A dangerous escalation of Turkey’s tension with Russia

A dangerous escalation of Turkey’s tension with Russia

Actually, the tension is not only between Turkey and Russia but between the NATO alliance and Russia. NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly urged its 28 members on May 30, after sessions in Tirana, to stand up to Russia’s military “assertiveness” and “to provide reassurance” to those allies who feel their security is under threat, “focusing on the eastern and southern flanks of the alliance.”

That focus particularly means the Russian pressure on the Baltic states Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in the north (with its side-effects on Scandinavia), and on Turkey in the south, neighboring both Ukraine and Syria, which both have a considerable Russian military presence.

The declaration of the NATO assembly also asked members to increase their defense budgets in order to strengthen conventional and nuclear deterrence measures, heighten NATO military preparedness and boost cooperation with non-NATO members Sweden and Finland, neighboring the Baltics.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the current situation as “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” and relations with Russia are expected to be discussed again at the NATO Summit in Warsaw on July 8-9. Poland, also neighboring the Baltics, currently hosts missiles of the NATO-operated U.S. Missile Defense System, which has early warning radars in Turkey. Both are seen as a reason of concern for Russia.

Turkey and Russia had been doing well as major trade partners, even after Russia annexed the Ukrainian soil of Crimea, which has historical and cultural ties with Turkey. Things changed dramatically after Russia’s presence amassed in Syria, neighboring Turkey’s southern borders, in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The downing of a Russian jet by Turkey over a violation of the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015 triggered a major crisis between the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 28 in Athens that relations could return to normal if Turkey took a step, meaning an apology and compensation. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said the next day that he had not seen any positive steps from Russia, such as stopping arms provided to terrorists. He was probably implying the Turkish helicopter shot down by a Russian-made rocket recently fired by a militant of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey. Moscow asked Ankara to come up with evidence for that. 

On May 31, Turkey accused Russia and Syria of bombing a hospital in Idlib. After denying that, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Turkish troops in Iraq positioned against the PKK and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posed a threat and should be withdrawn.

Again on May 31, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar said on the closing day of a week-long military exercise in the western province of İzmir that promises given within alliances should be kept, implying Turkey’s expectations from NATO and the U.S. in particular in the anti-terror fight.

Another interesting development yesterday was Erdoğan’s statement about a “pilot mistake” for the downing of the Russian jet. He did not elaborate which pilot or what mistake before taking off for an official trip to Uganda.

By the way, the exercise - Efes 2016 - was the first of its kind in the sense that it combined eight NATO and non-NATO forces together, including Turkey, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Azerbaijan. 

It seems that the crises in Ukraine and Syria are set to continue and tension between Russia and NATO is not likely to decrease. Turkey will therefore continue to be on the front line and subjected to terrorist threats.