NATO’s Turkey stands up to Russia’s Putin
When news broke on Nov. 24 that NATO member Turkey had shot down a Russian warplane, social media erupted with the #WWIII hashtag and pundits frantically predicted dire consequences.
But as the week wore on, the international incident has merely led to some frenzied saber-rattling by Russia, as well as a flurry of airstrikes on Syria’s border with Turkey near the area where the Russian Su-24 was shot down, leaving one pilot killed and another wounded.
Experts say that while the incident will not trigger World War III, it will shake up the geopolitical situation for a long time to come. The Kremlin’s Vladimir Putin may go to great lengths to preserve his nation’s reputation as a fierce, powerful nation ready to fight.
“This will affect Ukraine in some way because this was not only a direct challenge to Putin’s reputation, but also a challenge to global security. This is the first time someone has responded so strongly to Putin’s aggression, and it just so happens to be a country with which Russia has very close economic relations,” said political analyst Vitali Kulyk.
“Russia does not yet have a concrete plan for how to respond,” he said, beyond lashing out in every sphere possible.
“The Russian media has already begun with its anti-Turkish hysteria. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that we will all soon become witnesses to an aggravated situation in the South Caucasus,” Kulyk said, where Russian authorities may try to make things difficult for Turkey to achieve any sort of cooperation.
All in all, he said, this would likely trigger much more Russian aggression – and this is “only the beginning” of that.
Ukrainian military expert Vyacheslav Tseluiko said the situation had “complicated Russia’s position on the world stage” and would likely make it harder for the Kremlin to win back the West.
Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey have given drastically different accounts of what occurred when the plane was shot down.
Turkish authorities said the pilots had been warned repeatedly to get out of Turkish airspace after invading it several times, though the warnings were not obeyed, and one plane was subsequently shot down. Russia, on the other hand, claims the plane was never in Turkish airspace, and the surviving Russian pilot on Nov. 25 told state-run media he’d never gotten any warnings and had never entered Turkish airspace to begin with.
Using that argument, the Kremlin is portraying the incident as nothing short of a terrorist attack.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the incident had been a “planned provocation” by Turkey, and Putin went even further by describing Turkish authorities as “the accomplices of terrorists.”
“Do they want to put NATO at the service of the Islamic State?” he asked, sending a clear signal to the international community that he regarded this incident as part of the international fight against terrorism – and that Russia was the victim.
The problem for Putin is that Russia has a track record of invading Turkey’s airspace and ignoring warnings. What Putin has described as a “stab in the back,” many others would call karma, or inevitable.
In early October, Turkey’s military scrambled fighter jets after a Russian fighter plane entered its airspace and got a bit too close to Turkish planes patrolling the border with Syria.
At that time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that his country could not put up with such intimidation tactics, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted that the Russian incursions “did not look like an accident.”
But ordinary Russians sided with their leaders this time around, and Russia turned against Turkey in every sphere imaginable: Russian tour operators canceled all trips to Turkey, Russia’s customs service began refusing entry to Turkish products, the country’s health watchdog banned imports of Turkish foods for their “unsanitary” nature.
A mob of angry protesters attacked the Turkish embassy in Moscow, and Russia’s state-run media, in the blink of an eye, made Turkey its new enemy No. 1, replacing Ukraine completely.
Prominent figures even began calling for people to vacation in Crimea rather than Turkey from now on.
“It’s better to vacation in Crimea than in Turkey,” VTB bank head Andrei Kostin told Russia media on Nov. 25.
Oddly, Kostin made no mention of the fact that the Russian-occupied peninsula had next to no electricity after unknown saboteurs blew up power lines to finally sever Ukraine’s energy links with the occupied territory.
That move was the second instance of someone standing up to Putin in the past week.
Human rights activist Halya Coynash told the Kyiv Post that a Ukrainian blockade of the peninsula had apparently triggered more visits by Russia’s Federal Security Service to the relatives of Crimean Tatar leaders.
While she expressed uncertainty about whether Russia would target Crimean Tatars to take revenge on Turkey, she said it couldn’t be ruled out.
“I doubt if it would be as direct as hate Turkey, attack Crimean Tatars. On the other hand, they’re already pushing all kinds of lies about Crimean Tatars recruiting for ISIS. Since (Kremlin spokesman Dmitry) Peskov has apparently just waffled about ‘not excluding’ a terrorist threat from Turkey, then I’d probably expect that line to be pushed even more strongly (in connection with the Crimean Tatars),” Coynash said.
Turkey has expressed support for the Crimean Tatars and had condemned Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from the get-go. It also spoke out against Russia’s bombing of Turkmen fighters near the border with Syria in recent weeks. Now that Russia has increased airstrikes in that area, it seems the chances of success for an international coalition to fight ISIS are quite low.
Dmitry Gorenburg of Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies told the Kyiv Post that a great deal will depend on “how he (Putin) plays it and how the rest of the world reacts.”
“My impression is that most of the international community, including both leaders and analysts, see the downing as an overreaction by Turkey,” Gorenburg said. “Erdogan has not made many friends in recent years, and his international image is only a little better than Putin’s.”
Russia has spun the incident as being tied directly to terrorism, the one area where the Kremlin has been able to bond with the West after the attacks on Paris on Nov. 13.
French President Francois Hollande – who has called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia – was due to meet with Putin on Nov. 26 for talks on closer cooperation in Syria.
The U.S. has also appeared to be warming up to Russia lately.
On Nov. 25, the U.S. Department of State partially lifted sanctions against Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state weapons exporter, for the service of Mi-17 helicopters in Afghanistan “for the purpose of combating terrorism and violent extremism globally.”
It perhaps comes as no surprise then that Western leaders’ reactions to the Turkey incident were quite restrained. U.S. President Barack Obama said Turkey was “within its rights to defend its airspace,” but he stopped short of blaming or criticizing Russia.
NATO chief Stoltenberg was equally restrained, expressing support for Turkey but calling for calm above all else.
Some saw the West’s response as a sign that the international community simply wasn’t ready to stand up to the Kremlin.
“Russia’s generally shallow response to Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber jet reveals that, indeed, Putin is taken aback when confronted with resolution and boldness. Deep in his heart, Putin is a coward; shame that the West seems to be even worse than this,” Anton Shekhovtsov of the Legatum Institute wrote on Facebook.
Protesters take part in a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Moscow. on Nov. 25. Turkey shot down a Russian war plane that entered its airspace near the Syrian border on Nov. 24. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Ankara that the “stab in the...
A protester waves Turkey’s national flag as he and others shout slogans in front of Russia’s consultate in Istanbul during a demonstration against Russia’s Syria policy on Nov. 24 in Istanbul. (AFP)