Poking the 'Russian Bear' comes at a cost

Poking the 'Russian Bear' comes at a cost

Legally speaking, Turkey was not in the wrong when it downed the Russian SU-24 that violated its airspace. Ample advance warning has been given and the “rules of engagement” were known to Moscow (and everyone else, for that matter). 

Turkey’s NATO allies are also underlining the fact that Ankara is not at fault here. So legally speaking, “textbook rules” were followed. It was, however, clear in advance that an incident like this involving Russia would have political consequences both for Turkish-Russian ties and in terms of the situation in Syria.

This is also where the solidarity expressed by Turkey’s NATO allies becomes somewhat shaky. No one is saying they will stand with Turkey and act against Russia if this incident flares up militarily. Everyone is calling on both sides to de-escalate the crisis. The bottom line is that Turkey’s allies see this as a matter between Turkey and Russia, and not necessarily between NATO and Russia.

One may ask why it should be so, given that Turkey’s eastern borders are ultimately NATO borders, and any violation there should, technically speaking, be a violation for NATO. There is no point in being naïve though. 

There is no doubt that the happiest person because of this unprecedented crisis between Turkey and Russia is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He must have been delighted at the extremely angry remarks by President Putin aimed at Turkey, and his dire warning that the downing of their jet will have serious consequences for Turkish-Russian ties.

It is also clear that Russia will not be deterred by this affair in either its support for Assad or its operations north of Latakia where it is hitting groups supported by Turkey, including Turkmens. Russia will also take added precautions to bolster its air defense systems in the region, and will back its operations there with support from its military assets in the eastern Mediterranean. 

As long as it does not violate Turkish airspace again, there is little, if anything, Turkey can do to ensure that Russia does not bomb the Turkmens with added intensity and ferocity. Turkey can send surface air missiles to the Turkmens, of course, but it is doubtful its NATO allies will allow this, given the risk of these weapons falling into the wrong hands.

The simple fact is that no one in the West is clear about whom these Turkmens really are, and whether they are radical Sunni jihadists or “moderate Islamists.” Turkey has to help clarify this point if it wants sympathy in the West for the Turkmens. 

The fate of the Russian pilots in the downed jet will also play a key role here. If it is true that one of the pilots was killed while parachuting down by Turkmen fighters, as Moscow claims, there will be a clamoring for merciless revenge by the Russian public against this group. 

It was not for nothing that we had reports of members of Turkey’s secret service, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), scurrying to the region desperately trying to find the pilots after the SU-24 was downed. It is questionable, therefore, whether this move by Turkey, legal as it may be, will have bolstered the position of the Turkmens. The immediate impression one gets is that it will make it worse.

Then there is the economic dimension, which is being widely covered by the media and need not be repeated here. It is not clear whether Moscow will use the economic card against Turkey, which has a great dependence on Russian natural gas, and the Russian market, not to mention the millions of Russian tourists that stream into Turkey every year.

The economic card cuts both ways of course. Russia needs to sell its gas to earn money. But Russian preparedness to sacrifice, once nationalist sentiments are aroused in that country, is a historic fact. 

Looking at all of this, it is clear why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is saying that Turkey has no interests in escalating the crisis with Russia. He has undoubtedly been made aware that poking the “Russian Bear” comes at a cost.