Is Putin playing Russian roulette with Turkey?
Vladimir Putin is known as a strategic planner. Most every expansionary action he takes is calculated, decisive and incendiary. Whether or not a Russian fighter jet strayed into Turkish territory is inconsequential at this point. The actions that were taken by the Turkish air force cannot be undone – a fighter pilot is dead and the other one was rescued by Russian and Syrian forces. Turkey maintains that it sent out all necessary communication to the pilots, and within 17 seconds it was game over.
Questions and comments have been flying thick and fast in both directions: Is Turkey to blame? Is Russia to blame? Does it really matter? These are all important questions that need to be answered with a cool head and an eye to the deescalation of the conflict. Unfortunately, neither man in Tayyip Erdogan or Vladimir Putin is likely to back down from a challenge. Already though, a sharp war of words has ensued between both countries with promises of punitive sanctions being imposed on Turkey by the Russian government.
Turkey is a NATO country and Russia isn’t. Turkey is supporting forces seeking the ouster of President Bashar alAssad. Russia by contrast has dropped anchor in Syria with an impressive and formidable military arsenal. Vladimir Putin is a close personal friend of the Syrian dictator, and he’s doing everything in his power to prevent him from being toppled by anti-government forces, separatists and ISIS. As such, the Russians have been flying hundreds of sorties every week against enemy forces – much to the chagrin of NATO countries like Turkey, the US and others in the region.
The Russians are less concerned about destroying ISIS than they are about propping up Assad. The tit-for-tat tension between Turkey and Russia has been going on for quite some time, and it appears that when the Russian fighter jet strayed into Turkish airspace, tensions boiled over and the decision was made to shoot it down within 17 seconds. Putin and colleagues contend that no advance warning was given to the Russian jet and that it was an unprovoked act of aggression which Turkey should pay dearly for. However, Vladimir Putin has stopped short of calling for military action against Turkey.
Geopolitical tensions have been ratcheting up between these two countries in the wake of this highly contentious issue. Russia recently suffered the loss of one of its passenger jets that was reportedly blown up by the terrorist group ISIS. With both these men taking centre stage, it’s easy to see how a rush of blood to the head could cause irreparable damage between the countries. As it stands, Turkish exports to Russia make up 4.3% of total exports, while Turkish imports from Russia comprise 6.5% of total imports. These are significant figures, and Russia remains one of the prime trading partners of Turkey. If we turn our attention to the currency cross exchange rates between the TRY and the RUB, there’s nothing in it. There has been a 1.46% appreciation of the Turkish lira over the past month. That hardly indicates a sharp downturn in economic fortunes for either country as a result of the brewing conflagration.
Turkey is fortunate in that it receives an estimated 3 mln Russian tourists annually. In terms of overall trade with Turkey, Russia ranks second. The slight volatility that has been evident in the TRY/RUB of late is negligible. On Friday, November 27, the TRY/RUB pair was trading at 22.7142. In the days preceding that, the Turkish lira was markedly stronger, which indicates that there has been a strengthening of the ruuble since the incident. It is minor however. The Russians have not wasted any time implementing measures to show Turkey who is running the show. They have deployed batteries of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles throughout Syria. These are the most advanced anti-aircraft systems in the world and very few aircraft can avoid the radar of the system. Only a select few American jets have this capability. It is capable of firing up to 72 missiles with near-100% success at 11,000 mph with a 10-second response time. This defensive system is a game-changer; it is precisely what the US and its allies do not want to have in the hands of the enemy since it all but assures aerial supremacy for Syria and Iran. It can also hit ICBMs at an altitude of 30km. All Russian bombers will now be accompanied by fighter jets in Syria.
There are several economic measures that the Russians are contemplating at the moment, including the following:
- Financial and commercial restrictions for investment and bilateral trade;
- Russia plans to put a halt to the natural gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea, as well as a stop to the nuclear power plant that is being built for Turkey;
- Russia has already instructed travel agencies across the country to stop selling packages to Turkey, which is worth an estimated $2.7 bln annually;
- Russia also plans to place stricter controls on agricultural imports from Turkey, which it says substandard;
- Russia will now slow the rate at which Turkish trucks can enter into the country, forcing them to undergo more stringent tests, regulations and customs controls. the are
These tit-for-tat measures are similar in part to the constraints that were placed on Russia when it invaded the Crimean peninsula. Turkey will balk at these measures since Russia is a major trading partner and a major supplier of energy. The more likely outcome is a repair in the rift that has taken place recently, with an eye to the de-escalation of the conflict.