Are Turkey and Russia headed for confrontation?

Are Turkey and Russia headed for confrontation?

Turkey shoots down a Russian fighter jet. Sam Leonard explores what this means for the future of Turkish-Russian relations in this GRI Guest Post. 

The news this morning that Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane somewhere over the Syrian border has led to serious fears of a plunge towards a WWIII-style conflict between NATO and Russia. NATO has already announced its decision to hold an “extraordinary council meeting” this evening in response to these events.

A NATO spokesperson has confirmed that the council meeting today is solely concerned with uncovering all of the available information on the incident, and that it “suggests that Turkey and NATO want to make sure this does not escalate out of control.”

Russian Presidential spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, has also confirmed that it is “impossible” to predict the future of Turkish-Russo relations until details of the incident have been confirmed.

Competing narratives are currently fighting for coverage, contending whether the Russian jet actually encroached upon Turkish airspace or was downed over Syria. Until a mutually agreed timeline of events is constructed, it remains difficult to fully ascertain what the future holds.

What will Putin do?

Looking past disagreements over the finer details of today’s events, what is indisputably clear is that Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane. The possibility of such incidents has been mooted for some time now, with Russia coming dangerously close on numerous occasions.

Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy record dictates that such an act can not, and will not, go unpunished. Turkey’s actions present an affront to Russian military prowess and prestige. Yet despite all this, a direct military confrontation between Turkey and Russia remains unlikely. Vladimir Putin is reveling in his newfound status as Western savior in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, with an accompanying queue of Western leaders battling for his ear. He is in such a position of strategic dominance that initiating hostilities with a NATO member will do nothing for Russia’s interests on the global stage. Putin will know that the world is holding its breath, waiting for a Russian response to today’s incident.

With Peskov already calling for patience, it seems as if Putin will be more measured in his response. He is well aware of Cold War analogies, and though he seeks a return to Soviet standing Putin does not want another Afghanistan. Accordingly, a response including Russian support for Turkey’s nemesis – the Kurds – seems much more likely than a full-scale military confrontation, as Putin looks to maintain Russia’s power-brokering status in current Syrian diplomacy.

On the Turkish side, a strong argument persists that Erdogan is using this crisis to deflect from his own domestic strife. Questions of electoral fraud and an extremely lax Turkish response to the rise of ISIS in favor of suppression of the Kurds continue to dog Erdogan. Thus a pertinent question regarding the Turkish dimension is how willing Erdogan is to push the issue within NATO in order to distract from his domestic turmoil?

Turkish-Russo economic linkages dictate that Erdogan won’t push too hard. Turkey is the 2nd biggest purchaser of Russian gas. Trade between the two countries in 2014 was $33 billion, with a publicly stated target of $100 billion by 2020. Thus, while Putin talks tough for domestic public consumption and Erdogan looks to distract from his own problems at home, strong relations will continue and military confrontation will (hopefully) be avoided.




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