Tension between Russia and Turkey Over-ambitious goals and obsessive persistence

Tension between Russia and Turkey Over-ambitious goals and obsessive persistence

Syrian demonstrators burn pictures of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad during a protest against Russian's support of the Asad regime in front of the Russian Consulate in Istanbul. — Image Credits

Relations between Russia and Turkey had been very positive until November 26, 2015. Despite being a member of the NATO, which is synonymous with the devil in Russia, Turkey had started to be perceived as a part of the same anti-Western front under the rule of Erdoğan, who had previously served first as prime minister and is currently its president.

The similarities between the styles of rule employed by Putin and Erdoğan were met with approval and appraisal rather than criticism. Russia considered Turkey to be following the same path as itself: Turkey was thought to have renounced the wrong path, turning back from a modern, open society towards a way of life with strong authoritarian and religious overtones. On the other hand, both countries’ exclusion by the West, especially on the part of the EU, was seen by Russia as another common bond. Other common traits were grandiose imperial pasts, and market economies coupled with more or less authoritarian political regimes. However, the parallels between Russia and Turkey ended there.

Turkey’s head-spinning pace of economic growth in the last two decades has not depended on the exploitation of raw materials such as oil and natural gas as is the case with Russia, and as such, can be considered more sustainable. Furthermore, the demographic evolutions of the two countries are also heading in different directions. Even as Turkey’s population will grow rapidly in the coming decades, Russia’s demographic transformation is closer to those seen in EU nations, with falling birth rates and a gradual yet inevitable rise in the median age. The Russian population at employment age is expected to fall by 600,000 to 800,000 per annum in the next decade.

An analysis of the historical trend reveals that the last few years will go down in history as an exceptional period for Russia-Turkey relations. Although the West (dominated first by Europe, and then by the USA from mid-20th century onwards) is the archenemy in the eyes of both the Russian government and population, Turkey and especially its predecessor Ottoman Empire could easily take the second spot in the list of foreign enemies.

With the exception of a brief period in the 1920s when the nascent Soviet Union supported the Kemalist revolution and the last period of detente which has been recently cut short, the relationship between Russia/Soviet Union and Ottoman Empire/Turkey has always been one of intense competition.

This was especially true in the 19th century. In this period, Russian and Ottoman irredentisms locked horns in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans, on colonialist, ethnic and religious grounds. The event which has most bitterly marked the Russian collective memory is the alliance between their archenemy, the West and their second worst enemy, the Ottomans against the Russians during the Crimean War.

Since the downing of a Russian SU-24 bomber on the Turkish-Syrian border by a Turkish warplane in late November, the Russian (state) channels have been busy airing Erdoğan’s dirty laundry in public. According to these channels, in order to expand his personal sphere of power, Erdoğan changes the constitution, manipulates history, represses the opposition and hollows out the institutions of democracy. Furthermore, his government is tainted with nepotism and corruption. The TV channel Rossija-24 reports that the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, goes so far as to  cite Freedom House, which it previously wanted to declare an institution ‘’non grata’’ in Russia. Accordingly, in the press freedom index published by Freedom House, Turkey is categorized among countries whose press is ‘’partially free’’ and ranks at 120 in the list. Rossija-24 of course does feel the need to mention that Russia is ranked at 176 in the same list (in the ‘’not free’’ category).

Russia’s ‘’sanctions’’

In Russian propaganda, Turkey’s status was transformed from ‘’prominent partner’’ to a top enemy with lightning speed. It is useful to look at a short, concise list (not without omissions) of the events of a few days at the end of November and in early December.  Charter flights between Turkey and Russia were banned. From January 1, 2016 onwards, Turkish citizens will again be obliged to obtain a visa when traveling to Russia (the visa requirement was lifted mutually in 2011, and Turkey had largely benefited from the annual arrival of 4.5 million Russian tourists). Russian travel agencies will not be marketing trips or holidays in Turkey. Four days after the downing of the bomber, Vladimir Putin said on Ukas that many products imported from Turkey will be placed on an embargo list. In the following week, the government added tomatoes, grapes, peaches and other food items to the index; however, the embargo is expected to take effect in January in order to prevent possible discontent due to fruit and vegetable shortage during the religious festivals.

