BACKGROUND: On October 11, Turkish F-16 fighter pilots forced a Syrian A-320 commercial aircraft, with 17 Russian citizens among the 35 passengers, flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in Istanbul. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that “equipment and ammunitions...were being sent from a Russian agency ... to the Syrian Defense Ministry.” The Turkish government claimed that Russians were using commercial airlines to smuggle “munitions” into Syria. Russian representatives said the plane was conveying radar equipment that had “dual-use” potential, meaning they could be used for both civilian and military purposes. Erdogan later stated that, “All equipment that can be used in war is counted as ammunition,” which is an uncommon position, but some legal analysts defended Turkey’s right to intercept the plane.
Russian officials and commentators reacted angrily to the takedown. The Russian Foreign Ministry attacked the Turkish authorities for endangering their citizens through the interception and then denying them access to Russian consular officers during the eight hours they were grounded. Some Russian commentators called the takedown an act of “air piracy” and characterized Ankara as hypocritical given how it is flaunting international law by organizing an armed resistance in Syria, seeking to subvert a neighboring government on its soil. Russian media speculated that the Americans had passed along the information about the cargo to their Turkish counterparts, reinforcing Russian alarm about U.S. intelligence penetration of Russia’s military-industrial complex and Russian suspicions that Washington was seeking to disrupt the Russia-Turkish detente. Erdoğan fed such concerns when he told reporters that, "As you will appreciate, those who gave the tip, which establishments, these things cannot be disclosed.”
Turkish commentators expressed surprise that Ankara would take such a bold move. Perhaps the decision was taken by mid-level officials. Another explanation could be that the Turkish government is becoming irritated by the burdens the protracted conflict in Syria is inflicting on their country, which is now hosting around 100,000 refugees, seeing a rise of anti-Turkish terrorism linked to the rise of Kurdish assertiveness in Syria, and finding itself unwilling to end the crisis by sending its own troops to Damascus.
Both governments have since tried to play down their differences. Foreign Ministers Ahmet Davutoğlu and Sergei Lavrov have said that the plane incident would not inflict lasting damage Russian-Turkish relations. The Russians claim that Turkish authorities now accept that the cargo was legal while stating that the Turkish authorities might have felt justified in intercepting the flight. Turkish officials have stressed that their quarrel is with Damascus, not Moscow.
Still, the recent plane incident follows months of diverging policies regarding Syrian between Ankara and Moscow. Russia continues to oppose the Turkish drive to oust the Syrian president. Russia has repeatedly joined with Beijing to bloc UN resolutions and other measures that would try to force Assad’s removal from office. Russian diplomats insist their vetoes do not result from geopolitical competition, arms sales revenue, or a residual Cold War confrontation, but from a concern about international law and world order, specifically preventing foreign intervention in internal conflicts on behalf of one side without U.N. authorization. They also point to international law to justify their continued arms sales to Syria, despite Turkish and countries’ objections.
Other sources of strain have also been evident between Ankara and Moscow. Russia has been supplying arms to Syria that have on occasion been used to shoot down a Turkish plane or fire across the border into Turkey. The two countries remain both partners and competitors in regional energy pipeline projects. The Turkish leaders’ newfound commitment to popular democracy, sometimes backed by foreign military intervention to depose recalcitrant Arab dictators, has clashed with the continued primacy Russian officials place on national sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. These strains might explain why, even before the October 11 plane incident, President Vladimir Putin postponed his planned High Level Cooperation Council meeting in Turkey, from October 15 to December 3.
IMPLICATIONS: Not a few Turkish analysts have questioned the wisdom of Ankara confronting Moscow over Syria, an issue that has already worsened Ankara’s relations with Iran and Iraq, especially in such a public manner when a private warning could have proved more effective. Turkey also faces direct military threats from the Syrian armed forces and Kurdish militants. In addition, Russia is Turkey’s main energy supplier as well as an important commercial and diplomatic partner. It has only been in the last decade that Russian analysts have generally ceased fearing Turkey’s growing presence in Central Asia and, as evidenced by Moscow’s low key response to Turkey’s decision to host a NATO missile defense radar, no longer consider Turkey a major military threat. When relations between Moscow and Ankara soured following Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Russian government restricted imports from Turkey. Moscow could limit energy exports to Turkey, exploiting Turkey’s strained relations with Iran, another key energy supplier.
