How would you comment on the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish air forces?
Until relatively recently, even though Turkey and Russia disagreed over certain issues, they had been able to compartmentalize their relationship. They cooperated closely in some areas – particularly the economy – and agreed to disagree on others. This had already begun to change after Russia became more actively involved in the Syrian Civil War and has been destroyed completely by the downing of the Russian SU-24 on 24 November.
Despite what Moscow has said, there seems to be a general agreement that the Russian SU-24 did briefly enter Turkish air space. But, even according to the Turkish account, it was only inside for 17 seconds and was clearly heading out at the time the decision was taken to shoot it down. This makes it very difficult to argue that, even if Turkey was legally entitled to down the plane, it was morally and politically justified in doing so.
Turkey’s case has not been improved by its claims that there were only moderate Turkmen in the area inside Syria where the SU-24 was conducting operations. Al Qaeda affiliates were posting videos on the internet from the area in the days before the SU-24 was downed calling for sympathizers to rally to help them against attacks by Russia and the Assad regime. This does not, of course, mean that there were no moderate Turkmen in the area but it does demonstrate that the official Turkish version of the situation on the ground is, at best, incomplete – and apparently deliberately so as Turkish intelligence will know very well who else was in the area.
Regardless of whether or not one approves of Russian actions in Syria, the most important question is whether downing the Russian SU-24 makes it easier or more difficult to bring the Syrian Civil War – and all the appalling human suffering it has caused – to an end. I don’t think that there is any question that it has made it more difficult. In fact, it is possible to draw up a very long list of the negative consequences of the incident. I can’t think of any positives.
How serious can this incident affect the Russian-Turkish relations?
Even though tensions had been growing for several weeks, I think the downing of the SU-24 is a game changer, both in terms of Russian-Turkish ties and the personal relationship between President Erdogan and President Putin – which had previously been relatively good. When Putin said that Russia had been stabbed in the back I have little doubt that it was not just because the SU-24 was shot from behind as it was moving away from Turkish air space but because he also felt personally betrayed by Erdogan. And none of the statements we have seen from Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu maintaining that they want to be friends with Moscow is going to change that.
I have been surprised by the some of the expressions of relief after Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Moscow had no intention of going to war against Turkey. I don’t think that a hot war between Russia and Turkey was ever a possibility. The only question is how severe the cold war between Russia and Turkey is likely to be. And there will now be one – regardless of whether or not there appears to be a superficial easing of tensions. And it is difficult to see how relations can be fully repaired while Erdogan and the AKP remain in power. The Russians will not forget the downing of the SU-24.
Of course, in terms of the two countries’ relative abilities to conduct a cold war, Russia is in a far the stronger position. For example, Russia would suffer from a downturn in economic ties but Turkey is much more vulnerable. There are also many other things that Russia could do, some public and some not so public. But it is clear that Russia will react and that Turkey will suffer much more than Russia.
What can be consequences for Russian engagement in military operation in Syria?
The downing of the SU-24 is not going to result in Russia scaling back its military operations inside Syria. In fact, it is more likely to increase them as a result. We may also see Moscow’s relations with the Kurdish PYD becoming closer.
In terms of the Turkmen, Ankara is not in a position either to protect them or to strengthen them militarily. The downing of the SU-24 will make Moscow even more determined to crush the rebel groups active in the area, including both the al Qaeda affiliates and the Turkmen groups. From this perspective, rather than helping the people in the area where the SU-24 was shot down, Turkey’s actions are going to ensure that they are attacked even more.
How may the crisis between Ankara and Moscow affect the neighboring the South Caucasus region, where influence and (sometime collaboration) of Russia and Turkey had been quite strong until this incident?
The downing of the SU-24 will have a very strong impact on Russian-Turkish cooperation in the Caucasus. The Syrian Civil War has already led to a deepening of ties between Russia and Tehran. The downing of the SU-24 will further strengthen this relationship.
For the moment, it is difficult to see how Russia and Turkey can cooperate on new energy projects, such as the proposed Turkish Stream. I would imagine that Moscow will also apply pressure – and offer incentives – for energy-rich countries in the region to cooperate with Russia rather than Turkey.
At the grassroots level there is, of course, a strong bond between Azerbaijan and Turkey. This will survive. But Turkey’s downing of the Russian SU-24 has made things more difficult for all of Ankara’s allies and this includes Baku.