Turkey’s shooting of the Russia’s war plane has ignited fury from both countries. Neither side has backed down from their stance; the heated row reveals Moscow and Ankara’s own underlying tensions behind their alliance in fighting the Islamic State.
On 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 plane which was flying along the Turkish-Syrian border, and it was in Turkey’s airspace for 17 seconds. Ankara claimed it had warned the Russian jet 10 times before they took drastic actions. The plane landed in Syrian rebel-held territory; one pilot was killed in the blast while the other survived. Moscow sent two rescue helicopters but they were shot down by rebels. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan insisted they had no hostility towards Moscow:
“Nobody should doubt that we made our best efforts to avoid this latest incident. But everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders”
The war of words continue as Turkey refuses to apologise to Russia: “Our pilots and our armed forces, they simply fulfilled their duties, which consisted of responding to … violations of the rules of engagement. I think this is the essence,” Erdogan said.
The US supports Ankara’s move to down the jet, but has called for both sides to remain level-headed. President Obama said: “Turkey, like every country, has the right to defend its territory and its airspace.”
However, Russian Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, who survived the plane crash, denied they were ever in Turkish airspace and they did not receive any warnings. Putin furiously said the incident was as “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists.”
“Today’s tragic events will have significant consequences including for relations between Russia and Turkey”
He claimed Erdogan is intentionally antagonising their relations. Moscow will not take extreme actions as assured by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “We do not intend to go to war with Turkey.” At the same time, Russia wants to show what the consequences for affronting Moscow are. Putin has imposed economic sanctions, cancelled business deals and major projects, and confiscated food imports. Russian tourists were warned about travel safety to Turkey while Moscow deployed a S400 anti-aircraft carrier to their naval base in Syria.
Historical tensions and territorial conflict have played an important role in Russia and Turkey’s relations today. The Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire fought fiercely for power in the Middle East, Caucasus region and the Balkans.
One of the best known wars was the Crimean War (1853-56), where Western powers: Great Britain, France and Italy assisted the Ottomans to fight the Tsar. The immediate causes of the war were the Christian denominations: the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, vied for control over the Holy Land. Jerusalem was under Ottoman territory, but it was also home to Christianity and Judaism. However, the bigger picture was the Western powers wanted to stop Russian expansionism. Alliance with the Ottomans was necessary because the Empire was on the decline and found itself vulnerable to foreign invasion.
The two sides’ relations steadily improved after World War One. During World War Two, Russia suffered the full force of Nazi Germany’s aggression. Turkey remained neutral, but allowed German warships through the Turkish Strait which angered Moscow. Turkey allied with the West during the Cold War; in 1952 it joined NATO and in 1962, Ankara was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis as Washington had deployed nuclear warheads in the country. In post-cold war, Russia-Turkey relations improved. Russia is one of Turkey’s main trading partners, where exports and imports include textiles, food, energy, tourism, and natural resources like metal and oil.
Involvement in the Syrian conflict
Russia’s hostility towards Ukraine and Crimea has troubled Turkey as Ukraine is one of the Black Sea countries. The Black Sea has been a flashpoint for Russian interest since it is an important strategic area. As per the Montreux Convention, Russia is permitted to sail warships across the Strait (with limitations), and Moscow has been exercising this right to navigate its fleet to Syria. Russia and Turkey stand on different sides in the Syrian Civil War; Moscow wants to keep Assad in power because the current regime maintains strong and beneficial links to Russia. On the other hand, Turkey sides with the West to support rebel groups because a destabilised Syria is a threat to Turkish security. And there are other mounting concerns for Ankara such as the Islamic State’s presence in Iraq, and Iran who backs the Assad government.
But, due to the horrific Paris attacks, the super powers involved in the Syrian conflict have joined hands to eliminate the Islamic State. The tension between Russia and Turkey reveals the fragility of this sudden alliance because ridding the Islamic State is only an immediate goal while mutual suspicious still exist. In the latest Northern Atlantic Council meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concerns about Moscow’s involvement in Syria: “I have previously expressed my concerns about the implications of the military actions of the Russian Federation close to NATO’s borders.”
At the end, all sides want a Syrian government who could benefit their own strategic interests.