At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Russia and Turkey were on diametrically opposite sides. Russia was supporting the regime, the Turkish government the opposition. Nonetheless, Turkish-Russian relations remained on track.
On November 24, 2015, a stunning development changed the picture. Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 military plane for having violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. This was no “accident”. It was a tragic “incident”.
Had Turkish-Russian relations been characterized by antagonism, unresolved disputes, and continuing tensions, the path to this incident could have been explained more easily. But the two countries were enjoying a stable, friendly and mutually rewarding relationship for decades. Russia met more than 50% of Turkey’s natural gas needs. Every year more than 4 million Russians came to Turkey, in particular to our Mediterranean coast for summer holidays. Turkish companies had undertaken contracts worth billions of dollars in Russia providing jobs for thousands of Turks. Bilateral trade volume was over 30 billion dollars. Russia was going to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Presidents Putin and Erdogan had always given the impression of maintaining a close personal relationship. Political relations perhaps were not yet abreast with economic cooperation but continuing to improve.
In the wake of the incident, President Putin vented his anger. He directed far-reaching accusations against the Turkish government for having links to the Islamic State (IS). And, he imposed a series of punishing economic sanctions against Ankara. In response, Turkey’s leadership said that more than enough warnings had been issued for airspace violations. It rejected IS-related accusations as slander.
A week after the incident Prime Minister Davutoğlu went to Brussels. Following their talks, he and NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a joint news conference. Mr Stoltenberg stated that they had discussed the incident and all allies fully supported Turkey’s right to defend its territorial integrity and its airspace. He added that he welcomed Turkey’s efforts to de-escalate the situation.
Mr Davutoğlu said:
“… Turkish-Syrian border also is a NATO border. The violation was not only against the Turkish border but also against NATO border. Therefore, the same day, we gave all the details, all the details to NATO Allies in NAC, in Council meeting. And we are ready to share all the information with any party to satisfy, to convince, to explain our position… I want to express our thanks to all NATO Allies expressing their solidarity with Turkey…”
In brief, Mr Stoltenberg supported Turkey’s version of the incident, reiterated Turkey’s right to defend its borders but urged calm.
It seemed that the downing of Su-24 helped NATO and Turkey remember one another. The reality, however, was that NATO countries preferred to avoid a confrontation with Russia over an incident which had occurred without their having an opportunity to say a word.
Soon, however, bravado gave way to realities. Ankara had to recognize that confrontation with Russia was not sustainable. Thus, in June 2016 Turkey apologized for the incident and an effort to restore the relationship was launched. However, misfortunes were not over. On 19 December 2016, Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was assassinated by an off-duty Turkish police officer with dubious links, at an art exhibition in Ankara.
Later in 2017, Turkey signed the S-400s deal with Russia in its first major weapons purchase from Moscow. Turkey’s NATO allies were critical of the deal, but Ankara said this was its sovereign decision. As allied criticism became more vocal Ankara simply said this was a “done deal”.
Turkey may have valid points regarding the price and technology transfer aspects of Western air-defense systems. However, it is hard to imagine that Russia would be more generous towards Turkey in defense technology transfer than Ankara’s NATO allies. Moscow was probably more interested in driving wedges between Turkey and the West than the 2.5 billion dollars it will get out of the deal. But in this particular case, it appeared to have accomplished both.
As for Ankara’s defense needs, it can be said that when Turkey felt threatened NATO has been there to offer support. For example, in response to Turkey’s request, NATO Foreign Ministers decided on 4 December 2012 to augment Turkey’s air defense capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey against threats posed by missiles from across its border with Syria. As of January 2013, five Allies contributed missile batteries to augment Turkey’s air defense: Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States. Currently, Spain and Italy provide one Patriot missile battery and one ASTER SAMP/T battery each to the deployment which is under NATO command and plugged into NATO’s air defense system.
What still remains unclear about Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defense is the underlying threat assessment. Are these batteries going to be deployed against threats from Turkey’s neighbors? If so, which are these countries?
Last week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the deployment of S-400s will begin in October. He added that the acquisition of Russian air defense systems was not Turkey’s preference, but a forced measure to protect Turkish people. He also said the Turkish Air Force was studying in which regions it is better to deploy the batteries.
A day later, neither the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets nor the Patriot air defense systems will be available to the Turkish military once they get the S-400s, a Pentagon spokesman threatened.
All of this compels one to try and understand the logic of the S-400 deal from Ankara’s perspective.
When looked at in the broad context of Turkey’s relationship with Russia, one cannot but conclude that the S-400 contract was the price Turkey had to pay to put behind the downing of the Su-24, the murder of the Ambassador and thus restore its cooperation with Moscow. Because Turkey’s well-advanced multidimensional economic cooperation with Russia is not something Ankara can easily give up. Moreover, Ankara has no other option than cooperating with Russia in Syria.
Turkey’s NATO allies would be well-advised to see the deal as such, as Turkey’s making amends with Russia after two tragic incidents and refrain from taking their relationship with Ankara to new lows. And, Ankara must cease its constant anti-Western rhetoric.
Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has been the greatest foreign and security policy blunder in the history of the Republic and the government needs to recognize this. Before we became a party to the conflict our relations with Russia were stable. The only problem with the West was our democratic decline. Today, unfortunately, we find ourselves in a very narrow alley between the two with long lists of problems.
Eight years ago, we started off partnering with our NATO allies to overthrow President Assad and were on opposite sides with Russia. Eight years on, we are partnering with Russia and confronting our NATO allies for supporting terrorists.
In an extremely confusing world, this much is clear: Turkey can only sail towards calmer waters with reason, quiet diplomacy and return to the democratic path.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog: https://diplomaticopinion.com/2019/03/11/from-downing-of-russian-military-aircraft-to-the-purchase-of-russian-s-400s/