Why is Russia still turning up the heat on Turkey?

Escalation continues over downing of SU-24 with Erdogan and Putin putting personal prestige on the line 

ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme
Wikimedia Commons/ Kremlin.ru CC BY

Relations between Russia and Turkey have gone from bad to worse a week after Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24. The most recent escalation came on Monday when President Putin accused Turkey of downing the jet to protect supply lines for oil coming from ISIS. President Erdoğan responded by saying that he would resign if Russia could prove this and called on President Putin to do the same in case Russia failed to provide evidence.

Despite calls by President Obama and others for both sides to de-escalate, this seems unlikely for the moment. Moscow has not only hit back with furious statements but also carried out what appears to be retaliatory attacks on Turkish assets in Syria, deployed surface-to-air missiles, and imposed hard-hitting sanctions.

Why has Moscow has decided to play up the incident? At one level, the harsh reaction is an emotional one – Russia considers that its military and national pride has been slighted. The audacity of Turkey in shooting down the plane is considered next to unthinkable in Russia. Russia’s historic rival, and more recently, junior partner, has to be taught a lesson.

Russian media have been particularly venomous and sought to demonise Turkey and President Erdoğan. Treacherous Turkey has replaced Ukrainian fascists and murderous ISIS terrorists as Russia’s main enemy. The anti-Turkish sentiment in Russia led to the Turkish embassy in Moscow being pelted with stones by angry protestors.

The downing of the SU-24 was nothing less than the ongoing proxy war between Russia and Turkey for a moment becoming a hot one

What caused particular chagrin in Moscow was Ankara’s determination to say from the outset that it deliberately shot down the plane instead of going for a face-saving explanation. Since then, Ankara has taken a largely defiant posture towards Russia. While President Erdoğan has expressed regret and said that he was “truly saddened” by the downing, he has not provided the apology demanded of him by Moscow. On the contrary, he has said that those who violate Turkish airspace should be the ones to apologise.

At the heart of this incident lays the fundamental difference between Russia and Turkey over Assad. Russia supports Assad’s regime while Turkey is one of Assad’s staunchest opponents. The downing of the SU-24 was nothing less than the ongoing proxy war between Russia and Turkey for a moment becoming a hot one. Beyond the emotions, it serves Kremlin’s strategic objectives in Syria to take an unforgiving line against Turkey as it puts pressure on Turkey to step back from supporting anti-Assad rebels.

Podcast: ECFR's World in 30 Minutes. Russian-Turkish relations, with Asli Aydintasbas & Kadri Liik

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The downing also provides Moscow with an opportunity to drive a wedge between NATO members. By its harsh reaction, Russia hopes to fuel the view taken by some NATO members that Turkey overreacted and was unnecessarily provocative at a moment when France is trying to bring Russia into its anti-ISIS coalition.

The on-going clash says a great deal about the nature of the two regimes in Russia and Turkey. Both are run by strongmen whose personal legitimacy depends on projecting power both in domestic politics and in foreign relations. This also explains why the spat has turned so personal. 

Both presidents have invested their personal prestige in coming out on top. Their credibility would be undermined by a demonstration of weakness, by, for instance, apologising or making a conciliatory gesture. Both sides have dug in deep. 

For Russia the downing presents a particular problem. The military intervention in Syria is partly about demonstrating to the world that Russia can project hard power beyond the confines of its near-abroad. The downing of the SU-24 was the first real challenge to this power play. Now Moscow has to demonstrate that Russia can pass this test.

Russia is using 21st century instruments to implement a 19th century policy

On Saturday, Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey that banned certain imports, prohibited the extension of contracts for Turks working in Russia, ended visa-free travel, and stopped charter flights. These sanctions are not linked to any specific condition that Turkey has to meet. Rather they are meant to be vindictive. They are a show of strength as well as a demonstration that Russia can play the West’s game of smart, targeted sanctions – though the punitive reasoning is from another century. In a sense, Russia is using 21st century instruments to implement a 19th century policy.

But sanctions are probably not enough. Russia may be looking for a targeted military retaliation of some sort. Strikes against Turkish-backed rebels in the border region have already increased. A day after the downing, it appears Russia attacked a Turkish convoy five kilometres from the Turkish border. Seven were killed in the raid.

Most significantly, Russia has used the dispute as an opportunity to deploy S-400 missiles to its airbase in Latakia. This highly advanced weapons systems gives Russia “anti-access/area denial” capabilities in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia now has the ability to shoot down any plane within 400 kilometres of its airbase.

In effect, Russia has established a no-fly zone in western Syria. This thwarts Ankara’s efforts to set up a safe zone. And it also puts the aerial assets of other states potentially in harm’s way; no one is likely to fly within the firing range of the S-400 without first coordinating closely Russia. There are reports of the US, France, and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition reducing the number of manned flights and instead relying on drones following the deployment of the missile system.

No one – except perhaps ISIS and Assad – has an interest in this dispute worsening. But this seems to be exactly the direction where things are heading.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

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