The Russo-Turkish crisis and the risk of war

Russian warplane shot down by Turkey near Turkish-Syrian border for violating Turkish airspace have spoiled relations between these two powers. Reciprocal accusations and Putin’s one-sided sanctions against Turkey have put an end to decades of good relations and strategic cooperation. Over $ 30 billion annual trade volume and goals to raise it to $ 100 billion by 2023 are now dreams that far from reality. Despite the fact that both sides were well aware of consequences of ruined relations, none of them refrained from escalating tension. This article reviews hidden reasons that have aggravated relations and caused to jet incident.

The Russo-Turkish crisis and the risk of war -

Russian military involvement in Syria and u-turn policy against Turkey explained as attempts to get rid of Western sanctions. Official Moscow is not intended to step back in its policy towards Ukraine and any attempt to integrate former Soviet republics into Euro-Atlantic structure accepted as direct threat to national interests of Russia. National Security Strategy signed by President Putin for 2016 pointed out NATO expansion among the top ten risks. Nevertheless, Moscow is seeking to mitigate sanctions imposed by the US and EU by intervening to war in Syria. Western sanctions along with falling prices of crude oil have had devastated impact on Russian economy and in order to rescue ailing economy Kremlin desperately needs to resume economic relations with the West.

Fight against terrorism could give a ground to regain its international prestige for Russia and render harmless its major rival in the region. Expansion of Turkish soft power in former Soviet countries and also inside the Russia caused irritation in Moscow. Turkey’s historical, linguistic and cultural ties with Caucasus, Central Asia and different federal subjects of Russian Federation contributed to consolidate its positions in these regions. By applying its traditional carrot and stick policy Russia failed to keep former Soviet countries in its sphere of influence. Russian soft power has lost the geopolitical ground to Turkey with its weak economy and aggressive posturing. Scramble for power with Turkey over former Soviet countries pushed Russia for surprise attacks against the national interests of Turkey in the Middle East.

Russian involvement in Syria described as theory of traditional balancing behavior that tries to prevent stronger powers to dominate. Before military intervention Moscow was an official key backer of Assad regime in UN Security Council and was trying to forestall sanctions authorizing humanitarian intervention to Syria. Today Russian war on terror in Syria has secured its dominance in Syria by aligning with weaker side. Putin’s alignment with Assad and his weak allies – Iran and Hezbollah – will allow Russia to gain more fruits and influence in the post-war period.

Following the jet incident, Russia has been constantly accusing Erdogan on bandwagoning (alignment with the source of threat) with ISIS and other terroristic organizations.  On its turn official Ankara has refused all accusations on backing ISIS or other terroristic organizations and emphasizes that Turkish Government has been collaborating only with moderate opposition and it has been in alignment with other major powers against Syrian regime not because to share the spoils of the war but the weaker power, Syrian regime, has caused to chaos and that civil war has spiraled out of control. Since the beginning of the crisis Turkey has been endeavoring to topple Bashar Al-Assad and has been calling US and other Western allies to have boots on the ground. Confronting with strong public opposition against the idea of sending ground combat forces President Obama didn’t support Turkish proposal and limited its support with launching air-strikes against ISIS. Turkey seemed reluctant to join the American led coalition against ISIS fearing to strengthen Kurdish militants in the region. But series of ISIS’s suspected attacks in Turkey pushed AKP government to join anti-ISIS coalition.

Russia’s air operations in Syria have ruined the plans of coalition forces to overthrow the Syrian regime and weakened the positions of moderate opposition considerably. Unlike from other states Turkey cannot remain indifferent to Syrian conflict simply because of geographic proximity. To stand aside from Russian military involvement in Syria would mean to reconcile with Russian dominance in its sphere of influence. By targeting Turkish backed opposition, Russia does not refrain from escalating tension and facilitates PKK affiliated YPG’s advance on Turkish border. In its struggle with Russia in Syria and fight against PKK, Turkey has been abandoned by its major allies. Despite the fact that NATO condemned airspace violation of Turkey by Russian jet and supported the right of NATO member state to protect its borders and airspace but NATO abstained from full and unified support to Turkey. Some NATO member states argue that Article 5 (Collective defense of NATO member state) cannot be applicable in this case. In his recent interview the Foreign Minister of Luxemburg Jean Asselborn noted that NATO will not help to Turkey in case of war with Russia. “NATO shouldn’t draw itself into a military escalation that might occur due to tension between Turkey and Russia recently. The Article 5 can only be invoked when member state is clearly attacked”.

Endangered status quo in the region was an impetus to seek for new alignments in order to balance against aggressive power. Erdogan’s visits to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, also recently formed Muslim anti-terror coalition against ISIS in Riyadh and last but not least deployment of Saudi fighter jets in Turkish Incirlik airbase shows reinforced ties among the regional powers and indicates that Turkey is persistent to pursue its foreign policy.

Russian attacks to the national interests of Turkey have forced to take countermeasures from Ankara. During his last visit to Kiev, the Prime Minister of Turkey Davutoglu openly accused Russia for backing Armenia in occupation of Azerbaijani territories. He also expressed Turkish support to territorial integrity of Ukraine and stressed that Turkey recognizes Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia has not succeeded in getting support of indigenous population of the peninsula, Crimean Tatars – Turkic speaking minority, which tends to be loyal to Turkey.

Developments show that implication of further escalation between Turkey and Russia might create dangerous scenario. Recently in his speech French President Francois Hollande talked about possibility of war and called both states for de-escalation. “There is a risk of war between Turkey and Russia. It is necessary to do everything to avoid escalation”. The consequences of this clash could be harsh for the minor states in the region. Minor states, where the interests of these powers collide, should maintain balance of power in order to avoid being squeezed.