Since the shooting down of a Russian jet aircraft by Turk ish air force on November 24, relations between Turkey and Russia have deteriorated very sharply. Russian President Putin has kept up a barrage of threatening statements against Turkey, censuring President Erdogan personally. Turkey has stood its ground, but it has also made some conciliatory statements. However, Putin has remained unmoved and, if anything, he has become more vitriolic in his statements against Turkey.
Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian fighter bomber was the first time a NATO member had brought down a Russian plane since 1952. Ankara said that the Russian aircraft was violating Turkish airspace and had been duly forewarned. It was not the first such air violation. In October, NATO issued a strong statement in support of Turkey after repeated Russian violations of airspace. But Russia categorically denies that its aircraft had ever entered Turkish air space. Though Turkey produced tape recordings of the warnings to the intruding Russian plane, Moscow rejected them as fakes. Turkey was confident that its action would get NATO backing and it actually received such support. At the same time, President Obama advised Turkey to try to defuse the situation. The Russian plane had actually crashed in Syria near the Turkish border. One pilot was killed. His body was brought to Turkey by a rebel faction in Syria and, in turn, Turkey handed it over to the Russians. The other pilot was rescued in Syrian territory and denied that he had ever entered Turkish air space or received any warnings from the Turkish side.
This war of words between Turkey and Russia is taking place against the background of the war in Syria. Turkey is supporting the rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, whereas Russia has been supporting Assad. The Turks have also been uncomfortable with the fact that the Russians have been bombing anti-Assad rebel groups including their Turkmen allies in Syria.
There is another dimension to the situation. Taking advantage of the chaos in Syria, the fanatical Daesh (ISIS) has emerged as a major force in both Syria and Iraq and is in control over large areas. Alarmed by the savagery of Daesh, practically all neighbouring states, as well as the great powers, regard it as a grave threat to international security. Russia shares the same view and, for some weeks, Russian has taken a leading part in bombing Daesh targets in Syria. The blowing up of a Russian passenger aircraft by Daesh last month over Egyptian territory in Sinai infuriated Moscow, which has stepped up its attacks on Daesh. But Turkey and the USA claim that the Russians have been targeting the moderate anti-Assad rebels more than Daesh.
Turkey is also against Daesh and both Turkey and Russia are in effect partners in the campaign against Daesh. Moreover, in the recent past, Erdogan and Putin seemed to have established a good equation personally. Nonetheless, the recent crisis has developed in the bilateral relations because both of these leaders have strong egos and domineering personalities. Neither wants to look weak or to back down. Russia under Putin also has the hegemonistic complex of a Great Power and perhaps sees Turkey as a relatively minor player who can be browbeaten into submission. Putin has been insisting that Erdogan should apologise for the shooting down of the Russian aircraft. Erdogan did say at one point that he regretted that the Russian plane was shot down but Putin has not been satisfied and wants a full apology. Erdogan has refused to do so. Turkey rightly says that the apology should come from Russia for having violated Turkish airspace repeatedly.
Raising the ante, Putin has accused Turkey of complicity with Daesh, and alleged that Turkey and Erdogan’s own family have been buying oil from Daesh, which has control over some oil wells. Putin called the shooting of the Russian aircraft as “stabbing in the back”, a “treacherous war crime” and “aiding of terrorists”. He called for a broad international front against terrorism, an end to what he called double standards and halting any backing of “terror groups”. He told the Russian parliament that he was “not planning any sabre-rattling but if anyone thinks that having committed this awful war crime, they are going to get away, they are sorely mistaken.” He warned Turkey that it will “more than once” regret its shooting down the Russian jet. Putin added sarcastically that “It appears that Allah decided to punish the ruling clique of Turkey by depriving them of wisdom and judgment”.
Turkey has vehemently denied Russia’s claims, with Erdogan saying that he would resign from his post if they could be proved. Meanwhile, Serko Cevdet, head of the energy commission of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, dismissed Russia’s claim. He said that the published Russian satellite images allegedly showing tankers carrying stolen oil to Turkey were in actual fact tankers carrying oil from the Kurdish region to Turkey’s port of Ceyhan. Cevdet said it was impossible to transport oil from the ISIS-held areas to Turkey via the Kurdish region.
The Turkish government has decided to cut Russian gas imports. There are some reports that Turkey has blockaded Russian ships from entering the Turkish Straits, hampering the Russian Black Fleet’s access to Syria. These tensions could put the Turkish Stream Project in jeopardy which will connect Russian energy to Europe via Turkey and Greece. Moscow has already stopped the travel of thousands of Russian tourists to Turkey. It has banned import of Turkish fruits and vegetables. A meeting between the Turkish and Russian Foreign Ministers has not been able to resolve the differences. Putin also turned down the request of Erdogan to meet him on the sidelines of the Paris energy summit this week. Russia has supplied the latest missiles to its aircraft in Syria to retaliate if again challenged by the Turkish air force. This raises the prospect of further escalation.
As a NATO member, Turkey can call upon its partners to help it in case of any Russian aggression. That could raise the spectre of a Third World War. It is imperative, therefore, for all sides to exercise restraint. This is also a time for international diplomacy to come into play to defuse tensions.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.