Re­al­ity check for Putin af­ter plane downed

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Anna Smolchenko

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has found him­self in a bind af­ter the down­ing of a Rus­sian war­plane by Turkey, which high­lights the risks of his gung-ho Syria cam­paign and the dif­fi­culty of forg­ing con­sen­sus on the war-torn coun­try’s fu­ture. The dra­matic es­ca­la­tion in ten­sions be­tween Rus­sia and NATO mem­ber Turkey comes as Putin pre­pares for talks to­day in Moscow with France’s Fran­cois Hol­lande on build­ing a broad coali­tion to fight Is­lamic State (IS) ji­hadists.

Putin, who sup­ports Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime, has sought to cap­i­talise on shift­ing dy­nam­ics in the West in the wake of the Nov 13 at­tacks in Paris that were claimed by IS. Wel­com­ing Hol­lande’s call for greater co­op­er­a­tion on com­bat­ting the ji­hadists in Syria, he or­dered his mil­i­tary to work with NATO mem­ber France “as al­lies” - a first since World War II.

But an­a­lysts say that the down­ing of the Rus­sian plane on Turkey’s bor­der serves as a re­minder that global and re­gional pow­ers are un­likely to band to­gether in a broad coali­tion given their stark dif­fer­ences on the Syr­ian con­flict, not least on the fate of As­sad, a friend of Moscow but a foe of Turkey and the West.

Global Coali­tion Un­likely

“It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine Rus­sia and Turkey in the same coali­tion,” Fy­o­dor Lukyanov, head of the govern­ment-linked Coun­cil on For­eign and De­fence Pol­icy, told AFP. “But the sit­u­a­tion did not change - and maybe even im­proved - as far as Rus­sia’s co­op­er­a­tion with the United States and France is con­cerned.” Turkey’s NATO al­lies called for a rapid de-es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions and stressed the need to pre­vent such in­ci­dents in the fu­ture.

Rus­sia, for its part, said it would not re­tal­i­ate mil­i­tar­ily and Moscow’s am­bas­sador to France, Alexan­der Orlov, even said Moscow was ready to es­tab­lish a “joint staff” to fight the Is­lamic State to­gether with Paris, Wash­ing­ton and Ankara. But Putin’s fury was on full dis­play Tues­day when he ac­cused Turkey of be­tray­ing Rus­sia and back­ing Is­lamic State and sug­gested Rus­sia could re­tal­i­ate with eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal mea­sures.

“Judg­ing by the pres­i­dent’s face yes­ter­day, no losses to Rus­sian com­pa­nies will be able to stop him,” Lukyanov said. “The en­tire model of eco­nomic ties with Turkey - tourism, food, con­sumer goods, con­struc­tion and so on - all of this will be un­der huge pres­sure.” Putin’s do­mes­tic crit­ics flayed the Krem­lin strong­man for the loss of one of the war­plane’s pi­lot and another soldier who was killed dur­ing a failed op­er­a­tion to res­cue the crew. Their deaths be­came Rus­sia’s first known com­bat ca­su­al­ties since Moscow be­gan a bomb­ing cam­paign in Syria on Sept 30. The loss of the Rus­sian jet was also the first known down­ing of a plane over Syria since a Jor­da­nian air­craft came down over the coun­try in 2014.

‘Hu­mil­i­a­tion of Ad­ven­turer’

Po­lit­i­cal ob­server and satirist Vik­tor Shen­derovich ac­cused Putin of tak­ing the coun­try to the brink of war with a NATO mem­ber. “The in­ter­na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion of the mil­i­tary ad­ven­turer had to take place one way or another,” Shen­derovich wrote in a blog, pre­dict­ing the Krem­lin would try to har­ness the in­ci­dent for po­lit­i­cal gain. “There is no doubt they will man­age to use the na­tion’s shock for their own po­lit­i­cal pur­poses; not for the first time,” he said.

Some Rus­sian an­a­lysts sug­gested Turkey shot down the Rus­sian jet out of anger over Putin’s cav­a­lier at­ti­tude to the con­flict and ap­par­ent dis­re­gard for Ankara’s in­ter­ests in the war-torn coun­try. While Putin in­sisted the plane posed no threat to Turkey, Ankara said Moscow was bomb­ing Syria’s Turk­men, a mi­nor­ity it views as an ally in its strug­gle against the As­sad regime. “The Turks want Rus­sia to ac­knowl­edge that along their bor­der there lies a zone not suit­able for sor­ties and bomb­ings,” mil­i­tary an­a­lyst Pavel Fel­gen­hauer told AFP. “Rus­sia is not sim­ply bomb­ing the Turk­men, it is clear­ing a path for an of­fen­sive by As­sad and Hezbol­lah,” he added. “This could lead to the eth­nic cleans­ing of Turk­mens, which is un­ac­cept­able for Turkey.” Rus­sia said it would ratchet up its fire­power in Syria and send its most ad­vanced air de­fence sys­tems to its air­base there, adding that bombers fly­ing sor­ties would be ac­com­pa­nied by fighter jets. The mil­i­tary buildup will in turn in­crease the risk of new in­ci­dents. “The longer the op­er­a­tion, the greater the risks,” Lukyanov said. “You have to be a com­plete lu­natic to be­lieve - af­ter ev­ery­thing we have seen in the Mid­dle East over the past 15 years - that an in­ter­ven­tion in a civil war in the Mid­dle East will be easy and prob­lem-free.”

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