Russia and Turkey Tension Has to be Defused. By Manish Rai
08 Dec 2015
Recently Turkey shooting down of Russian SU-24 Bomber over Syria has brought Russian-Turkish relations to its lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. This incident acted as a catalyst but for quite sometimes Russia-Turkey relations were strained. Challenges in the Turkish-Russian relations commenced with Turkey's support to Syrian opposition increasingly continued with Turkey's decision to host the NATO missile defence system Turkey's stance towards Crimean Tatars following Russia's annexation of Crimea, and finally worsened by Russia's direct military involvement in Syria that target all opposition groups and its support to Kurds, particularly the PYD that has a link to the PKK which is banned in Turkey. In locking horns over Syria, Russia and Turkey are playing out the latest chapter in a rivalry that has spanned for centuries. Russia and Turkey emerged as independent powers almost simultaneously in 1380 and 1389. A direct rivalry with the Ottoman Empire began in the 17th century when Russia joined the holy league alliance with Poland and the Habsburg Empire, taking significant territory from the Ottomans although importantly not Crimea.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the already significant economic links continued to strengthen, particularly in the new fields of tourism and consumer goods exports from Turkey. Both of the countries became major trading partner for each other. Turkey accounts for around a quarter of Russia's total food imports and Turkey is Russia's second most important trading partner after Germany. Russia's largest customer are Turks when it comes to energy. Turkey imports 55 percent of its natural gas from Russia and 30 percent of its oil. Moscow after downing of its fighter jet has banned the import of some Turkish goods, imposed restrictions on travel, and plans to stop some Turkish companies doing business in Russia. The Turkish economy will take a direct hit because of worsening economic ties with Russia. Analysts estimate Moscow's sanctions could cut 0.5% off annual growth, which was already slowing sharply. The Turkish lira has lost nearly 20% of its value against the dollar this year. On the other side Russia will also feel pain. Inflation in Russia has soared this year, piling on the pain for an economy deep in recession.
Unfortunately these two trading partner have conflicting interests in Syria. An Ankara objective is to protect the rebel groups it is supporting in Syria particularly the Turkmen but also Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups fighting Assad. Shooting down the Russian warplane can be interpreted as a way to impose a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. That protects Turkey’s protégés and forces other powers to recognize Turkey’s special status in the region. On the other side Russia’s approach to the Syrian civil war is in no small part based on Moscow’s belief that secular authoritarian rulers are the only effective bulwark against radical Islam in the Middle East. The Kremlin sees radical Islam as a threat to its domestic security and the international order. It supports Assad to stress the illegitimacy of regime change through popular revolt or external pressure. In Moscow’s view, such movements potentially endanger its own legitimacy and create chaos in international relations as witnessed in Iraq, Libya and, from its point of view, Ukraine. Moreover the Middle East is the only area where Russia can try to prove that it is not just a regional post-Soviet power with a revisionist agenda, but a global actor able to make a difference in managing crucial conflicts.
But this tension between Russia and Turkey a NATO member cannot be allowed to escalate into a larger confrontation. US and NATO other member countries should do what they can to calm tensions between the two important nations. An independent investigation of the shooting perhaps by the United Nations might help to defuse a diplomatic tussle over whether the Russian plane was in fact in Turkish airspace, a claim that Russia denies. Much depends on Russia’s reaction in the coming days and weeks. If Russia views the downing of its jets as a sign that helping Assad win this war could prove far too costly, then Russia might be willing to get on board with a managed transition away from Assad’s leadership, which the United States and other allies have advocated. But there’s also a chance that the downing of the Russian jet and a subsequent reported attack on a Russian helicopter by rebels could strengthen Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to vanquish the rebels in Syria and the regional powers who back them. The world can’t afford World War III. United Nation and West must do all they can to keep the international community including Russia and Turkey focused on the most important matter at hand an agreement that brings the bloodshed in Syria to an end and wipe out the extremist elements from there.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)