Turkish-Russian spat points to more profound rift
ISTANBUL - Russia is setting economic sanctions against Turkey following the downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border and the dispute between the two countries shows no sign of abating, suggesting a bigger confrontation might be beginning.
Following the incident on November 24th in which a Russian SU- 24 crashed in north-western Syria after being hit by a missile from a Turkish F-16 fighter plane and a Russian pilot was killed while parachuting from the plane, Russia announced a range of punitive measures against Turkey.
Ankara, however, said it would not apologise for firing on the Russian plane because the jet had violated Turkish airspace.
Russia has announced sanctions that include an end of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens as of January 1st and import bans on Turkish agricultural goods and is calling on Russian citizens to stop holidaying in Turkey.
Moscow’s sanctions have yet to touch Turkey’s vital energy sector. Ankara buys 57% of its natural gas and 30% of its oil from Russia. However, Moscow might halt work on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project between the two countries if additional sanctions are put in place, Reuters reported.
Ankara is playing down the effects of the sanctions and says it hopes for a diplomatic solution. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would sell its vegetables elsewhere if the Russians would not buy them. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who failed to get Russian leader Vladimir Putin to sit down with him for direct talks in Paris, said: “This kind of thing should be solved by diplomatic ways”.
Angry statements by Putin suggest the row is far from over. The Russian leader accused Turkey of shooting down the SU-24 to protect trade routes of illegal oil exports to Turkey from regions controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, a charge denied by Ankara.
Observers say the spat about the border incident points to more profound tensions between Ankara and Moscow in the Syrian conflict. Turkish journalist Mete Cubukcu, writing for the Diken news platform, argued that the confrontation was a sign of a power struggle between different players trying to improve their positions ahead of possible peace talks for Syria. Russia has been bombing Syrian rebel positions since September.
“The Russians have shown by drastic means that they will strengthen the Syrian regime and will not allow any decision about the country’s future to be taken without them,” Cubukcu wrote.
Given that Turkey is a sworn enemy of Syrian President Bashar Assad while Russia is Assad’s most important ally, future confrontations seem possible. Cubukcu said it would be no surprise if the Russians tested the Turkish military on the border again.
Turkey was determined to stick to its own priorities in Syria, columnist Guven Sak wrote in the newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. He said the downing of the Russian plane was a message by Ankara saying Turkey “means business”. One important Turkish goal is to prevent Syrian Kurds gaining more ground in northern Syria.