Where will the Turkish-Russian confrontation lead?
The downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkey after repeated warnings over violation of its national airspace on Nov. 24 has created sudden tension in Turkish-Russian relations after years of rapport. Although Turkey technically had the right to take necessary precautions in line with its rules of engagement adopted on June 26, 2012, after Syria shot down a Turkish F-4, several questions need answers regarding the timing and strategic calculation behind the decision to shoot down the plane instead of less confrontational alternatives. This is especially important, as there have been similar violations by Russian aircraft on a recurring basis both in the south since its operation in Syria started in September 2015 and in the north since its invasion of Crimea in April 2014.
Bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia have thawed since the late 1990s, with a prioritization on economic gains rather than focusing on strategic competition or security concerns. Although the two countries remained at odds over several issues such as Cyprus, Georgia, Ukraine and finally Syria, the wide range of economic cooperation, the end of energy competition and political alignment against a Western presence in the Caucasus and the Black Sea have reinforced bilateral relations and suppressed occasional troubles.
However, Turkey’s position has progressively become discordant with Russian assertiveness since the latter invaded Georgian territory in August 2008. Russia’s move in the Caucasus and the West’s inability to respond has closed the region to Turkey’s influence. By extension, the meticulously created security system in the Black Sea since the end of the Cold War with Turkey’s persistent efforts collapsed. Finally, the Russian invasion of Crimea has reshaped the strategic balance in the Black Sea, weakening Turkey while empowering Russia.
In the south, too, Turkey and Russia have been at odds over Syria. The sudden move by Russia into Syria in September 2015 has increased Turkey’s irritation as it limited its areas of operation. What is more, using the Western focus on the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and claiming it was targeting ISIL but mainly bombing opposition groups to the Syrian regime did not bode well with Turkey’s strategic interests in the region. The increase of Iranian activity in Syria alongside Russia and the substantial support received by the Kurdish groups both from the U.S. and Russia have further unnerved Turkey. Finally, the latest Russian bombings in northern Syria along the Turkish border, where Turkey was preparing to create a secure zone, tipped the balance.
Some of these explain Turkey’s action, though none provides an ultimate strategic explanation for this extreme behavior. In contrast, hyperbole in Russia’s reaction, targeting various sectors of cooperation with Turkey, while seemingly childish at times, seems to indicate a wider strategic calculation. Going beyond the obvious psychological need to hurt Turkey, Russia has turned the crisis into an excuse to build up its military capacity in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus. It has not yet unleashed hardcore military responses to Turkey and its propaganda forays, successful in Georgia and Ukraine earlier, failed to make headway against Turkey in the international arena. Yet, the possibility of Russian alignment with Kurdish groups in Syria and supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in general looms large as real areas of revenge.
It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who derives popularity at home with his defiant character, would continue to retaliate against Turkey until his injured prestige is restored, both in the domestic and international arenas, and use the incident to continue to build up the Russian presence in the Middle East.