Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near its border with Syria
Timing could not be worse for Russia's Vladimir Putin, authors say
Editor’s Note: Henri Barkey is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. William Pomeranz is deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. The views expressed are their own.
What a difference 12 hours can make. Just as the Syria peace negotiations in Vienna were moving ahead, news came that the Turkish air force had downed a Russian bomber that it claims had violated its airspace. Making things worse, a Russian marine was reportedly killed during an operation to rescue the two pilots that ejected from the plane.
The incident further complicates French President Francois Hollande’s mission to Washington and Moscow this week, a visit that was supposed to focus on the formation of a grand coalition against ISIS. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already referred to the downing of the plane as a “stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists” and promised that there will be significant consequences.
Once again, events on the ground continue to outpace international efforts to somehow manage the Syria crisis.
Of course, Turkey and Russia had been at odds over Syria almost from the beginning of the Syrian civil war. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned on his former ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he found himself at odds with Putin. Erdogan led a campaign to isolate Assad and supported a whole gamut of organizations and armed groups to ensure the Syrian dictator’s demise, in contrast with Russia, which has had long ties to the Assad regime.
Despite these diverging views on the Assad regime, Russia and Turkey had succeeded in largely compartmentalizing their differences and maintaining cordial relations, just as Ankara had done with Syria’s other backer, Iran. In fact, some of Erdogan’s rhetoric toward NATO ally the United States had actually been far harsher than toward Putin. And while Russia and Turkey have had a complex relationship that stretches over centuries, Turkish companies, especially those in construction, had lately done extremely well. More importantly, Turkey is dependent on Russian gas, while Russia depends on Turkey as a client.
But relations soured when Russia decided in recent weeks to actively intervene in the Syrian civil war, with troops and the country’s air force working to bolster the teetering Assad regime and sparking complaints in the process that Russian operations were targeting Turkish allies rather than ISIS.
Now, the shooting down of the Russian plane is likely to lead to a slow, but determined, escalation in tensions. Putin has promised retaliation, and if the world has learned one thing over the last 18 months, it is that he is a man that will follow through on a threat.
The problem for Putin is that the timing could not be worse for him. After simmering out of the headlines for months, the Ukraine crisis looks set to flare up again as explosions at an electricity power station in the Kherson region have plunged Crimea into darkness.
Indeed, despite Crimea’s “liberation,” the peninsula remains dependent on Ukraine for its electricity, and Russia is still years away from constructing its alternative power bridge to Crimea. Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov reportedly referred to the attack on the power station as “a terrorist act,” and it remains unclear when electricity will be restored.
The developments of the last 24 hours significantly complicate the chances of any meaningful rapprochement between the West and Russia. True, the odds were already long that Hollande could bridge the gaps between Moscow and Washington on key issues, but he now must factor in a NATO crisis and renewed threats in eastern Ukraine in his effort to build a grand coalition.
We still don’t know how Putin intends to punish Turkey, but we can expect Russians to increase their attacks on Turkish and American allies in Syria and drop any pretense of going after ISIS. Putin could also up the ante by allowing the Syrian Kurdish group that Erdogan has been gunning for, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, to open up offices in Moscow and provide them with arms.
In addition, Putin could choose to go after the extensive Turkey-Russia economic relationship, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, for example, is already advising Russian tourists not to go to Turkey. The question is how far Putin will want to go, because if he follows the same pattern as he did with Ukraine and the EU, any economic counter-sanctions against Turkey could easily leave Russia in a worse position.
Whatever his response to Tuesday’s incident, Putin is simultaneously being tested on two fronts – just when he thought that a unified response against ISIS could end Russia’s isolation, while Turkey, for its part, might have been splashed with the cold water of reality as far as its grandiose ambitions in the region and beyond are concerned.
All this suggests that the only winner from these latest developments is Assad. After all, one of his regime’s primary antagonists (Turkey) is now starkly at odds with his most important backer (Russia), which further undermines the prospects for a grand coalition on tackling the ISIS and Syria crises.
So far, no country has proposed a viable plan for how to address the ISIS threat or put Syria back together. The shooting down of a Russian plane will do nothing to change this – and it may well have even further diminished the prospects of the major powers reaching some kind of lasting agreement to end this crisis.