Despite these incentives for adopting a more confrontational policy, one can plausibly doubt that Moscow will retaliate. By all objective economic and strategic measures, Turkey is more important to Russia than is Syria. Turkey is one of Russia’s largest economic partners with expanding reciprocal trade and investment based on an energy partnership that continues to grow. Russia provides nearly two-thirds of Turkey's gas supplies and will build Turkey's first nuclear power plant. According to TürkStat, Turkey’s Statistics authority, Russia exported $24 billion worth of goods while importing $6 billion in 2011. Russian analysts identify Turkey as a rising power with a dynamic economy and newly flexible foreign policy that shares with Russia the experience of being physically part of Europe but practically treated as a peripheral country not suitable for membership in core European clubs such as the European Union.
In the past, Russia has used its energy monopoly to try to punish neighboring states—including Belarus and Ukraine -- into compliance. However, the Kremlin is unlikely to take such a measure against Turkey because of its geopolitical importance and relevance as a trading partner. In a sense, the Kremlin respects Turkey more than it does former Soviet states. It is a co-dependent relationship: Moscow’s willingness to “turn off the tap” to Turkey is constrained since it would inevitably hurt the Russian economy. Turkey’s pivotal location is making it an ever more important transit country for east-west commerce, which gives it considerable leverage. Russia would not want to jeopardize its new South Stream pipeline or induce Ankara to increase its support for Nabucco or other energy pipelines that circumvent Russian territory. A Russian energy cutoff to Turkey would also reawaken European fears about becoming overly dependent on Russian energy supplies. Turkey would commit more strongly to the Trans Caspian and Nabucco pipelines. Over the longer term, Russian pressure against Ankara would drive Turkey, and Europe, to increase their domestic production. There is an estimated 639 trillion cubic meters of shale gas in Europe and Turkey.
Recent events have shown that the Russia and Turkey are able to “compartmentalize” their differences over Syria and keep them from disrupting their overall relationship. Notwithstanding their strains over Syria and Turkey’s support for NATO’s missile defense programs, Ankara agreed to allow construction of the South Stream pipeline, which would enable Gazprom to bypass Ukraine via the Black Sea to deliver gas to Europe. Moscow’s support for Turkey’s becoming a formal dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer reflects the Russian view that increasing Ankara’s role in Central Asia could yield positive benefits in terms of helping stabilize the region as NATO military forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
Despite Kremlin’s anger at the October 11 plane incident, Russia’s Gazprom subsequently increased gas supplies to Turkey from 32 billion cubic meters to 48 bcm after Turkey’s gas pipeline from Iran was blown up, presumably by Kurdish militants.
CONCLUSIONS: The Syrian crisis is a good test of the strength of the Russia-Turkish detente. Thus far, neither government has considered the Syrian issue so important as to warrant breaking ties with the other party. Although Erdoğan and Putin are prone to unhelpful rhetoric, two factors have helped minimize the damage. First, there are no other major problems between Turkey and Russia with the exception of the Syrian crisis. Secondly, Turkey and Russia see net benefits in compartmentalizing their differences over Syria so that they can continue other dimensions of their improving relationship.
However, Turkish-Russian differences over Syria could easily deepen, with adverse consequences for both parties, in coming months or years if the war were to drag on that long. Turkish and Russian perceptions of their partnership potential are already decreasing, affecting calculations of expected costs and benefits from continuing cooperation. If Ankara were to bite the bullet and send Turkish troops into Damascus, Moscow would probably still not severe relations with Ankara over the issue, but a renewed cold war confrontation between the two countries cannot be entirely excluded.
Dr. Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".