United States it would respond to increased US aid to Ukraine by abandoning its old policy of restraint in dealing with Iran.
Now things are likely to get far, far worse, very, very fast. Russia has accused Turkey of sanctions-busting by helping the Islamic State (ISIS) smuggle out its oil exports. Russia can certainly be expected to encourage Kurdish groups to challenge the Ankara government but that is the least of it.
How far will Russia actively encourage Iran to go menacing Turkey and protecting Kurdish movements in Turkey? A rapid deterioration of security on the Turkey-Iran border can be expected. One does not need a crystal ball to work that out.
Turkey is about to discover that the cost of shooting down that Sukhoi 24 and failing to ensure the life of one of its crew is going to be infinitely greater than Erdogan ever imagined.