What are the implications of the Russian aircraft attack?
On 24 November, a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down by Turkish forces around the Turkey-Syria border area. Inevitably, this sparked great tensions between the two nations and, to make things worse, just a few days later a Russian serviceman was spotted holding a surface-to-air missile launcher as his warship passed through the Bosphorus on 6 December. This has been considered an act of provocation by Turkey’s foreign minister. However, although mutual relations today are far from amicable, to what extent will these series of events affect future Russian-Turkish relations?
Chaos in Syria
The recent tensions between the two nations may well harm coalition efforts against ISIS in Syria. With Turkey’s apparent desire to secure the Azaz-Jarablus line along its southern border, Russia may well be inclined to become forcefully active in northern Syria in the near future, whilst simultaneously getting more vocal about Turkey’s murky relations with ISIS and more willing to support the Kurdish YPG in their expansion into Azaz-Jarablus. Russia’s relationship with the YPG has continuously been condemned by Turkey, who see the YPG as a terrorist organisation due to its ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Some media forces have even gone as far as to bring American policy makers into the equation. With increasing cooperation between Russia and the YPG in the Jarablus region, the events playing out are progressively regarded as a serious challenge by Western superpowers. Thus, the shooting down of the Russian aircraft may well have been the catalyst required in this development of potential political hostility.
Having said this, skirmishes between warplanes have not been a rare occurrence in recent months and so Putin’s remarks of being “stabbed in the back” have certainly given false impressions concerning the previous state of alliance between Russia and Syria. Tensions between the two countries have been present for a while, even if they have been underlying more mainstream issues. Maybe the events of 24 November have been used as a mere excuse to accelerate the already deteriorating relations.
The Politics of Energy
In spite of political tensions that have heightened conflict between Turkey and Russia, there are other avenues of approach that facilitate the potential for more harmonious relations between the two powers. The two nations hold a considerable partnership in the energy sector. Through Blue Stream and Trans-Balkan pipelines, Turkey imports around 70% of its annual natural gas consumption from Russia. Furthermore, Turkey is the second largest importer of Russian natural gas worldwide with twenty-seven billion cubic metres imported annually, placing Turkey only below Germany in the ranks. As if this was not enough, Turkey and Russia are in the process of constructing Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, due for completion in 2020. The cost of the construction will come to approximately $22 billion and will be financed entirely by Russia. It would constitute around 14% of the Turkish national electricity production and thus would provide fantastic return on investment for Russia. The mutual reliance that each country places on one another, with regards to energy, is extreme. From a financial standpoint, therefore, it surely seems unlikely that any political rift is going to develop in the near future.
A Frozen Conflict?
This leaves us in a precarious situation. After the initial imposition of sanctions and dramatic announcements, any quick withdrawal by either side would be perceived as a sign of weakness, and would thus be exploited by the opposition. However, each side is fully aware of the mutual dependency present within this scenario. What this leaves us with is a scene of “frozen conflict”. Neither side will gain by escalating conflict but neither can afford to back down quite yet. Should we let future run its course, it seems likely that a period of inactivity may predominate throughout the coming months.
By Chris Marshall