Russia may never change its negative policy towards Turkey

Despite having diametrically opposing views in a number of foreign policy matters, particularly in Syria, both Turkey and Russia managed to maintain a reasonable relationship until Turkey shot down a Russian jet on Nov. 24 at the Syrian border after the jet violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds.

This was the first incident of a NATO ally shooting down a Russian jet since the 1950s. Although NATO expressed solidarity with Turkey, NATO countries called on Turkey and Russia to find ways to reduce the tension.

In his column for the Zaman daily on Nov. 27, Gokhan Bacık, an associate professor of international relations at İpek University, stressed that he is personally worried that the downing of the jet may lead to unexpected consequences, after Russia entered into Syria in September. According to Bacık, the incident dramatically exposed the increasing gap between Russia and Turkey, as they have different interests in Syria. Turkey has been supporting the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Russia, along with İran, supports the Assad regime. Russia started to boost its military presence in Syria in September and launched a military offensive against Syrian opposition forces that are backed by Turkey and the US. But Russia says its military campaign aims for the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

“Things are not the way they were three years ago or even several months ago,” said Bacık, recalling that just a couple of months ago Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdocan attended an opening ceremony for a mosque in Russia with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bacık said it is no secret that Russia accuses Turkey of facilitating ISIL in the region and that Russia is increasingly critical of Turkey, complaining especially about the rise of radicalism in Caucasia and other areas. But he stressed that the jet downing incident gives Russia “a pretext to become more active in Syria.” According to Bacık, such an incident is creating more space for Russia on the Syrian ground.

Mentioning about NATO’s possible role in this last incident, Bacık said: “I don’t think NATO is willing to back Turkey in whatever it does. The organization will at least expect Turkey to harmonize its major decisions — particularly vis-à-vis Russia. Of course, Turkey is a member of NATO, but I doubt it is the one to determine NATO’s strategy towards Russia.”

Hopes to reduce tension between Ankara and Moscow after the downing of a Russian jet last week fell short after Putin warned Turkey on Thursday that it will regret its behavior “more than once” and that Moscow will not let Ankara escape merely with sanctions on Turkish tomatoes and construction projects.

Putin’s harsh remarks came on the same day that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoclu on the sidelines of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Belgrade, in an attempt to reduce tension and mend ties. Lavrov and Cavusoclu’s meeting is the first meeting between senior Turkish and Russian officials since the downing of the jet. But speaking to the press, Lavrov said Cavusoclu was short of offering anything new to the Russian side and he only expressed the known views of Turkey about the incident.

In his annual state of the nation speech in the Kremlin, Putin stressed that Russia is not planning to engage in military saber-rattling. “But if anyone thinks that having committed this awful war crime, the murder of our people, that they are going to get away with some measures concerning their tomatoes or some limits on construction and other sectors, they are sorely mistaken,” he stated.

In his column in the Radikal daily on Dec. 3, journalist Cengiz Candar said after Russia entered Syria in September, Turkey should have reviewed and readjusted its rules of military engagement at the Syrian border to avoid the downing of a Russian jet and being part of a major crisis. He recalled that Russia had violated Turkish airspace twice before, once on Oct. 3 and the other a day later on Oct. 4. Candar argued that Turkey has started to appear to act too self-ordained in Syria and that the West, including the US, may benefit from this incident by naturally drawing Turkey closer to itself and more under control.

Bacık said he is worried that Russia is preparing for an “anti-Turkey” strategy. He argued that the downing of the jet may have been the last straw for Russia in the building tension due to the differing views for the future of Syria. He agreed that the tension over the downing of the jet may ease in time, but Russia’s negative view of Turkey — which started to change some time ago — might not improve. Bacık warned that Russia may take some negative steps against Turkey on every international platform, with regards to Caucasia, the Mediterranean, Cyprus and beyond. He also pointed out that Russia would like to reinforce its anti-Turkey policies with the support of other allies of Russia, such as Iran, China and India. He said the downing of the jet was a historic breaking point and that Russian diplomacy from now on will work against Turkey around the world.

Putin asked Turkey to apologize for the incident and reimburse for the damages. But Turkish leaders refused to apologize to Russia, saying that Turkey had only been defending its airspace. President Erdocan said it is Russia that needs to apologize to Turkey for violating Turkish airspace.

The Russian president called the downing of the jet a “stab in the back.” Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul posted on his Twitter account after the downing of the jet: “Putin will respond. Not today, not directly, not symmetrically, but Putin will respond.” He also wrote in another tweet that when he said “Putin will respond,” he was making an analytic statement, not a normative one.