Until this week, the exchanges between Turkey and Russia were verbal. Rhetoric back and forth, accusations to the other and emphases on the own goals and results. In the view of Turkey, an opponent of the Syrian Government and supporter of rebel forces, Russia was actively attacking the rebel forces which Turkey supports and not attacking ISIS at all. Russia, a strong support of the Syrian Government, accused Turkey of supporting the rebel forces and allowing supplies and financing of ISIS through Turkey.
The majority of these rhetoric cannonades seemed to be focused more on the own local audience than on shirtfronting the other side in a serious manner. Turkey upped the exchange of verbal attacks when it claimed that Russian fighter jets were penetrating its airspace and summoned the Russian Aide over these incidents. Not surprisingly at all, Russian denounced these claims except for one instance in which Russia stated this occurred by mistake. Russia took the verbal battles to the next level by stating that the ISIS oil production and trade it started to attack was mainly distributed through Turkey, which Turkey of course denied in all thinkable ways.
All rhetorical statements for political purposes between 2 parties that obviously support other sides in the same armed conflict. Nothing out of the ordinary, popcorn moments at most. Until Turkey decided to attack a Russian SU-24…
Words changed into an attack on a Russian combatant fighter jet and the world held its breath in anticipation of the Russian response. More verbal exchanges followed, Russia now openly accusing Turkey of sponsoring terrorism in Syria and Turkey increasing its accusations of Russia attacking civilians and threatening its territory. The notorious only community pitched in with Oscar worthy conspiracy theories and even the parties involved come up with some of those. That Turkey has active monitoring of the airspace over the conflict in its neighboring country and fighter jets up and ready to intercept any plane on a path towards Turkish territory is now seen by some as evidence that this was all a setup. And this is just one example where standard operating procedures become food for speculations and fantasies to pleas the ego of the fantasists.
Russia is entitled to respond and in the hearts and minds of its population, Russia is obligated to respond to the attack on the SU-24 and its crew. On a military level, Russia has so far decided to step up its air defense capabilities in Syria and appears to have significantly increased its operations in rebel held territory bordering Turkey.
Russian-Turkish economical ties
The second trump which Russia has played today is to implement economical sanctions on Turkey and those will make Turkey pay a very high price for its decision to “shoot first, ask questions later”. The Turkey/Russia trade balance shows a 1/5 balance in the favor of Turkey, meaning that the export volume by Turkey is 5 times bigger than the import volume. A positive export/import balance which most western countries would be jealous about! Russia supplies Natural Gas to Turkey, around 20-25% of the total demand for NG in Turkey and especially the heavy industry depends on this. Russian tourists are the second largest segment in the Turkish Tourism industry and Russia itself is also a popular destination for Turkish tourists.
Since the reunification of Crimea with Russia, Turkey has stepped up its role as strategic trade partner for Russia in several ways. Turkey was among the first countries to continue to express its economical support of Russia during the imposed sanctions by the West. Turkey identified the opportunity to increase export volumes to Russia and took it immediately. Turkey also recognized the opportunity to increase its political influence by speaking for the Tatar population of Crimea, which historical ties with Turkey go back to the Ottoman Empire, and by announcing investments and interest groups for the region, defacto recognized Crimea as part of Russia.
Turkey’s active trading with Russia and visa-free travel regime between the countries opened another opportunity for Turkey and its developing economy. Russian and European companies discovered what is now commonly known as the “Turkey Route”. Business opportunities which would normally be prohibited by the sanctions between the West and Russia are handled through Turkey directly or indirectly. Multinationals with Turkish subsidiaries have also discovered the opportunities of shifting its business with Russia through the traditional strategic trade partner of Russia.
Opportunity knocked when tensions between Russia and the West continued to increase and Turkey took that opportunity. Benefiting from increased trade with Russia, stepping in where Western companies were forced to step out and as a bonus the investment commitment to build a “Plan B” South Stream through Turkey. Opportunity knocked, Turkey opened the door and now Turkey has basically smacked that same door in its own face by directly attacking Russia…
Russia needs Turkey but not as much as Turkey needs Russia. The already stressed tourism sector will suffer now that the Nr. 2 has basically closed the door for tourism. Russia’s local food supplies are rapidly developing towards replacing “unfriendly” imports which will allow Russia to rapidly declare Turkey to be an “unfriendly” supplier.
How far will Russia go?
What could hurt Russia more than it will hurt Turkey is possible embargoes on parts and components under sanctions by western countries for which Turkey rapidly became the alternative channel in the past 18 months. Russia has however demonstrated the ability to develop alternatives as it has done by channeling this trade and supplies through Turkey when the West closed the door.
Trumps which will most likely not be played by either party are gas and Bosporus Strait access. Turkey needs the Russian gas and Russia needs the Turkish cash for that gas. Russia needs passage through the Bosporus Strait as the only free water way to the Black Sea and its new asset Crimea and Turkey can’t afford a blockade by the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The Russian market, which was once a strong contributor to the Turkish economy has now become a weakness in this conflict with Russia. Cutting off a large part of the 5/1 Turkey/Russia trade balance will hurt the Turkish economy severely and Russia has demonstrated its ability and willingness to go the distance. Maybe, Turkey and Russia will find common grounds to sort out this conflict but that doesn’t appear to be realistic for the near future. The economical impact of this conflict will not weigh against the demands of the Russian population that Turkey must pay for the attack on the SU-24.
Russia will not simply turn the other cheek but it will also not simply go to war with Turkey. It is however very likely that Russia will use the power play it now has to force Turkey to step away from the Syrian war and cut its support of the rebel forces fighting the Syrian Government. To avoid loosing its face at home, Turkey might use this situation to increase its war against Kurdish forces in Iraq and attempt to cut Kurdish forces in Syrian from supplies and reinforcements.
These are challenging, interesting and saddening times. Turkey could have and should have joined a strong coalition to fight and defeat ISIS in all it stands for, Turkey could have even played a leading role in building this coalition. In stead, Turkey did not only stab Russia in the back, it also stabbed itself in the back with this action.
Turkey bit of more than it can swallow!