There is an urgent need to convene the NATO-Russia Council: Former Turkish envoy

There is an urgent need to convene the NATO-Russia Council: Former Turkish envoy

Özdem Sanberk
There is an urgent need to convene the NATO-Russia Council: Former Turkish envoy A serious crisis erupted between Turkey and Russia following the downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter by a Turkish F16 warplane over Turkish airspace along the Turkish-Syrian border on Nov. 24.

My personal belief is that this crisis is utterly unnecessary but that it could have far-reaching effects and cause Turkey to diversify its economy and trade links away from Russia.

In addition, this crisis is taking place in the wider unfavorable and distrustful  military and political context and a general deterioration in the relations between Russia and West, resulting from, inter alia, the close military encounters in the skies and the Baltics and a cycle of military exercises being conducted in Europe for some time now. 

A glance at the course of Turkish-Russian relations over the last decade shows that firm progress was being made in building up mutual trust.

During that period, we did achieve some very important things in our mutual relations. The chief of these perhaps was the Turkey-Russia High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) created in 2010 to institutionalize relations between our two countries. The aim in doing so was to bring the two sides together once a year in a body, the HLCC, which amounted to a joint council of ministers. This was a crucial outcome of a new pattern of relations after the Cold War which has been built upon social, political and economic pillars over the last two decades. Both countries managed to develop their relations in different spheres such as;

1.  An agreement was signed to lift visa restrictions between the two countries.

2.  A contract was signed for a Russian company to build the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Station.

3. The annual volume of bilateral trade between our two countries rose above $30 billion.

4. Four million Russian tourists visited Turkey each year.

5. Turkish investors made large investments in Russia.

6. Student exchanges and other cultural activities were set up.

7. The Turkish and Russian peoples grew closer to one another through mixed marriages and other contacts.

Despite all these favorable developments, the process of building up confidence was never quite complete but nevertheless great effort was expended on the results that were achieved.

While the dialogue process continued, different aspects of bilateral relations - trade, culture, tourism, foreign policy and security - were all kept in separate compartments and this served to ensure that that disagreements should not be allowed to overshadow our cooperation. However despite all these positive developments, Ankara and Moscow never became real problem-solving partners who could resolve their problems fully.

In the wake of recent developments, a debate has now gotten under way about whether Turkish-Russian relations might have reached their natural limits.

The utterly different views that each of our countries took of events like the Arab Spring, Ukraine and Syria have undoubtedly helped prompt this debate.

I believe that from now on, despite everything, our Russian friends find themselves asking each other at every stage, “Was this worth it?” 

I think it should be obvious that it is hugely disproportionate to wreck good working relations and vital energy cooperation between our two countries, just to be able to allow jets to infringe airspace repeatedly.

Basically Russia seems to be saying that despite repeated warnings it has the right to be careless or disrespectful of Turkey’s borders in an active war zone. 

We know that there were repeated infringements, Russia was gently warned many times including personally by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to President Vladimir Putin and yet it still went ahead with what seems to have been an act of defiance - which also conveyed a clear and unpleasant political message to Turkey and its people. 

You might compare this situation to an argument between friendly neighbors where one side crashes a car after being warned several times by the other that he is driving dangerously. Then an argument starts about who is to blame and tempers get lost. And all sides suffer from the dispute. 

If you don’t want the dispute to continue, then the wise thing is to do nothing and wait for tempers to subside.

But the Russians didn’t opt for the easing of tensions; on the contrary, they chose to ramp up tension much further. 

The pictures of the soldier displaying a rocket launcher on a Russian ship in the Bosphorus Strait, the summoning at night of the military attaché to protest about the actions of a fishing vessel in the Aegean Sea and then publicizing it to the whole world, in a sort of behavior which is reminiscent of Germany on the eve of World War II, are further proof, if any is needed, of Russia’s aggressive attitude and the fact that it seems to have chosen to pick a quarrel with Turkey.  