Turkish companies will not receive any orders from Russia, and Turkish workers will no longer be employed there. The Russian Minister of Sports Vitali Mutko has banned Russian clubs from signing Turkish players. Many universities in Russia unilaterally canceled their collaboration agreements with their Turkish counterparts in a week, and joint research projects were also suspended by Russia.

In addition, a number of symbolic measures were put into place. Some were decided upon by the state, and some by individuals who were either more royalist than the king or simply afraid. The lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, will start a debate on a new bill which will make it a crime to deny the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Moscow’s All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature closed down the Russian-Turkish Science and Culture Center and declared that it was no longer possible to access Turkish books and films. A Russian choir conductor named Mihail Turetski, whose surname means Turkish, indicated that his surname had nothing to do with Turkey and that he was considering changing it. An MP from the Duma stated that Russia should demand Turkey to return Hagia Sophia to the Orthodox Church. Vladimir Jirinovski, supposedly representing the political opposition in Russia, suggested that a nuclear bomb should be dropped on the Bosphorus to trigger a tsunami which will hit Istanbul.

In the annual speeches he delivered in the two houses of the parliament, Vladimir Putin said, ‘’Perhaps only Allah knows why they did this. And it seems Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by relieving them of their sense and judgment.’’ Later he added that Russia’s response would be ‘’responsible’’ yet ‘’resolved’’ and ‘’harsh.’’ In the final instance, Russia does not want to completely disrupt its communication with Turkey as it did with Georgia in 2008.

Although Putin is avoiding meeting with the Turkish president, purposely joined the group photo at the Paris COP21 late, and refuses to respond to the calls of his Turkish counterpart, the diplomatic ties between the two countries have not been damaged seriously until now. The nuclear power plant to be built by the state-owned Rosatom on Turkey’s Mediterranean shore will not be affected by the sanctions; however, the construction of a pipeline through the Black Sea, which was decided upon in January 2015, may be shelved without even getting started. Since its inception, the Turkish Stream was a political project designed to bypass the Ukraine in natural gas exports to Europe. It is not an economically feasible project for Russia as things stand.

What did and did not happen in Georgia and Ukraine

The really surprising thing here is not Turkey’s transition into Russia’s archenemy in a sense, but rather the swift and radical nature of this shift which has not met with any resistance. Similar processes took place with Georgia, for instance, in 2006, and the Ukraine in 2015. However, in both cases, it took quite a lot of time for the tension between the states and societies to peak. In the autumn of 2006, when the Russian police started a hunt across the country for ethnic Georgians or Georgian citizens to deport them, there was no public consensus on the issue. Even after the short-lived clashes of August 2008, the dust settled rather quickly.

A year ago, after the clashes in Eastern Ukraine following the occupation of Crimea, the escalation occurred relatively faster, yet the Russian propaganda machine had had to strive quite a bit to generate an atmosphere of hatred across the country, despite the fact that the propaganda officials had already worked very hard after the Orange Revolution of 2006 and had made use of the natural gas skirmish of 2009. The officials relaxed their position on the issue this summer, and as a result, public opinion polls about relations with Ukraine and Ukrainians already point to a détente, albeit limited. These two cases of swift detente suggest that both campaigns were mostly symbolic; because your relations with the countries you are at war can be expected take such a turn. The very public hatred directed against the two neighboring countries is not deeply rooted in the emotional life of Russia and Russians, and is unrealistic in nature.

‘’The Saakashvili trap’’

When Turkey is the issue, however, the roots of the conflict seem to run deeper. What is certain is that the anger or resentment created by the downing of a plane does not suffice to explain such a deterioration of relations as soon as the button was pressed in Kremlin. Apparently, Putin is not aware that the trap he set for the then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili back in 2008, is being set up now for himself by Erdoğan. At the time, Saakashvili was sure that the (military) attacks he organized against Russian troops in South Ossetia, considered to be a part of Georgia by international agreements, would not meet with any sanctions thanks to the USA’s support for Georgia. However, Russia was looking for a pretext to attack Georgia and immediately seized the occasion.

