On 24th November 2015, a Russian Su-24 plane came down near the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey scrambled two F-16 fighter jets after a plane entered, as Turkey asserted, Turkish airspace, warning it to leave 10 times in five minutes before shooting it down. Russia disputed this assertion and said the jet never left Syrian airspace. The shooting down of the jet ignited tensions between the two countries as Russian President Vladimir Putin called it “a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists,” while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted, “Our pilots and our armed forces, simply fulfilled their duties.” This development simply demonstrates that a regional situation can reach far beyond its geographical location.
Since the downing of a Russian jet, the Turkish government has made a series of statements to convey the message that Turkey merely followed the rules of military engagement to protect its sovereignty rights. We have nothing against Russia, Turkey’s leaders have repeatedly said. The Russians, in turn, have been anything but diplomatic: At this time, the entire Russian government, from President Vladimir Putin to university chancellors, are exploiting the Russian jet crisis to reach diplomatic goals. In recent weeks, Moscow not only introduced economic sanctions against Turkey but also arbitrarily detained Turkish students and business people. In light of the most recent developments, there are serious questions about the future of Turkish-Russian relations.
Obviously, nothing will ever be the same. One of the main reasons for the worsening relations is that the Turkish government doesn’t believe that the Kremlin is acting in good faith. A number of government officials indicated that Moscow came up with a complete road map prior to interfering in the Syrian civil war. Part of the game plan, they argue, has been to make Turkey uncomfortable. Moving forward, the Russians want to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and, at the very least, keep the Latakia area under control. Keeping in mind that Washington has İncirlik and Britain controls a military base in Cyprus, the Russians clearly don’t want to lose the Tartus Naval Base.
Ultimately, Russia had two short-term goals: (1) To wipe out the Turkmen community in north-western Syria in an effort to cut the supply routes to the moderate rebels. Ahead of the Russian jet crisis, Moscow was reluctant to antagonize Ankara by directly targeting the rebels. The Russians, likewise, were worried that deploying the S-400 air defence system would trigger a strong response from Nato. By violating Turkish airspace and losing a military aircraft, Moscow has created a perfect opportunity to move forward.
At the same time, the Russians have been doing everything in their power to help the Assad regime reclaim parts of Syria ahead of the Vienna process. Mr Putin’s threats against Turkey were materialized when he announced a package of economic sanctions against Turkey. Among the measures announced were restrictions on imports of some Turkish goods, a ban on charter flights between the two countries and an end to Russian tour operators selling trips to Turkey. Turkish companies operating in Russia and Turkish staff employed by Russian companies will also face restrictions.
The situation, however, might prove more complex than what the Russian government imagines. Even if things get better, Turkish-Russian relations will never fully recover. Although the two countries were able to patch things up after the Georgian War, Ankara is bound to see Russia as a country which knowingly hurts its interests in Syria. Nowadays, there are strong signs that Turkey is willing to see its relations with Russia from a NATO-oriented perspective.
But it seems that it has not worked so far. NATO’s support for Turkey has been, at most, lukewarm, emphasising more on the de-escalation of the crisis. At the same time, if Ankara was expecting Moscow to rethink its support for the Assad regime, it appears to have only strengthened its resolve to stand by the regime and increase its bombing of border areas in Syria.
If Ankara stops viewing Moscow as a partner, the Russians will have lost a valuable neighbour which was willing to offer them a way to break the Western-imposed isolation following the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and more than three million Russian tourists visited Turkey last year. President Erdoğan, will never want to harm relations with such an important trading partner. But, if the rapprochement does not happen soon, the situation will further escalate and Turkey will be compelled to look for other options. And, for this, all Turkey needs to do is to diversify its energy supply — an issue that the Turkish government works hard to address without further delay. The most recent agreements with Azerbaijan to complete TANAP by 2018 and a new gas deal with Qatar indicate that Turkey wants to reduce Russia’s share in its energy market. The rest, as a senior official said, is Russia’s problem.