Has Turkey gone too far with Russia?
Damascus - Since June 2013, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken on and overcome hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy activists, independent journalists, the cleric and former ally Fethullah Gulen, a rising Kurdish political class and elections that threatened to blow apart his plans for an executive presidency.
But in his tiff with Russia, he and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) face an altogether different calibre of opponent. Since Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border on November 24th, relations between the two once closely interdependent countries have plummeted.
Turkey insists the jet violated its airspace while Russia claims the aircraft, which crashed on Syrian soil, never left Syrian territory. Russia’s deputy foreign minister wants Turkey to pay compensation and guarantee a similar incident will not happen again.
Turkey is holding firm. “The protection of our land borders, our airspace, is not only a right, it is a duty,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in the days after the incident. Turkey “will never bow down to pressure from Russia”, Erdogan said in early December.
Russia says the jet’s black box, which was opened in the company of international experts, is “unreadable”, which has given Turkey an advantage in the battle for control of the narrative.
One of the most galling aspects of falling out with Russia for the Turkish leadership centres on broader aspects of the Syria conflict. For more than four years, Russia has shipped weapons, supplies and moved warships to the Syrian regime using a route that passes just metres from an office used by the past two prime ministers. The office sits on Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait from where Russian vessels sail to Syria in plain view. In the days after the jet incident, a man on a Russian warship passing through Istanbul was seen holding a rocket launcher on his shoulder, sending Turkish media into a frenzy.
Away from the chest beating it is worth looking at what the fallout looks like in real terms for Turkey. Before the jet incident Turkey exported about $1 billion worth of foodstuffs to the Russian market, much of which has since been embargoed. In 2014, 4.5 million Russian tourists visited Turkey, worth close to $4 billion to the local economy — 15% of all Turkey’s international tourism income. Moscow has now essentially banned its citizens from visiting Turkey.
In sum, bilateral aid between the two is valued at $30 billion and, on the whole, it seems clear that Turkey needs Russia much more than the other way around.
Yet the cold, hard figures do not tell Turkey’s whole story. A domestic market of 76 million people means that national consumption of the now-cheaper fruit, vegetables and poultry will help offset the loss of the Russian market.
Furthermore, even though one-fifth of all Russian liquefied natural gas (LPG) goes to Turkey — 40% of all Turkish vehicles run on LPG rather than more expensive petrol — guaranteed access to this crucial fuel is of huge importance to Ankara. As a result, Turkey has been on the lookout for alternative suppliers, with the United States and Algeria most likely to fill any gap left by Russia.
Ties with Israel are back in the cards, meaning that, among other points, plans for building a natural gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey may reopen. Energy from Iraq and Iran forms a cornerstone of Turkey’s fuel needs.
And after years of distancing itself from Europe, Turkey can now rely on political backing from the European Union as Brussels appears happy to send billions of dollars Ankara’s way as long as the flow of desperate refugees and migrants into the continent slows.
Erdogan was not born yesterday. The AKP government he helped establish and mould is, for better and worse, a ruthless organisation and yet arguably has been the most successful political force in the Muslim world for the past decade. He is convinced a small spat with Russia will not change that and he might be right.