Russia crisis inevitable with person-to-person relations

Russia crisis inevitable with person-to-person relations

In the past when there was a “tête-à-tête,” in other words a one-on-one meeting, between heads of states, this meant there would still be someone else in the room, most of the time a junior level diplomat, to take notes so the conversation could find its place in the state’s archives. 

Or if two sides had decided that no one should be present in the room, the Turkish head of state (be it the president or prime minister) would give a summary of the meeting afterwards to his aides. This was state tradition; it was important for the continuity in the state. 

I recalled that tradition during the crisis with Russia.

At the very beginning of the crisis I had predicted that the tension between the two countries would not escalate.

I was proven wrong. Why was I wrong?

After all, the two countries were usually never on the same page when it came to regional and international issues. But they never let their disagreements on political issues affect other dimensions of their bilateral ties. In other words, past experience demonstrated that both sides thought political disagreements were not critical enough to disrupt “mutually beneficial” economic cooperation, or vice versa, that bilateral relations were mutually beneficial and thus strong enough to serve as a security valve to stop any political tension from escalating.

The two capitals had succeeded in compartmentalizing their relations and containing their differences for the sake of economic gains. This is usually the case between administrations based on liberal democracy and economy, something the two capitals have been distancing themselves from in the course of the past decade.

Just as I failed to understand Turkey’s certain policy moves, I failed to predict Russia’s reaction. It is much harder to predict the policies of authoritarian rulers.

When we see someone who is in a bad mood on a particular day we say they must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Since we can’t apply this rule to Russian President Vladimir Putin, we still need to find out what it is that made him go berserk after the downing of the Russian jet.

Many attribute it to the domestic situation. With biting economic sanctions, Putin needed an “external enemy,” to divert attention to.  This must be correct, but only partly explains it.

A Turkish diplomat who had served in Moscow told me how fast the Russians were to introduce the list of sanctions “as if they were prepared for such a crisis.” 

It looks like Turkey’s policy favoring change in the Middle East via “Islamist” political movements and its intense involvement in Syria has disrupted the pro and con balance sheet which was based on “economic gains outweigh irritants by Turkish foreign policy.”

It seems Turkey recently irritated the Russians so much they were ready to suffer economic losses; after all, they stand to lose as well. 

So in addition to domestic consumption, we can safely assume Putin wants to give a message to Turkey to make it understand he does not want the Turkish government to be a “player” in the region.

In addition he must feel secure that this will not come at a big cost. It won’t matter so much if Russians have more difficulty finding tomatoes or diverting their touristic destination from Turkey to Greece. Has anyone heard about the nuclear power plant Russia’s set to construct? Perhaps Putin is convinced that no matter what happens this project will not be canceled.

But coming back to the original question, on my inability to predict, I will end up blaming President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After all, he was Putin’s interlocutor and he should have predicted the change in his outlook towards Turkey.

How can I be blamed when relations between Russia and Turkey are person-to-person rather than state-to-state?