Hopes Fade For End To Russia-Turkey Crisis

04 February 2016

By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

The downing of the Russian Su-24 fighter jet by Turkish F-16s for entering Turkish airspace without permission has led to a dangerous escalation between the two countries, and this badly affects their hitherto strong economic and commercial relations. From the Turkish point of view, the shooting down of the plane was imperative as it had violated the country's airspace in spite of repeated warnings. Ankara claimed that Russian warplanes had earlier violated Turkish airspace several times and that Russia had apologized for it.

As for Russia, it considers the downing of the plane to be a hostile act. Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the act saying: ''This was a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists.'' While strongly rebuffing Turkish justifications for the act, Putin announced a series of punitive measures in retaliation for the shooting down of the Russian jet. The Russian pilot who survived the crash said that the plane had not violated Turkish airspace and that he had not received any warning before being shot down.

In a move to calm the tense situation and safeguard the common interests of both countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his desire to meet with Putin face to face on the sidelines of the climate summit in Paris. But Putin refused to meet with his Turkish counterpart and instead insisted on an official apology from Turkey. While repeatedly emphasizing that the Russian jet had not strayed into Turkish airspace, Putin warned of painful sanctions against Turkey. Subsequently, Moscow imposed a package of sweeping sanctions against Ankara.

It is unfortunate that the Russian authorities, especially President Putin, are paying no heed to the language of reconciliation from Turkey in its attempt to ease the tense relations between the two countries. Erdogan reiterated that Turkey has never been in favor of triggering tensions and clashes, but Putin was emphatic when he vowed that Russia would never forget those who shot down its two pilots. ''We don't know why they did this and God alone knows about it. However, they will regret what they have done,'' he said while accusing the Turkish leadership of abetting terror.

Ankara vehemently reacted to Putin's allegation that Turkey is buying oil from Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS). Erdogan has challenged Putin to prove his allegations. ''If such a thing is proven, the nobility of our nation would require that I no longer stay in office,'' he said and added: ''I am asking Mr. Putin, would you remain in office?'' Erdogan also said that Russia's presence in Syria is illegal; asking what is Russia doing in that country?

In another development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled his visit to Turkey, which was scheduled before the downing of the Russian jet. However, Lavrov met his Turkish counterpart in Belgrade on the sidelines of the conference of the European Security and Cooperation Organization, and this created some optimism that it would be the beginning of a breakthrough in the crisis which has erupted between the two countries.

However, there is still no sign of a lessening of Russia's anger over the Turkish act. This was evident in Russia's declaration that it had stopped importing goods from Turkey and a series of other punitive measures.
Moreover, Russia sees Egypt as a better alternative to Turkey as a trading partner. It is interesting to note that Cairo has announced its readiness to supply Russia with fruit and vegetables. Cairo also sees it as an opportunity to punish its archrival Erdogan. Russia also suspended tourism to Turkey. This is a setback to Turkey as it relies heavily on tourism income, especially from Russian tourists.

A few days ago, Moscow suspended the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, which was meant to take Russian gas across the Black Sea to Europe via Turkey. The giant project was highly significant for both countries and its suspension will affect the interests of the two states considerably. The loss will be much greater for Russia considering the large amount of money it has spent on this strategic project. According to observers, Russia's suspension of the project was a tactical and preemptive move so as not to give Turkey the opportunity to suspend the project itself in retaliation for Moscow's punitive measures.

Here, the crucial question is whether Russia will consider the punitive measures that it has already taken against Turkey in the economic, commercial and tourism sectors to be sufficient or if it will resort to military action as well. Even though Putin has hinted that Russia will not take military action to punish Turkey, the possibility of such an eventuality cannot be entirely ruled.

In a retaliatory act, Moscow might resort to shooting down one or more Turkish warplanes on the pretext that they have violated Syrian airspace if Turkey fails to apologize as Putin demands. In such an event, the reaction of Turkey might have disastrous consequences.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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