Can Russia get a Turkish apology through sanctions?
At Ankara’s Esenboğa Airport on Nov. 30, Turkish military officers, alongside military attaches of the Russian Embassy in Ankara, saluted the Russian flag-covered coffin of Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov before loading it onto a Turkish military cargo plane bound for Moscow. Peshkov was the pilot of the Su-24 war plane shot down - according to official statements from Ankara - by a Turkish F-16 on Nov. 24 over violations of Turkish airspace on the Syrian border after ignoring repeated warnings. Others in the plane survived and are already back in Russia.
The incident has triggered major tension between the Turkish and Russian leaderships.
Shortly after the cargo plane took off from Ankara, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan joined other world leaders in Paris for the climate summit, the first major international gathering in the French capital since the terrorist attacks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that claimed 129 lives on Nov. 13. Erdoğan had announced last week that he wanted to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Paris to discuss the downing of the plane - the first shooting down of a Russian plane by a NATO country since the Korean War in 1952. In reply, Putin said he first wanted Turkey to apologize for the incident. Erdoğan then said he was sorry about the loss of the pilot but if anyone should apologize, it should be Russia for repeatedly violating the Turkish border despite warnings via diplomatic and military channels. Putin’s response to that was to sign a decree imposing a series of economic sanctions on Turkey on Nov. 28.
The sanctions include banning Russian companies from employing Turkish citizens, (there are currently around 90,000 Turkish people working in Russia, mostly on construction projects); banning Russian tourism companies from conducting tours to Turkey, (more than 4 million Russians visited Turkey last year, 3 million of them visiting the Mediterranean resort province of Antalya); and imposing trade restrictions, (despite EU sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, Turkey still exports food to Russia, especially fresh fruits and vegetables grown in Antalya). A group of deputies from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said on Nov. 30 that the estimated cost of the sanctions on the Antalya province alone could be as high as $6.5 billion next year, if fully implemented.
It was already clear from an earlier statement from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the incident would not trigger a war. However, it has dealt a blow to Russia’s unchallengeable reputation and Moscow was always unlikely to let it go unanswered. The economic story is only part of it.
While Erdoğan was in Paris on the morning of Nov. 30, a statement from the Kremlin said no meeting was scheduled between the two leaders. Perhaps Putin was still waiting for that apology. The answer came from Brussels by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. During a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg - who “fully backed” Turkey in the crisis (following a statement from the U.S. saying that its intelligence on the incident supports Ankara’s story, not Moscow’s) - Davutoğlu said Turkey would not apologize for using its right to defend its borders.
Of course, the recent interim agreement reached with the EU suggesting a reactivation of relations between Ankara and Brussels, in return for more cooperation over Syrian refugees, gives an additional upper hand to Turkey in its relations with Russia.
Davutoğlu’s words alongside Stoltenberg were followed by a statement from the Turkish presidency saying that Ankara has applied for a meeting with Putin and is still waiting for a reply.
It seems that Russia, already struggling under sanctions over the Ukraine situation and with a damaged reputation in Syria, would chose not to further confront a “fully” NATO-backed Turkey. Meanwhile, sanctions alone will not force Turkey to apologize. Still, let’s not forget that Russian diplomacy seems to have left the door open for a possible honorable exit from the crisis: The sanctions signed by Putin are not planned to be put into effect until Jan. 1, 2016, which gives diplomacy a month to try to ease tension.