The long detentions and subsequent deportations of Turkish businessmen as well as arbitrary raids on dormitories where Turkish students were receiving education in Russia imply that ordinary citizens are being deliberately affected by the rupture in Turkish-Russian bilateral relations. 

This treatment is unworthy of a great nation and a great people.

I know that tempers are very high in Russia and I regret this. But the risks were evident at the outset. 

What is their mind-set towards Turkey that they expect us to do something that they themselves would never tolerate in a neighbor?

And there is also the issue of the sanctions Russia is taking to hurt Turkey. Of course these sanctions will hurt everybody but perhaps especially our Russian friends themselves and they have long-term consequences for Russia in other international fields. 

Everyone now sees that Russia does not stick to agreements, is prepared to violate international commercial law and that it cannot be relied on to act prudently.

If Russia continues along this path it will not just wreck its relations with Turkey, it will create dangerous turbulence and instability in the international system.

That could take many years to repair.

And there will be the constant risk of escalation. 

It is obvious that the downing of a military aircraft that refused to identify itself despite repeatedly violating Turkish airspace is a serious issue. 

This is serious but hardly unprecedented. Sometimes even unarmed civilian planes have been brought down. We recall for example the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 777 over Ukraine last year and Korean Airlines planes in 1978 and 1983. These were unarmed civilian passenger planes. But their tragic and unnecessary loss did not lead to a disproportionate reaction internationally. 

One cannot say more than that. 

We all know that Turkey regrets this whole situation but it did not provoke it. 

I am sure we will continue to react with caution and calm but also with firmness. 

There is no popular hostility in Turkey towards Russia or Russians whatsoever. Much of the Turkish people value Russians as friends, neighbors and trading partners. 

But when it comes to protecting our security and sovereignty, particularly in an active war zone, there have to be red lines, we cannot compromise on them.

I know that much of the Turkish people would like to set this regrettable incident behind us if we can. The cost is high for everybody but I repeat sincerely and as a friend that I think it will be higher for Russia than it will be for Turkey. 

I take no joy in that, it is just a fact.

That may depend on Syria and a settlement there. But it is in everyone’s interests to encourage the end of the war as speedily as possible.

But I think that both Russia and the West are dealing with serious challenges in Syria and they have to recognize at some point that there isn’t a military solution for the Syrian crisis and the way to rescue Syria has to be via a solution at the political level.

Meanwhile, I also believe that it is urgently necessary to convene the NATO-Russia Council. This would make it possible for the two sides to start discussions on producing a Memorandum of Understanding between NATO and the Russian Federation on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters. If such a document already existed, we might have been spared recent problems. This is no longer a suggestion; this is a necessity now. 

At present it is certainly difficult to expect that Russian-Turkish relations will return to their former state.

Today, terrible wars drag on in the Middle East and there are uncertainties and tensions in Europe. The signs of distrust in relations between the Western world and Russia are growing.  

At such a time two countries who belong to the same region and who both attach enormous importance to security and stability should be able to demonstrate that they have the capacity to work together for their common interests, regionally and globally.

In the meantime, once again, all the parties involved are going to pay a high price for this sudden and unnecessary rift between us.

What should we make of it all? 

As someone who has worked in international diplomacy and foreign policy for many years, I have to say I am disappointed and a little worried also to see the work of many years being uprooted and destroyed. 

I think this crisis is not only about the shooting down of a fighter plane. There are deeper roots and it is not clear yet exactly what those are. 

It is certainly not any shortage of the desire for partnership, good neighborly relations and cooperation on the Turkish side. 

I trust that Russia will not do anything which would risk a further deterioration in our relations but some of its actions recently have been alarming, reminiscent of bad old days which we thought were over forever. 

At present it looks hard to see how a solid regional partnership can be re-established. 

But then it is Russia which has chosen to go down this road, and change can only come when it reconsiders its choice.

*This article was the opening statement by Özdem Sanberk delivered at a panel called “Implications of the Turkey-Russia Crisis: A Multidimensional Debate” organized by USAK on Dec. 17 in Ankara. Sanberk is a retired ambassador and former undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.