The downing of a Russian plane by Turkey will poison both countries’ relationship for a while. It could get worse
It hadn’t happened since 1952. Last Tuesday, a member of NATO shot down a Russian warplane, in a reminiscence of the scuffles that marked the Cold War’s early days. That member was Turkey, which took aim at Moscow’s Sukhois after two of them briefly entered its territory.
The pilot who died in the crash was not the incident’s only casualty. Relationships between both countries have soured at a supersonic pace since the incident. Diplomatic ties, trade flows and prospects of military co-ordination over Syria are now all but frozen.
They were not in a good shape to start with, admittedly. Russia and Turkey have long had opposing views on the Syrian conflict: Moscow’s keen to prop up the Assad regime by bombing rebels; Ankara’s been supporting rebels in the hope to see Assad go. Russia’s muscular intervention to stem rebel advances – through which it stroke some of the very groups Turkey has armed and trained – hasn’t helped.
But such differences haven’t prevented both powers from cultivating significant trade and investment ties – a bit of a historical exception given that Russia and Turkey have in the past more often been foes than friends. Bilateral trade in agricultural products amounted to $4 billion in 2014, for instance. Russian tourists bring Turkey about $10 billion a year.
Such links are now in jeopardy. As insults were traded between both sides earlier this week, Russia said it would submit all agricultural and food products imported from Turkey to laboratory checks and suspend visa-free travels. It also arrested 39 Turkish business travellers and made moves to cut tourism ties. The government is now working on a package of wider economic sanctions against Turkey.
Vladimir Putin was bound to react like this. A strong, nationalist leader, the Russian president’s only way to save face was to adopt whatever coercive measures he could find short of military retaliation. His domestic popularity, currently at an all-time high, would have drastically suffered had he appeared soft on the issue. Particularly at a time when his campaign in Syria’s not progressing as fast as he wished, and days after admitting, eventually, that a Russian passenger plane that crashed in last month was shot down by terrorists.
For Putin the incident is a useful cover, too. Russia has since Tuesday bolstered its forces in Syria despite Western calls for restreint. A solid presence on the ground, which it starts to have, will allow it more firepower as it seeks to impose itself as a party to be reckoned with in a possible post-Assad era.
The crisis is unlikely to defuse by itself. It doesn’t look like Putin will stop his retaliation machine until Tayyip Erdogan apologises for what happened. But that’s probably one of the last things the Turkish president would do, notwithstanding the softer stance he adopted today. He too is a strong, nationalist leader, and backing down would be a humiliating about-face. It would also, potentially, open up the possibility of further Russian incursions in Turkish territory.
Relations may therefore stay sour for a while. In fact, they could well worsen. The economic fallout, for a start, could get more serious: Russian retaliations have so far spared joint energy projects, which include a Russian-built power plant in Turkey and a multi-billion gas pipeline. But these too could at some point be held at gunpoint.
Neither side is keen to escalate the situation militarily: an all-out conflict between Russia and NATO, whose members have pledged support to Turkey, would be a disaster for everyone. But with Russian jets continuing missions right next to the Turkish border, tragedies like that of Tuesday are not to be excluded. Especially now that Moscow’s sent ground-to-air missiles and fighter jets to Syria to support its bombing fleet.
The responsibility to avoid all this falls on outside powers – and disproportionately, in the short term, on François Hollande’s shoulders. The French president is touring the world in the hope of gathering a grand coalition against Islamic State. The diverging interests of all parties make it a tall order. But the fight against IS higher on Moscow and Ankara’s agendas may lead them to consider settling over the Sukhoi issue. It’s worth a try.