How will Moscow react?

Equally important is the clear link between Putin’s foreign policy and his domestic politics. His undiminished popularity at home derives mainly from him projecting the image of a strong leader who has restored Russia’s military standing in the eyes of the West. This is why the downing of a Russian jet by a neighboring NATO member is, above all, a huge blow to Putin’s machismo. The fact that this blow came from a leader who shares his bravado adds salt to the wound. After all, the tzar and the sultan share similar governing styles and see the world through the same prism of “realpolitik.”

As I have argued in the past in this column, without such pragmatic realism, Turkish-Russian economic relations would not be where they are today. We can summarize how these two leaders have so far managed to improve trade relations despite serious differences in foreign policy with only one word: compartmentalization. The tsar and the sultan learned to compartmentalize foreign policy differences over Ukraine, Cyprus, and Syria in very pragmatic ways, thanks to a level of economic interdependence that never existed during the centuries of Ottoman-Russian rivalry. Natural gas, oil, pipelines, mass tourism, and Turkish construction companies were the missing ingredients in the 19th century.

Will the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey end this compartmentalization? The short answer is “no.” This incident will certainly push the limits of the compartmentalization without fully ending it. The main reason is that Russia cannot afford to stop selling natural gas to Turkey, its second largest customer, particularly at a time when low energy prices are putting pressure on the future of the Russian economy. The fact that Gazprom declared there will be no interruption in the flow of natural gas only hours after the downing of the Russian jet was very telling. However, the limits of compartmentalization will also be tested in areas such as energy infrastructure cooperation, construction tenders, tourism and financial interaction. Even in these areas, the impact of this latest crisis may prove short-lived.

Yet it would be naive to think that Putin will not seek revenge from Turkey. He will do so by taking compartmentalization to a whole different level. In Syria, Putin will most likely continue to affront Turkey by expanding, in scale and scope, its bombing of Turkmen villages near the Turkish border. He may even continue to violate Turkish airspace to test NATO’s resolve and solidarity. Beyond the Turkmen issue, Putin clearly knows that the most effective way of getting back at Turkey will be the arming of Syrian Kurds. Ankara should therefore expect much closer military and political relations from now on between Moscow and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Needless to say, this Kurdish-Russian alliance will also have great implications for Turkey’s war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Other Russian measures against Ankara will probably involve exposing connections between Turkey and ISIL and other Jihadist groups. All these dynamics will seriously test whether “business as usual” can endure in Turkish-Russian economic relations.


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