Fight Club: Erdogan and Putin Square Off

But with Turkey and Russia more friend than foe, is it a battle royale or pissing match?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) hold a joint press conference at Turkey's Presidential Palace in Ankara, on December 1, 2014 .  Erdogan on Monday held talks in Ankara with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin aimed at boosting trade and strengthening relations, despite sharp differences over the crises in Syria and Ukraine. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read )
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) hold a joint press conference at Turkey's Presidential Palace in Ankara, on December 1, 2014 . Erdogan on Monday held talks in Ankara with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin aimed at boosting trade and strengthening relations, despite sharp differences over the crises in Syria and Ukraine. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read )

It was not so long ago that Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were the best of chums. As recently as last week, the Russian and Turkish presidents were seen shaking hands for the cameras at the G20 summit in the Turkish resort town of Antalya. Russia-watchers surely remember how the Kremlin’s master snubbed Europe last December, when he announced from Ankara that a planned pipeline that would transport gas from Russia across the Black Sea to central Europe was to be replaced by a pipeline passing through Turkey. 

Though deeply divided on Syria, Erdogan and Putin have a proven track record cooperating on matters of mutual interest. Turkey has adamantly refused to join the Western sanctions against Moscow, instead looking for opportunities to boost its presence in the Russian market, in the hopes of partly offsetting the gaping trade deficit with Russia. The two leaders even seemed to share a similar style; “two angry men at the borders of Europe: loud, proud and impossible to ignore,” in the words of one Guardian columnist.

With Turkey’s downing on Wednesday of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet, however, the world is wondering whether the two macho leaders are about to begin a proper fist fight. Both sides have ratcheted up their rhetoric. The Russian president spoke angrily of a “stab in the back from accomplices of terrorism,” accusing the Turks of collusion with radical jihadists, including the Islamic State, and warned of “serious consequences.” He also lamented Turkey’s slide toward Islamism under its present rulers. Erdogan, for his part, insisted that the plane was shot down in Turkish airspace after having ignored repeated warnings. Always keen to stir nationalist sentiments, he has also condemned the Russian air attacks on Turkmen-populated areas in northwest Syria.

This grudge is not new. Top officials in Ankara have been voicing anger at the bombing of Turkmen villages across the border, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addressing the issue last Friday. But the direct confrontation between Turkish F-16s and Russian jets brings tensions to a new level. Gathered in Brussels on Turkey’s request, NATO ambassadors expressed solidarity with Turkey.

Is the crisis bound to spiral out of control? Don’t hold your breath. Having been at peace since the 1917 Brest-Litovsk Treaty, the smart money is on Moscow and Ankara remaining civil. There will be muscle-flexing aplenty, but a military showdown serves neither country’s interests.

Turkey’s Western allies are already trying to ease tensions. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg actually struck a conciliatory note, calling for “calm and de-escalation” between Russia and Turkey following the NATO meeting. The incident is being framed as a failure of existing “deconfliction” arrangements in Syria’s overcrowded skies, rather than a punch-up between NATO and the Russians reminiscent of the Cold War.

Indeed, Moscow and Ankara already seem to be moving to deescalate tensions. After Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu phoned to “express sorrow,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was not going to wage war against Turkey. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, once the architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, also noted the Russian Federation is a friend. “We have no intention of escalating this incident,” added Erdogan.

That said, it is hard to paper over the conflict between Russia and Turkey in Syria. To be sure, Russia’s intervention has come as a shock to Erdogan and his associates. The dramatic build-up of the Russian air base near Latakia, along with the deployment of a 4,000-strong contingent of troops, has dealt a serious blow to the Turkish goal of establishing a no-fly zone and a de facto safe haven for anti-Assad rebels. Moscow’s airstrikes have hit militias supported by Ankara. What is more, a potential deal between the United States and Russia over a political transition in Syria, elusive as it is, risks sidelining Turkey.

Erdogan has good reasons to bare his teeth and try to teach Putin a lesson. Turkey is not in a position to undercut the incipient political negotiations over Syria — French President Francois Hollande is heading to Moscow on Nov. 26 to continue that process. Yet, Ankara will do its best to bloodying the Russians’ nose, if only to save face.

At the same time, Putin and Erdogan have plenty of incentives to prevent things getting out of hand. From a Russian perspective, Turkey is a valuable economic partner: It remains the second-largest customer of Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas company and Putin’s personal cash-cow. Even if the much talked-about “Turkish Stream” — Erdogan’s term for the Russian gas pipeline that would pass through Turkey — is in tatters, the prospects for energy sales are actually good. According to estimates by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, demand for gas is going to triple in 10 years’ time, in contrast to the continuous decline of sales in the increasingly competitive EU market. Conversely, Turkish construction firms like Enka İnşaat have made billions of dollars in projects across Russia, notably in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.

A lucrative tourism business also connects the two countries. Millions of Russians flock to Turkish sea resorts each year and their numbers are likely to go even higher in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack against a Russian airliner above Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Thus far, the Russian government has resisted calls to restrict flights to Turkey because of security concerns, but now it is facing renewed pressure to take that step. Lavrov said Russia will discourage its citizens from traveling to Turkey, but thus far there is no mention of cutting flights to Istanbul or Antalya. Turkish Airlines is now the biggest foreign carrier serving Russia, having seen an increase of its traffic by 16 percent over the past year. The recent tensions, however, are hurting its stock, along with that of a number of Russian oil and gas companies.

Despite the negative chemistry at present, Ankara and Moscow are also on the same page regarding a range of security issues. Turkey is irked by Russia’s support for the Syrian Kurds — but Russians have not backed Kurdish autonomy, nor raised the question of the revisiting territorial boundaries in the region. Turkey has also shown a great deal of understanding to Russian concerns about militancy and separatism originating in the North Caucasus, which has been a key concern for Moscow since the 1990s. Ankara closely monitors North Caucasus diasporas and has not allowed radicals from there to operate freely from its soil. Indeed, Turkish law enforcement agencies have failed to prosecute recurrent assassinations of prominent Chechens who fled there after the second Russian-Chechen war.

And for all the sympathy expressed to Russia’s Tatar population, Ankara’s reaction to the 2014 annexation of Crimea was rather subdued — much like the response to Putin’s presence in Yerevan for the centennial of the 1915 Armenian genocide. (A bill has just been introduced in the Duma to criminalize its denial, however, may yet irk Ankara.)

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) might have overhauled Ankara’s policy in the Middle East — but with regard to bilateral ties with Moscow, the conservative, risk-averse line pursued since the 1990s still holds. Off the record, Turkish officials also blame the West for the war in eastern Ukraine, pointing out that the reluctance to intervene in Syria has given license to Putin to step in to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Turkey and Russia may not be friends — today, they seem far from it — but the two countries seem to understand each other well. How this current incident will play out depends on Erdogan and Putin: True to their penchant for using foreign policy to please constituents at home, the two leaders might well continue their Punch and Judy show in the short-term. But after the obligatory bellicose outbursts, it would be rational to de-escalate the conflict.

Putin’s priority remains the Entente Cordiale with the West, not the opening of additional fronts. Brimming with confidence after his triumph in the Nov. 1 elections, Erdogan has scored a last-minute point and reminded everyone, including the Kremlin, that Turkey matters. However, it is anyone’s guess what the Turkish president’s winning strategy in Syria may look like.


Dimitar Bechev is Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).