On Tuesday morning, a Turkish F-16 fighter launched a heat-seeking missile at Russia’s unarmed front-line bomber that was returning to base. Russian President Vladimir Putin a short while later said that the plane crashed in Syrian territory, four kilometers away from the Turkish border, while the attack itself took place when the bomber was one kilometer inside Syrian airspace. He slammed the attack as a “stab in the back” and blamed Turkey’s authorities of connivance with and support for terrorism. The Russian authorities are prepared to fundamentally reconsider relations with Turkey, until recently a rather close partner.
Tensions in Russian-Turkish relations over the situation in Syria had been mounting for months. Ankara responded with great annoyance to the start of an operation by Russia’s air group in Syria against terrorist forces. The Turkish authorities, which have been pressing for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad all along, claim that Moscow decided to intervene for the sole purpose of supporting the regime in Damascus. Ankara accused Moscow of attacking Turkoman villages. Turkey has traditionally provided backing for the ethnic Turks. Syria’s Turkomans are a Turkic-speaking people and Syria’s third largest ethnic group opposed to the Assad regime.
“Quite a few reasons have been offered as explanations of Turkey’s behavior, including its allegations Russian aircraft have been bombing Turkomans,” senior research fellow at the institute of the world economy and international relations IMEMO under the Russian Academy of Sciences, Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky told TASS. “Of far greater significance, though, is the following. There’s been proof that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son is involved in oil smuggling schemes. Russian planes have been successfully bombing oil caravans of Islamic State terrorists to have destroyed more than 1,000 tanker trucks.”
“Turkey hates the idea Bashar Assad and his government may stay in power,” the leading research fellow at IMEMO, Dina Malysheva told TASS. “Also, Turkey had its own economic interests in Turkey. Crude oil and oil products from Syria had been pouring in in a steady flow, so the bombing raids against these routes could not but annoy Turkey. Also, Ankara claims that it must provide protection for the Turkomans. In a word, there was a variety of reasons.”
Malysheva believes it was a rather reckless step, but apparently Turkey had hoped for NATO’s protection. “It is an entirely different matter that NATO hardly needs an aggravation of relations with Russia, but it is being pulled into this conflict.”
Erdogan’s move also has a purely domestic political side to it, she remarked. “It was taken to show muscle both inside the country and also to Turkey’s neighbors to make it clear that Turkey is capable of making a harsh response to a country like Russia. The underlying idea was to bolster the prestige of the country’s leadership in this way.”
“Russian-Turkish relations have fallen victim to the internal political situation in Turkey,” an adviser to the director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, Yelena Suponina, told TASS. “President Erdogan feels that problems inside the country are going out of control. He is keen to demonstrate to his supporters and followers it is too early to write him off. At a certain point Erdogan decided to ‘straighten his shoulders’ but in doing so he looked more like a bull in a China shop. Turkey will now soon realize how very reckless it was.”
Of late, Erdogan showed little ability to gauge the effects his moves might entail.
“He is a careless and impulsive decision-maker,” Suponina said.