The Turco-Russian Crisis: Erdogan vs. Putin
December 16, 2015
During the morning of November 24 the semi-official Anatolia News Agency quoted “Turkish presidential sources” in reporting that “Turkish jets shot down a warplane believed to be a Russian-type SU-24 after it violated the Turkish air space. The incident happened near Turkey’s southern border with Syria.” Confirmation quickly followed that one of two Russian aircraft on a bombing mission against Syrian Turkmens, backed by Ankara against the Assad regime, was shot down by a Turkish fighter aircraft as it traversed the southernmost tip of the Turkish province of Hatay for 17 seconds before crashing in Syria.
The shooting down of the Russian plane, the first by a NATO country since 1952 during the Korean War, has exacerbated existing tensions between Russia and the West while undermining the previously close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The subsequent war of words between the two men, who are famous for their aversion to losing face with their domestic constituencies as well as for their fervent displays of patriotic pride, has been continuing unabated.
Putin: “Our pilots and jet posed no threat to the Turkish Republic. This is obvious. They were conducting an operation against ISIL…Now we’ve suffered stabs in the back, attacks against our planes that fight with terrorism…We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from ISIS-occupied territories.” [After a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan in Sochi] On November 16 at the G20 Summit hosted by Turkey, Putin had alleged that the money for ISIL “comes from 40 countries and, there are some of the G20 members among them.”
Erdogan: “This morning an unidentified war jet that violated our airspace despite our warnings was intercepted in line with our rules of engagement…One of the two jets was shot down after our F-16’s intervened…There is no DAESH where Bayirbucak Turkmens are…We very well know why they are being attacked. These attacks are meant to sustain the Assad regime.” [At an event at the Presidential Palace in Ankara]
Putin: “The problem is not in the tragedy we faced yesterday, the problem is much deeper…the current leadership of Turkey has been for a number of years pursuing a purposeful policy of the Islamization of the country.” [TASS news report]
Erdogan: “No one should expect us to remain silent when our border security, our sovereignty and rights are being constantly violated.” [Speech at the COMCEC meeting in Istanbul]
Putin: “We see as absolutely unexplainable the treacherous stabs in the back from those we had seen as our partners and allies in the anti-terrorist struggle…We have not heard yet apologies from the highest political level of Turkey…One gets the impression that the Turkish leadership is deliberately steering the Russian-Turkish relations into the dead end, this is regrettable.” [TASS news report] On the same day the Russian Ministry of Defense declared that all military cooperation with Turkey had been suspended, including the ‘Red Line’ which allows communication in times of military emergencies.
Erdogan: “I think that if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us. Those who violated our airspace are the ones who need to apologize…There is no deliberate effort from our side to bring the relationship to a standstill…Of course, we are saddened by what happened. We are disturbed by what happened because we have a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation, a partnership of great importance.” [Interview with CNN International]
“Had we known it was a Russian plane we may have acted differently…But our pilots know the rules of engagement and have to do their duty to protect Turkish airspace. We need to talk about what happened but Putin has not returned my call.” [Interview with France 24]
Putin: “It is a great pity that the unprecedented level of our interstate relations that has been reached with Turkey over the past 10 years is so thoughtlessly and stupidly being destroyed…We considered Turkey not only a neighbor but a friendly state, nearly an ally.” [News conference after talks with President Francois Hollande in Moscow]
Erdogan : “Supporting the Assad regime is playing with fire...We sincerely recommend Russia not to play with fire.” [Speech in Bayburt]
Erdogan: “If we let our sovereignty be constantly violated…that area will no longer be our land…We are truly sorry for this incident. We would not have wished this to happen but unfortunately it did.” [Speech in Balikesir] On the same day Putin signed an executive order imposing economic sanctions against Turkey and suspending visa-free travel for Turkish citizens as of January 1.
Putin: “We have recently received additional reports that confirm that oil from ISIL-controlled territories is delivered to the territory of Turkey on an industrial scale…We have every reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to ensure security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports where they are shipped in tankers…” [Press conference at the Climate Change Conference in Paris] Putin refused a meeting with his Turkish counterpart at the conference. On the same day, the body of the Russian pilot, who ejected from his aircraft but was shot and killed by insurgents while parachuting to the ground, was handed over to the Russian military in Ankara.
