The Russian stress test

The Russian stress test

Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly not interested in de-escalating tensions with Turkey yet. When he will is not clear. He is fuming and ramping up feelings of enmity toward all things Turkish among ordinary Russians. The wisdom of this is questionable.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts at calming him are also failing. Putin did not want to use the opportunity presented by the Paris Climate Summit to talk to Erdoğan and establish a framework for overcoming this unprecedented crisis in ties. 

Putin apparently sees this as being more than just a problem with Turkey. Many commentators in the pro-government media in Russia are suggesting that Ankara would never have the courage to down a Russian jet if it did not have the go-ahead from NATO. 

The deployment of S400 anti-aircraft missiles and the general beefing up Russia’s military presence in the eastern Mediterranean points to this also. Moscow is clearly saying, “I will not let you have Syria.” Ankara is obviously concerned over these developments. It has no instruments available to it to calm Putin’s anger, and therefore has increased its reliance on Western support. 

There are those, however, who believe that this crisis could turn to Turkey’s advantage in the end. Take, for example, the way Ankara turned to the West for support despite the innate anti-Western sentiments of Erdoğan – which is something he actually shares with Putin – and the deep antipathy for NATO among grassroots Islamist supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

This crisis has provided a fresh lesson in Realpolitik for them, demonstrating how few options Ankara really has in such situations, given Turkey’s geostrategic place on the map, other than relying on its links with the West. The stress Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been laying on “the new chapter” opened in ties with Europe following the EU-Turkey Summit last weekend can also be seen in this context. 

That summit was clearly the product of Europe’s need for Turkey’s support in facing the refugee crisis. This, however, does not belie the big picture, which clearly shows today who ultimately needs whose support when the chips are really down. 

Many argue that it is impossible for Erdoğan and his supporters to adopt European values because of their innate Islamism. Be that as it may, though, some positive fallout in this respect might come about, if only out of sheer necessity, because of Turkey’s obvious need to lean on the West again.

There is also the question of Russian economic sanctions and the damage this will do to the Turkish economy, which is already facing difficulties even if it has not yet reached the point of crisis. There will obviously be a price to pay by Turkey as a result of these sanctions.

There is, however, a school of thought which says that Russia is ultimately providing a stress-test for the Turkish economy. In other words, if Turkey can withstand the cost of the restrictions Russia has imposed on trade and economic relations, and find alternatives for itself, which will clearly require time and effort, it could come out on top, having proved the resilience of its economy.

This is where the importance of re-energizing Turkey’s ties with Europe, which ultimately is its biggest economic partner, also comes in. Economic sanctions are painful but they do not kill, and the first country that should know this is Russia which has had to deal with such sanctions, most recently due to its interference in Ukraine. These sanctions will also hurt Russia, too, of course.

Turkey may have been legally correct in downing the Russian jet, but it is obvious that this was not a clever political move. What’s done is done, though. Putin’s anger, nevertheless, appears unquenchable. Turkey has no other option now but to tread cautiously and work with its Western allies and regional friends, while using the Russian stress test in order to try and turn this crisis to its advantage.