The dangerous confrontation following the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey on Tuesday is showing no signs of easing.
This is, without doubt, the most serious flare-up between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War and its repercussions will be felt far beyond Turkey and Russia.
A series of miscalculations, both by Turkey and Russia, led to this crisis. Now, efforts to de-escalate it seem to be beset with further blunders.
Ever since Russia decided to take an active part in Syria’s civil war, an accidental military confrontation was a dreaded possibility.
Turkey had reported other incursions earlier and both Turkey and NATO had warned against violations of Turkish airspace by Russian aircraft before.
It was only when the Russians intensively targeted the Syrian Turkmen areas close to Turkey’s border, threatening to derail Ankara’s controversial Syria policy, the Russian ambassador was summoned to the Turkish Foreign ministry and warned about “the serious consequences”.
Russia did not take the warning seriously, claimed it was targeting ISIS militants in the area and in a post-Paris massacre era, seemed confident it had the moral high ground. Russia’s first miscalculation was its failure to see that Turkey also claimed a moral high ground of its own.
The Turkish government says that the Russian plane had been warned 10 times, over a five-minute period, before it was hit but the warplane continued its approach to the Turkish border. Incursion was brief, perhaps even briefer than the previous occasions, but this time the Turkish response was drastic.
Turkey has released a radar analysis and voice recordings of its warnings to Russian aircraft. In absence of similar Russian evidence, Turkey seems to have acted within the international law. Rejecting Turkey’s version of events, Russian officials first claimed that the plane was at no time over Turkey and later they said even if it was, it posed no threat to Turkey.
Russia has clearly misjudged the possibility of a trigger-happy response. More importantly, it seemed to overlook the consequences of coming face-to-face with a NATO-member.
When Turkey summoned an emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors in the North Atlantic Council, Putin seemed surprised.
“Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident—as if we had shot down their plane and not the other way around,” he said. “What do they want: to put NATO at the service of ISIS?”
Perhaps, Mr Putin only remembered the occasions when Mr Erdogan blamed the various lobbies of the west for all his country’s ills. May be he took his one-time flirting with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation seriously.
The US and NATO both backed the Turkish version of events, saying that Turkey has a right to defend its sovereignty. Even if they questioned Turkey’s wisdom behind the close doors, it was foolish to expect them to do anything but stand publicly “in solidarity with Turkey”.
United, they stood, but both Turkey and its allies were fully aware of the dangers of an escalation.
The US, NATO and the UN have all called for calm and Ankara received the message.
President Erdogan defended Turkey’s right to protect its borders but made it clear that Turkey did not want any escalation with Russia. A little later, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told ruling party members in parliament that they never wanted to strain ties with Russia. “Russia is a friend and neighbour,” said Mr Davutoglu, adding “Relations between big nations cannot be sacrificed to communication accidents”.
Soon after, Turkey’s Foreign Minister called his counter-part Sergei Lavrov, to express his sorrow over the incident. The Turkish Foreign ministry also announced an imminent meeting to keep communication channels open.
This, too, turned out to be a serious miscalculation.
Not only the Russian Foreign Ministry denied any such arrangement existed, the tone of all official statements have turned noticeably more aggressive.
The softer and more conciliatory Turkey has appeared, the harsher and more hostile Russian rhetoric has become.
True, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Russia would not wage a war against Turkey but it soon became apparent Russia was not quite ready to forgive and move on, either.
The Defence Ministry has announced that Russia was deploying advanced missile systems in Syria. Russia has already retaliated through economic measures. Russian travellers, a mainstay of Turkey’s tourism industry, were warned not to go to Turkey. Russians have stopped all poultry imports from Turkey and as the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put it, cancelling several important projects with Turkey and barring Turkish companies from the Russian market were still options to be considered. Turkey’s embassy in Moscow had the usual treatment, its windows were smashed by Russian nationalists. Unlike Turkey’s nationalists, Russian thugs knew where exactly throw their stones and eggs.
In the meantime, joint Russian-Syrian military operations targeting Turkmen villages close to the Turkish border areas have intensified. A Turkish aid convoy came under attack almost as soon as it crossed the border into Syria.
If anyone is still wondering where Mr Putin’s brinkmanship is heading to, I suggest taking note of his statement that he made soon after Turkey’s declaration of renewed friendship:
“The problem is much deeper” he said, “we have been observing that the current Turkish leadership over a significant number of years has been pursuing a deliberate policy of supporting the Islamisation of their country.”
The Pandora’s Box has indeed been opened.
This post is also available in: Turkish