Turkey needs to talk tough to calm Russia

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov

Mahir Zeynalov


By : Mahir Zeynalov


Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to visit the sumptuous palace of his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He even called the Turkish president a “firm leader.”

These two leaders, popular at home but loathed in the West, courted each other for much of their more-than decade-long rule in their respective nations. They disagreed on Syria, along with many other regional issues, but kept ramping up bilateral trade. Russian tourists enjoyed Turkish resort towns; Turkish contractors struck lucrative deals in Russia.

This strange relationship collapsed overnight when Turkish jets downed a Russian warplane for violating Turkish airspace. Russians were outraged. Turks were triumphant – until they realized how far Russians could go in making Turkey pay.

Russian surprise

Moscow’s reaction to the downing of its warplane was harsh: Putin described the incident as a “huge mistake” while Russian officials vowed that Turkey will pay the price. The focus of the first round of Russian sanctions against Turkey ranges from imports and tourism to football players. There is as yet no word on sanctions on the Russian energy supply, the area that Turkey fears could hurt it the most.

Russian surprise is understandable. Throughout the Cold War and in its aftermath, Russia and the Western bloc had an understanding. Both jockeyed for geopolitical influence in many territories, but they knew exactly what their red lines were. This included tolerating the frequent violations of airspace. As part of this understanding, the U.S. and Russia agreed on an air-safety protocol in Syria to avoid unwanted incidents.

Russia is out for blood and Turkish attempts to de-escalate the situation only increases the Russian appetite.

Mahir Zeynalov

The agreement on air-space safety regarding Syria, where Russia and the U.S. are running separate air campaigns, did not include other coalition nations, according to the U.S. State Department. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, believes that Turkey violated this protocol by shooting down its aircraft.

Turkey claims that its military rule of engagement on the Syrian border, in place since Syria shot down its plane in 2012, was made crystal clear and that Moscow was warned repeatedly about violating Turkey’s airspace. For Russia, which is frequently testing NATO’s airspace, this is no good reason to shoot down a plane.

ISIS oil business

To understand this incident, Russia came up with a rather bizarre explanation: Turkey shot down the Russian plane to defend its oil business with ISIS.

Few days before the Russian jet incident, Russia announced that it hit at least 500 trucks that ISIS uses to smuggle oil. U.S. officials disputed the Russian figures as “exaggeration.” Last week, the Pentagon said it destroyed 399 trucks used to smuggle oil to Turkey and Iraq.

Both Putin and Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev claimed that they have data to suggest that some Turkish officials are benefitting from this oil trade. Erdogan initially categorically rejected the “ugly slander,” but later said such oil trade, if any, could not be tied to the official government in Ankara.

The Russian claim is astonishing beyond description. ISIS may smuggle oil into Turkey and several rogue local Turkish officials may benefit from this business. Turkish farmers would enjoy cheaper oil and they could not care less who is selling them. Turkey deserves blame for not fully cracking down on this illicit oil business. But shooting down a plane of a major power to defend this business does not make sense: Linking the jet incident to the ISIS oil business is ludicrous at best.

Putin Vs Erdogan

To explain Erdogan, Western pundits often draw parallels with Putin. Both are powerful leaders who rule their countries with an iron fist and with quite similar tactics. Round-the-clock anti-Turkish propaganda on Russian TV networks reeks of Turkey’s own version of defaming and demonizing opponents of Erdogan. Both leaders are also obsessed with their popularity at home. The shortcut to preserve their approval rating has mostly been ratcheting up the anti-Western rhetoric.

Turkey’s soft rhetoric is exactly what fuels Russian antagonism. Being tough has always been the most effective weapon in containing Russian aggression.

Mahir Zeynalov

The downing of the Russian jet was a humiliating snub for Putin as he works hard to justify his adventure in Syria. To prop up his popularity, he needs to go on a major offensive against Erdogan.

For several days, Ankara has been trying – quite unsuccessfully – to de-escalate the tensions and calm down Russia. This is what Turkey cannot understand: Russia is out for blood and Turkish attempts to de-escalate the situation only increases the Russian appetite.

In handling Russia, perhaps Turkey could follow the path of the West, which has a long history of containing the Soviet expansionism and Russia’s imperial ambitions. This includes directly confronting Russia. The case about the Russian supply of natural gas is highly exaggerated. Russia needs Turkish cash as much as Turkey needs the Russian gas. It would be foolish of Russia to push Turkey to find alternative gas suppliers.

Russia could upset Turkish plans and designs in Syria, but the cost of losing Turkey is not small. As faithful followers of realpolitik, Russian policymakers will have to rethink its strategy of alienating Ankara.

Moscow could partner up with Turkey to dilute NATO’s resolve in extending its security umbrella all the way to Ukraine and the Caspian Sea. To avoid irritating Russia, for example, Turkey kept silent when Russian forces occupied some parts of Georgia and Ukraine, both Turkey’s land and sea neighbors, over the past seven years.

Since 1568, when Ottomans and Russians first fought, nine out of 12 Russian-Turkish battles were over Crimea. Turkey is also perhaps the only country that could destabilize Russia’s Chechen community, Putin’s everlasting nightmare.

Turkey’s soft rhetoric is exactly what fuels Russian antagonism. Being tough has always been the most effective weapon in containing Russian aggression.


Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today’s Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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