In the 17 seconds the Turkish Airforce utilised to take down a Russian bomber, a 63-year-old peace between Russia and NATO was destroyed. As the tentative alliance between Russia and the NATO powers splinters, many have been surprised by the restraint Russia has shown in simply placing economic sanctions on Turkey rather than taking military action.
Declaring that Turkey’s attack was a “stab in the back,” Russia announced that as of January 1, 2016, Russia would end charter flights between the two countries, place a ban on hiring any new Turkish nationals, and place import restrictions on certain Turkish goods.
The Russian President makes a statement on the Russian Su-24 warplane that was recently downed over Syria after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Moscow:
It could have been worse
Certainly, it could have been worse.
Russia in previous years would have resorted to military action, as they did in Georgia.
However, extenuating circumstances appear to have caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to exercise restraint.
At present, Russia is overextended, engaging in two theaters of war. Concurrent with the ISIS campaign, Russia is continuing its activities in the Ukraine, where this week it suffered a setback thanks to Ukrainian nationalists.
On Tuesday, while Turkey was downing the Russian plane, Ukrainian nationalists blew up several Ukrainian power transmission towers, which were providing the bulk of electricity for the breakaway Crimean republic. Although now an independent province, the region still receives all its electricity from the Ukrainian power grid. This resulting state of emergency has caught the Russian government off guard, as it cannot afford another incursion into Ukrainian territory to fix the problem.
Russia now faces a challenge; militarily, it cannot respond to the Crimean crisis because sending troops in will cause a backlash from Western powers, endangering any alliance in the Syrian campaign. Likewise, it will only do so much to Turkey, who, as a NATO member, has the support of 28 European allies, and is Russia’s second biggest consumer of gas and oil due to the current energy climate. As Mikhail Kruitkin, a partner in the RusEnergy consulting firm, told Reuters: “The loss of such a big market as Turkey would be very sensitive for both the [Russian] state budget and for Gasprom [government owned oil and gas company].”
A wayward Turkey?
Turkey is also not getting off the hook. According to recent reports, many of its NATO allies are aghast at its actions this week. France, Germany, Serbia, and Greece have all made negative statements about Turkey’s recent behavior, with a French representative making a harsh speech at Wednesday’s emergency meeting of NATO allies, declaring: “Turkish activities were undermining the operation against the Islamic State militant group,” according to Sputnik news.
But Turkey’s recent behavior is more about protecting their domestic security and its current frustration with Russia’s involvement in Syria. In recent months, Turkey has been successfully playing its own domestic security game in northern Syria. Aiding Washington in its war on ISIS, Turkey has utilized its access to United States military installations to destroy its own enemies who are fighting ISIS in northern Syria, the Kurds.
Currently engaged in an open civil conflict with the 20 million Kurds inside Turkey, the Kurdish forces in northern Syria are regarded by Turkey as a serious threat to their domestic stability. Kurdish separatists have attacked Turkey on numerous occasions, and — now allied to Russia — the Kurds are no longer an easy target. Moreover, they are being armed by the United States and Russia, and Turkey worries that these weapons may end up in the hands of their domestic terrorists instead of the anti-ISIS militia. If this is the case, Turkey fears it to may have a civil war on its hands, causing further instability in the region.
In this edition of the debate, we’ll discuss what possible motives Turkey would have by this act, and how this would impact the Vienna talks held over the Syria crisis, and France’s push for coordinated action with Russia against the Deash terrorists:
Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.