In Syria, Russians thought that Turkey (as a NATO member) would not dare to respond to Russia’s border violations -big or small- due to pressure from its allies, especially the USA. Indeed, NATO had acquiesced to Russia’s air space violations during risky maneuvers which had regularly taken place in its Northern European border (especially in the Baltic states, Great Britain and Norway). It seems that the prevalent view in Moscow was that NATO would likewise refrain from a direct military confrontation with Russia in Syria and choose instead to restrain Turkey.

However, Russia was wrong about Turkey. At the moment, it is not so crucial whether the downing of the bomber was a decision by Turkey (which I think is the case) or whether it was endorsed (openly or covertly) by the USA. The most important thing is whether the Russian plane violated Turkish air space and if Turkey can be justified in shooting it down. The Baltic states, Norway or Great Britain do not have a war in their country, nor do they have one directly on their borders. Turkey does. 

Taking victory for granted

This erroneous decision at least partially explains the harsh reaction by Russia; this is the reaction of a bully assured of its rightfulness and then suddenly meeting with unexpected resistance. But it is also the reaction of one who already feels too secure as the winner, at least in this round. This reaction by Russia is in a way similar to the harsh reaction it gave to the ‘’Maidan’’ in the Ukraine in the winter of 2013-14. Just as the Kremlin had dissuaded the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from signing the association agreement with the EU and had instead convinced him to move closer to the Eurasian Union dominated by Russia, it now believed that it had caught the West off guard in Syria and was about to dominate it.

After Russia bombed the enemies of the Assad regime for two months, (most of whom were allies to Turkey and other NATO members), almost no one spoke anymore of the Ukraine, and Russia seemed once again to become a prominent actor in the Middle East, where it was not possible to take a single step without its prior approval. Obama lifted the decision to freeze relations, which was taken after the annexation of Crimea, and did things that put Russia in a good light: maintaining negotiations between Russia and the USA on the level of presidents at an equal standing at the G20 summit in Antalya in mid-November and the climate summit in Paris in end-November. More importantly, according to Russia, the USA had done so, not willingly, but because it was forced by Russians. On top of it, due to the terror attacks in Paris and the wave of migrants from Syria to Europe, more and more voices were suggesting that despite everything (that is, at the expense of the Ukraine) the West needed to establish an anti-terror coalition with Russia in the Middle East.

All these explain partially, if not totally, why Russia’s reaction was directed (almost) exclusively against Turkey and why the USA and NATO were exempt from its harsh reaction. Although it is very hard for Russia to swallow the downing of its bomber, taking a hard-line stance towards the USA or NATO would urge them to review their willingness to cooperate with Russia despite Crimea and Donbass. Furthermore, despite its highly cocky stance, even at the highest echelons, Russia is not militarily or economically ready for a direct confrontation with NATO. The Russian government is fully aware of this fact.

The third reason for Turkey’s very quick transformation into Russia’s top enemy is the historical context mentioned above.

An independent center: A weak center

However, whatever may be the reasons for this sudden explosion of hatred and fear towards Turks, the course of events suggests that Russia’s foreign policy is very far from being consistent. It is apparently almost impossible for a regime which lacks a thought out position and a corresponding ideology, but which tries to attain complete autonomy, to establish truly robust and sustainable alliances.

It seems that Russia is currently trapped within the over-ambitious goals of its foreign policy. The almost obsessive persistence in becoming a super power in a multipolar world has turned Russia into an independent, yet isolated and rather weak center. It may be said that it is the weakest of the states that (want to) compete in the top league.

The world imagined by the Russian political class  is ruled by the 19th century style politics of sheer force. In this world, there can be no true friends—only temporary allies. These allies may be China, Turkey or even Iran, which seems set to replace Turkey. As a result, you make many enemies, enjoy the support of voters, and as such increase your presidential rating (the only legitimate basis of your power). However, over the long, such a stance costs more energy than the country has in store.

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