But Putin’s strident language aside, what he called Turkey’s “stab in the back” was no accident.
The relationship between him and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already grown dangerously strained. Erdogan was said to have complained that Putin did not given him enough time during a short visit to Moscow last September, and left him in the dark about Russia’s imminent airstrikes in Syria. Most important, however, is that Russia’s military intervention in Syria undercut Ankara’s policies and threatened its interests in a region that Erdogan and his associates regard as Turkey’s “near abroad.” The rest is mere icing on the cake.
With its campaign of airstrikes launched in September, Russia bolstered Syrian President’s Bashar al-Assad’s military in the face of a possible defeat, which Erdogan was looking forward to but which, in Putin’s view, would have likely handed Damascus to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The appearance of Russian warplanes over Syria also immediately dashed hopes in Ankara of a no-fly zone, which Turkey believes would have neutralized Assad’s air power. By backing Syrian Kurds, who demand territorial autonomy along the Turkish border, Moscow also nixed Ankara's plans of a buffer zone. Finally, just before the shoot-down last month, Russia’s bombing of oil caravans headed from Syria to Turkey cut lucrative cross-border trade, which Moscow claimed benefited ISIL, despite Ankara’s vociferous denials.
Russia did not respond to the downing of its plane and the death of its two servicemen with a military strike against Turkey. However, its reaction has been severe. Essentially, Putin has written off Erdogan as a partner, after a generally productive relationship with him over the past decade. To Putin, Erdogan has committed an act of treachery, a capital crime in the Russian president’s book. Given Putin’s role in Russia and Erdogan’s position in Turkey, this means a political rupture between the two countries, which is unlikely to heal as long as the two leaders are in power.
Russia’s material response has come in the form of sanctions, which undermine a thriving commercial relationship. Some trade will survive, but Turkey has likely ceased to be a favorite holiday destination for Russian tourists — numbering 3 million a year, bringing in some $5 billion in revenue. Though Russia will not turn off its Blue Stream gas pipeline, upon which Turkey is reliant, the fallout has delivered a coup de grace to Gazprom’s controversial Turkish Stream project designed to bring gas through to Southern Europe. Rosatom’s nuclear power plant project in Turkey is also now in doubt.
The intangible losses to the Russian-Turkish relationship include a radical shift in Russian public opinion vis-à-vis Ankara. Since the early 1990s, Turkey has developed a largely positive image among Russians as a hospitable and friendly country. Past conflicts, including a dozen wars, were more vividly remembered by the Turks, many of whom remained suspicious of the northern neighbor, than by the Russians, who were now ready to embrace them. This has changed, with some of the dusted-off images of the Ottomans revived in the Russian public mind.
Thus, the Russo-Turkish conflict is for the long haul. It has not killed a fragile Vienna process on Syria, but nonetheless has complicated the resurgent diplomatic push to end the Syrian conflict nearly five years after it started. With Russian planes operating in Syria close to the Turkish border, and the Russian S-400 air defense system deployed in Latakia, the danger of new incidents and new casualties, laden with even more serious consequences, remains high. Moscow has already hinted that it would regard the closure of the Turkish Straits by Ankara as an act of war.
A range of issues — including disputes over the claims of ethnic minorities and festering political conflicts in the other’s backyard — are now increasingly finding their way back onto the Russian-Turkish agenda. Russia’s informal but close alignment with Iran, Iraq, and Syria raises obstacles for Turkey’s regional ambitions. From fruit exports to budget tourism, Egypt is seeking to replace Turkey as Russia’s privileged partner. For its part, Turkey enjoys a close relationship with Azerbaijan, has ties with Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia, and can make common cause with Russia’s arch-enemy Ukraine.
The vast common neighborhood of the two former empires, which even a year ago looked a promising area for their interest-based cooperation, is turning into an area of contention. And as Syria’s conflict remains unresolved, the gulf between the two countries seems only to be widening.