Turkey and Russia: The dynamics of confrontation

Turkey and Russia have tried a new type of relationship in the last decade. The glue in this bilateral contact was trade. Normally, both states have differed on almost all major issues of global and regional politics. It was supposed that trade would have been adequate reason to prevent Russia and Turkey from confronting each other on other issues. This attempt has finally failed. And it failed mainly within the context of Syria.

Russia had already given serious signals that Moscow was unhappy with what Turkey was doing in Syria. Thus, more than one downed jet, the real issue is Turkish foreign policy, which is seen by Moscow as a strategic threat in the long term. In other words, what Turkey is doing in the region is seen by Moscow as something that should be stopped. Most probably, Russian state elites are convinced that what Turkey is doing in the region is likely to cause trouble for them. As of this summer, it has become obvious that Russia and Turkey can no longer be able to harmonize their differing and conflicting foreign policies despite the mutual glue of trade.

So, what was the effect of the downed jet? I believe the incident transformed the “divorce” between the two countries into a very ugly and nervous procedure. During his latest visit to Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized some G-20 members for helping the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In fact, it was a tacit but also paradoxically clear message about Russia’s growing unrest about some other states, including Turkey. However, once Turkey shot down the Russian aircraft, it became an issue of national pride, as usual. Yet, after the event, neither Turkey nor Russia gave a moderate signal about the growing feud between Ankara and Moscow. Instead, both countries are making the tension a national issue. That is why the political tension is now gaining sociological depth in both countries. Interestingly, both the Turkish and Russian leadership want their people to become angry with each other.

Meanwhile, the jet issue has become the perfect pretext for Russia to embolden its presence in Syria. Moscow quickly increased its military capacity on all counts. There are two points about Turkey here: First, Russia is now using its power in the region to constrain Turkey. Second, Russia is trying to delete Turkey’s political gains and investments on the ground. In a sense, Russia is following a strict anti-Turkish strategy in Syria. Naturally, this is bad for Ankara, which lacks the material military capacity to counterbalance Russia.

On the other hand, Russia has prepared a sophisticated anti-Turkish agenda in retaliation for the jet issue. It is very likely that a kind of anti-Turkish sentiment will be part of Russian foreign policy from now on. Russia is an important state but is also a member of the United Nations Security Council. The cost of Russia’s anti-Turkish strategy is indeed critical for Ankara.

The recent events once again proved that NATO membership is the defining item of Turkish foreign policy character. Turkey is a NATO-member country. Ankara has long sought alternatives to the West. It was not many years ago that Ankara was talking about membership of the Shanghai Five. Today, ironically, Ankara’s only guaranteed ally is NATO. No Muslim country or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has yet said a positive word in favor of Turkey about its tension with Russia. It is crystal clear: Without NATO, Turkey would be alone.