The first week of October 2015 was marked by escalating tensions between Turkey and Russia; two countries which, particularly in the last decade, have developed closer ties due to increasing trade, commerce, and tourism. Russian Su-30s crossed over from Syria into Turkish airspace at least twice, as it has been reported in the media. Both of the airspace violations took place along the Turkish-Syrian border; the first incursion took place on October 3rd and the second on the 5th. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey and Syria have established a precedence of shooting down each other’s military aircrafts and Turkey’s declaration of rules of engagement in the region obliges its air force to shoot alien aircrafts when and if such violations occur. As a result, the Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara at least four times last week. The official explanation given by Moscow was that the incursion took place due to navigation errors, mainly due to unfavorable weather conditions.
Russia has made it very clear that its military presence in Syria aims to support the Assad regime.
Following the statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 28th at the United Nations General Assembly that Russia would be willing to engage in combat against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, deployment quickly followed. The Russian military has already deployed some 30 military aircrafts at its military base in Tartus, as well as at the Latakia airport, and Russian aircrafts are frequently airborne in Syrian airspace.
Beginning in October, Russian planes started striking ISIL targets as well as “other terrorist elements” on the Syrian theater. However, the Syrian opposition, together with Turkey expressed deep concern that the Russians were hitting the opposition forces fighting against the government of Syrian President, Bashar-al Assad. The US echoed these concerns, declaring that it would welcome Russian airstrikes against ISIL but would be unhappy if such strikes were expanded to include Syrian opposition forces. Russia, however, has made it very clear that its military presence in Syria aims to support the Assad regime. Putin underlined that Russia considered the regime in Damascus as the elected legitimate and official representative of the Syrian people and that the Syrian army was the only force effectively combating ISIL. The “other terrorist elements” targeted by Russian airstrikes are considered to be “Syrian opposition forces” by the international coalition led by the US, a position that Turkey also holds.
Russia’s recent entry into Syria illustrates the widening difference of opinion between Turkey and Russia over the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Turkey does not see Assad and his regime as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, nor does it see a role for Assad in Syria’s future. More importantly, Turkey also insists that any transitional government should also exclude Assad and his regime.
Turkish-Russian energy links have been based on strong infrastructure and Turkey is not very likely to diversify its supplies in the short run.
Upon Turkey’s call, the Permanent Representatives of NATO met in an extraordinary council session on October 4th to discuss the issue. Turkey did not ask for the enactment of Article 5 but the Council meeting resulted in a strong statement by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemning Russia’s violations of Turkish airspace. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had already emphasized that “Turkish airspace was NATO airspace” and that NATO would stand by Turkey if Russia continued its incursions into Turkish airspace. Adding to tensions, Erdoğan refused to speak to Putin in spite of the fact that Russia offered to have bilateral military talks.
Political friction has also begun to spill over into other areas in which Turkey and Russia engage in partnership – namely the energy sphere. During his trip to Japan, Erdoğan mentioned that Turkey was Russia’s number one natural gas buyer and that Turkey would find another supplier if Russia did not want to sell. Erdoğan also mentioned that if the Russian side was unwilling to continue with the construction of the Mersin/Akkuyu nuclear power plant, (the first nuclear power plant in Turkey, which aims to produce around 10 percent of Turkey’s energy by nuclear power in 2023) then Turkey would ask “somebody else to continue with the construction.” Together, these statements have generated concern about the future of Turkish-Russian relations.
Turkey and Russia have always been prudent in not deteriorating their bilateral relations, even during the Cold War era when they belonged to opposing military alliances...
Is this tension likely to escalate and is it likely that Turkey may be deprived of importing Russian energy in the future? Currently, Turkey buys more than half of its natural gas from Russia. Blue Stream under the Black Sea and the Western Line coming through Romania and Bulgaria into Turkey are the main routes for Russia’s exports. Turkey has imported 27.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia in 2014. Certainly Turkey has other sources of supply, namely the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipeline bringing Azeri natural gas from Shah Deniz at the Caspian Sea as well as LNG coming from various countries such as Qatar and Algeria. However, Turkey is very much dependent on natural gas imports which consist of 98 percent of Turkish domestic consumption. In addition to natural gas, Turkey also imports oil from Russia and around 65 percent of Turkey’s energy needs – through imports of hydrocarbon resources – are met by Russia. Turkish-Russian energy links have been based on strong infrastructure and Turkey is not very likely to diversify its supplies in the short run. Many hold the view, therefore, that President Erdoğan’s statements were targeting a domestic audience at a time when Turkey is preparing itself for snap parliamentary elections to take place on November 1st.
Turkey and Russia have always been prudent in not deteriorating their bilateral relations, even during the Cold War era when they belonged to opposing military alliances, namely NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Therefore, diverging opinions regarding the resolution of the Syrian crisis is not likely to negatively affect Russian-Turkish relations in the long-run. Rational behavior will probably prevail both in Ankara and Moscow to ease the current tension. Nevertheless, both countries will have to be much more careful in their activities, particularly in Syria, given that they support opposite camps and that they now happen to be direct neighbors through their proxies on the Syrian theater.