Erdogan: “We showed our good will to Russia. We asked for a meeting…The American Treasury Department says one person who buys oil from the terror organization DAESH is a Russian-Syrian dual citizen…We are not dishonorable enough to make such a trade with terror organizations.” [Comments to journalists at the Climate Change Conference in Paris]
Erdogan: “Russia is losing credibility with such slanderous campaigns. For example, Mr. Putin’s allegation that Turkey is buying oil from DAESH has no credibility…We will not be ruined if we do not have Russian natural gas…” [Comments to Turkish journalists before flying from Paris to Doha] On the same day, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov accused President Erdogan and his family of involvement in the ISIS oil trade and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at the OSCE meeting in Belgrade. Afterwards Lavrov commented “We met with the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry at his insistent request, and we heard nothing new.”
Putin: “We are not going to rattle the sabre. But, if someone thinks they can commit a heinous war crime, kill our people and get away with it, suffering nothing but a ban on tomato imports, or a few restrictions in construction or other industries, they are delusional. We will remind them of what they did, more than once. They will regret it. We know what to do…I do not even understand why they did it…We were ready to cooperate with Turkey on all the most sensitive issues it had; we were willing to go further, where its allies refused to go. Allah only knows, I suppose, why they did it. And probably, Allah has decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by taking their mind and reason.” [Annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow]
Erdogan: “What is Russia doing in Syria? So what if you were invited in by Assad? You are not obliged to accept the invitation from the murderer of 380,000 people.” [Speech in Ankara]
Erdogan: “There are news stories that the Russians have halted Turkish Stream…On the contrary, this is a project that was frozen by us some time ago as our demands have not been met. Even if your imports are worth a billion dollars, Turkey is not a country that will be destroyed by that. What difference will it make if you buy or not? There will be others who will do so... In addition to Russia, we also get gas supplies from countries like Iran, Azerbaijan and Qatar.” [Speech in Istanbul]
Erdogan: “Two Russian-Syrian dual citizens take the oil and sell it to the regime and the world…They are so brazen.” [Speech at the Presidential Palace in Ankara]
Putin: “Whatever we learn [from the flight recorder] will not change our attitude to what the Turkish authorities did…We used to treat Turkey not only as our friend but also as an ally in the fight against terrorism and nobody expected this low treacherous stab in the back.” [AFP news report] At the presentation to him of the flight recorder of the downed Russian by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Erdogan: “Does the Russian Federation have borders with these countries? No. They already had a base in Tartus, now he has established himself in northern Latakia with jets and missiles.” [Speaking at a press conference in Ankara]
“A soldier posed with a missile at the bow of a Russian ship passing through our Bosphorus. This is very emotional, childish…At the same point in time there were three NATO ships anchored nearby at Sarayburnu. If we wanted tensions, things would have been very different.” [Interview with Al Jazeera Arabic] On December 6 Turkish TV stations had broadcast footage of a serviceman on the deck of a Russian naval vessel holding a rocket launcher on his shoulder as it passed through the Bosphorus.
Putin: “I order you to act very tough. Any targets that threaten Russian forces or our infrastructure on the ground should be immediately destroyed.” [At a session of the Russian Defense Ministry’s collegium in Moscow]
Erdogan: “An incident caused by the mistake of a pilot who either did not pay heed to warnings or did not hear them should not be allowed to affect bilateral relations and, more importantly, strategic relations between two countries…This all happened in a moment.” [Comments to journalists while returning from Turkmenistan] His comments followed the publication of an interview in Cumhuriyet on that day with Andrey Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, who said “First of all, we want an apology for our plane’s destruction…Secondly, we want the responsible individuals found and punished. Finally, we want compensation…Unless our expectations are met, Turkey’s other declarations will bring no results.”
On December 15, the Kremlin underlined the severity of the crisis by formally confirming the cancelation of the Turkish-Russian High Level Cooperation Council meeting, due to be held on that day in St. Petersburg, as had been agreed at the G20 meeting in Antalya between Erdogan and Putin. Although there has not been a second military clash after the downing of the Russian jet, the escalation of Russian military operations in Syria against the Turkmens and other opponents of the Assad regime, coupled with the ongoing tensions between Moscow and Ankara, makes it clear that the relationship which had previously been immune to their virtual proxy war in Syria has been seriously damaged. It remains to be seen if these two proud leaders, who rarely back down in crises, will be able to repair it for the sake of the advantages that they both perceived in their previous cooperation.