Will Russian-Turkish relations deteriorate even further?
WASHINGTON - The November 24th shoot-down of a Russian warplane by Turkish jets near the Turkish-Syrian border has led to a rapid downturn in relations between Ankara and Moscow.
Prior to the Russian intervention in Syria at the end of September, Russian-Turkish relations were relatively good, especially in the trade realm. The question now is: Can Russian-Turkish relations overcome this incident and return to normal or will they remain acrimonious or even deteriorate further?
One thing seems clear: A return to normalcy is not likely anytime soon as the leaders of both countries feel deeply aggrieved.
The Turkish side maintains that its actions were justified since Russian warplanes have repeatedly violated Turkish airspace despite warnings. Russia denies that its aircraft did such a thing on November 24th and that Ankara should not object to Russian air strikes against “terrorists” in Syria since their defeat also serves Turkish interests.
Underlying everything is the two countries’ basic disagreement on the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria: Moscow wants its longtime ally to remain in power while Ankara wants to see Assad and his Alawite minority regime replaced by a Sunni majority one.
Moscow and Ankara, though, have disagreed about Assad since the uprising against his regime began in 2011, yet the Russian-Turkish relationship was quite strong until recently.
For the past three years, their bilateral trade has been more than $30 billion per year and the two sides announced plans increase this to $100 billion by 2023. In 2014, about 4.4 million Russians visited Turkey — a major source of income for the Turkish tourism industry. Turkey imports much of its natural gas from Russia.
Moscow also valued Turkey for not joining the West in imposing economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict. The leaders of both countries reportedly enjoyed friendly relations, based on their common antipathy for US foreign policy and Western criticism of their human rights records.
In short, until recently Moscow and Ankara agreed to not allow disagreements over Syria encumber their otherwise mutually beneficial cooperation. Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan each assumed that events would inevitably result in the outcome each preferred in Syria and the other would have no choice but to accept the situation. But if this was what each overconfidently assumed, the Russian intervention to protect the Assad regime and the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian warplane on November 24th threaten their formerly close cooperation.
Moscow is ending visa-free travel to Russia for Turkish citizens effective January 1st and urged Russians not to travel to Turkey. Planned joint economic projects and the continuation of Russian gas exports to Turkey are in doubt.
More ominously, Moscow has announced that it is deploying S-400 air defence missile systems to Syria from where they can hit targets well inside of Turkey. Moscow has increased its targeting of Syrian opposition groups aligned with Turkey along the Turkish-Syrian border, thus heightening the prospect of Russian violations of Turkish airspace.
Russian commentators have raised the possibility of Moscow not only aiding Kurdish opposition forces opposed to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria but of also supporting the Kurdish opposition inside Turkey itself. If Russia did this, Turkey could retaliate by supporting the Turkic-speaking Muslims opposing Moscow’s rule in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia.
And if Russian-Turkish hostilities escalate, Ankara might invoke clauses of the 1936 Montreux convention governing transit between the Mediterranean and Black seas via the Turkish straits that allow it to deny transit of foreign naval vessels during wartime or when Turkey is threatened with aggression. Finally, Turkey is a member of NATO and other NATO members are obliged to defend Turkey if it is attacked.
But as bad as relations are now between Moscow and Ankara, will they deteriorate to this extent?
It is to be hoped that both Russian and Turkish leaders will not allow this to happen, since neither would benefit from the loss of bilateral trade and both would suffer from further conflict. If either side supports opposition groups inside the other country, it could lead to powerful rebellions that each side may be unable to quash even if the other stops aiding them. Conflict between different ethnic and sectarian groups could become as prevalent in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and the Muslim regions of Russia as they have already become in Syria and Iraq.
Let’s hope both Putin and Erdogan will soon realise that they have much to gain from preserving Russian-Turkish cooperation and much to lose from increased hostility.
Neither of them, unfortunately, is known for being self-restrained or accommodating towards others. Both, though, are strongly motivated by the desire for self-preservation. There is hope, then, that — to paraphrase the 17th-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes — fear will give rise to clarity of vision in both men.