By Himani Pant*
Soon after Justice and Development Party (AKP) regained majority in the November general elections in Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly congratulated his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his victory. On his part, the Turkish President expressed his condolences over the crash of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt. This conversation was perceived as a clever diplomatic move for the continuation of political dialogue between Russia and Turkey irrespective of their differences over Syria. In barely three weeks, all such perceptions were shattered as Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft on November 24, 2015.
Turkey alleged that the jet had entered its air space and ignored several warnings following which it was shot down. These allegations were denied by Russia with Putin calling it a “huge mistake” on the Turkish side. He even described the incident as “a stab in the back”. He then went on to accuse Turkey of purchasing crude oil from the Islamic State. According to him, Turkey intentionally shot down the Russian plane in order to maintain a route for smuggling the oil. Moreover, what seems to have incensed the Russians further is the killing of one of the Russian pilots while he was trying to escape. Erdoğan responded by blaming Syrian President and Russian ally Bashar al Assad of buying the ISIS oil instead and terming those accusing him as “slanderers”. The war of words has only got stronger since then.
It is important to note here that Russia’s airstrikes in Syria had already raised tensions between the two countries. Hence, the downing of the Russian plane was not the primary reason, but a catalyst in the seemingly sudden deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations.
Russia sees several reasons why it had to get involved in the quagmire of what is essentially a civil war in Syria. First, it needs someone sympathetic to its interests to rule in Damascus. Syria is important to Russia as its naval base on Syria’s coast is a major resource in maintaining its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Second, Russia as a matter of principle opposes the concept of ‘regime change’, particularly after the chaos that followed the removal of Qaddafi in Libya. The ruling regime in Syria had been a long-standing ally of Russia and Moscow did not want to be seen as betraying it by acquiescing to a ‘regime change’. Third, the military intervention in Syria not only allowed tilting of the balance in favour of the Assad regime, but also served to declare Russia’s intention of being a “global player”. In addition, there could be the possible spinoffs of consolidating relations with Iran, and using the Syrian intervention to influence Western attitudes to the Ukraine conflict.
For Turkey, the intervention in Syria was initially just a matter of removing Assad. But as the situation deteriorated, the Islamic State (Daesh) started emerging as the principle opposition to the Syrian regime. This in turn prompted the Kurdish population to rise against the Islamic State, diminishing their opposition to the forces of Assad. Their struggle gained the support of Kurds in other countries like Turkey and Iraq. Turkey, which is preoccupied with the Kurdish question, began to see the emerging solidarity among the Kurdish populations in contiguous areas of various countries as the major threat. Turkey sees a major threat the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is an affiliate of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara regards as a terrorist organization. Ankara fears that the PKK will use this alliance to use northern Syria as a base to launch attacks into Turkey in future and might carve an autonomous Kurdish zone.
This added another dimension to Turkey’s involvement in Syria – ensuring that a buffer zone be created in Syria between the Kurdish controlled territories and the Turkish border. If this required Turkey to ease its opposition to the Islamic State, Ankara was prepared to do it. The subsequent bombing by Turkey of Kurdish forces opposing the Islamic State and cooperating with the United States were proof of this.
The sectarian divide is also a matter of concern here. Russia is backing the Bashar al Assad’s regime, whose main supporter is Shia Iran. Turkey is siding with the Sunni rebels, who are backed by a majority of the conservative Sunni Arab monarchies.
Given the above differences over Syria, it appears that Russia-Turkey relations were doomed to deteriorate despite the massive growth in economic ties before the sanctions imposed by Russia.
Background of Russia-Turkey relations
With the exception of the Kemalist-Bolshevik alliance during Turkey’s War of Liberation (1919 -1922), Russo-Turkish relations have largely been characterised by competition and conflict.
Rivalry between the two dates back to the 16th century when the first Russo-Turkish War (1568-70) was fought. Since then, the two continued to engage in a series of wars, the last being the First World War (1914-18). Turkey’s accession to NATO in 1952 meant that relations between the Soviet Union and Turkey continued to remain under strain during the Cold War period.
Even after the end of Cold War, mutual suspicion continued to prevail. Russia believed Turkey to be harbouring “Pan Turkic ideas” in the Central Asian region. Moreover, the latter was also accused of supporting the Chechen separatists during the first Chechen War. On its part, Ankara suspected Russian intentions when Moscow refused to brand the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation.
With the turn of the century, a new period of relatively warmer relations between the two followed. The 1998 Russian economic collapse proved crucial in bringing Moscow and Ankara economically closer. As Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia (2000) and the AKP gained majority (2002) in Turkey, a phase of unprecedented economic cooperation began which continued irrespective of the political friction. As a result, Turkey is presently one of Russia’s largest trading partners with bilateral trade amounting to about $30 billion.
The current crisis
In the aftermath of the downing of Su-24, Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey. This includes restrictions on imports of Turkish food (mainly imports of agricultural products, vegetables, and fruits) and suspension of visa-free travel. The sanctions also target charter air travel between the two countries and introduce close monitoring of the activities of Turkish businesses on Russian territory.
Given the recent growth in Russian-Turkish economic ties, sanctions are bound to be mutually disadvantageous. The energy sector forms the basis of Russo-Turkish relations (Turkey sources almost 60% of its imported gas from Russia) and any long-term discord between the two would prove to be counterproductive. In this respect, the suspension of negotiations on the Turkish Stream pipeline for an indefinite period is not a good sign.
Also adversely affected is the tourism industry. About 4.4 million Russians visited Turkey in 2014. Similarly, about 80% of Turkey’s wheat imports come from Russia. According to a report in International Business Times, Turkey is likely to lose $3.1 billion worth of trade in 2016 following economic sanctions.
Despite their differences, the likelihood of a military confrontation between Russia and Turkey remains bleak. This is primarily because Turkey is a member of the NATO and Russia would not launch any action that could be perceived as one that requires NATO to respond as per treaty obligations.
But, on the bilateral level, reconciliation seems distant considering both sides have been maintaining rather accusatory mode. The only easing of tensions for the moment seems to be because of the concerted efforts by the international coalition against the ISIS, which neither Moscow nor Ankara can object to as well as the efforts to resume the international dialogue on Syria. Thus, the common threat of ISIS and the desire of all parties to find an acceptable political solution to the Syrian crisis could perhaps be instrumental in initially easing tensions between Russia and Turkey and may in the end lead to a resumption of more intensive ties.
*Himani Pant has done M Phil from the Centre for European Studies at the School of International Studies in JNU. Her dissertation is titled “Asylum Debate in Germany during the 1990s”. She has done her Masters from the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU. She has presented papers titled “Debating Freedom of Expression in a Multicultural Context” and “Accepted or Denied? The Dilemma of Asylum Seekers in Europe” in national seminars. Her fields of interests include peace and conflict resolution, identity and security issues.