Clash of the Titans brings down a Russian jet

Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet on the Syrian border on Tuesday has sparked a debate over whether this incident could lead to a full-fledged military confrontation between the two countries. The close economic interdependence that bolsters the current Turkish-Russian relationship would seem an incentive for both sides to keep the situation from deteriorating further, but Turkey and Russia have a long, fraught history of a dozen full-scale wars and other violent clashes. During the Cold War, they faced off across the frontline of the NATO-Soviet Bloc border, and today they find themselves once again on different sides of the frontlines in Syria, where both want to be players to be reckoned with.

Turkish-Russian relations—then and now

Turkish-Russian relations, until very recently, seemed particularly promising from Ankara and Moscow’s perspectives. Turkey’s growing dependence on Russian natural gas and the inevitable trade deficits that this entailed were compensated by significant Turkish exports of consumer goods to Russia, massive inflows of Russian tourists to Turkey, and by the revenues generated by Turkish companies operating in Russia’s construction and services sectors. The close bilateral economic relationship was crowned with annual cabinet-level summits, growing military cooperation, and, most importantly, Turkey’s decision to grant the construction and operation of its first nuclear power station to Russia.

On a more intimate level, the personalities and political styles of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to complement if not mirror each other. Both leaders are national strongmen, dominating their domestic political scenes, reasserting their respective countries’ regional interests, and demanding respect from the United States, the European Union, and other international players for their positions and prerogatives. For a while, it even seemed that a more strategic partnership might be taking shape—especially when, in November 2013, Erdoğan complained to Putin about the EU’s treatment of Turkey. Erdoğan went so far as to tell Putin that he might even be prepared to give up on Ankara’s, long-stalled bid for EU membership if Turkey were to be included in Russia’s alternative Eurasian economic integration projects.

In the two years since Erdoğan’s “Eurasian gambit,” events have chipped away at the Turkish-Russian relationship. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with its large Tatar minority and historic ties to Turkey, created the first fissure, which has deepened as both countries doubled-down on their support for the opposing sides in Syria. Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria, to prop up Bashar Assad and to launch attacks against opposition groups that Turkey has directly armed and supplied, set the trajectory of Wednesday’s events in motion. In the last several days, the Turkish press has been full of reports of Russian planes bombing villages along the Turkish-Syrian border populated by Turcomans––ethnic Turkic groups outside of Turkey in Syria, Iraq, Iran and other parts of the Near East. Domestic Turkish nationalist circles have demanded that Erdoğan and Ankara respond to Russian actions and halt the bombing. Nationalist pressure on the Turkish government had already increased as the United States stepped up its military cooperation with Syrian Kurds to combat ISIS.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks

In the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, the proverbial carpet was slipping away under Turkey’s feet. President François Hollande of France was in route from Washington to Moscow to put the international fight against ISIS into high gear. Russian President Putin was at the center of all the military and diplomatic action, while President Erdoğan seemed marginalized––despite Turkey’s frontline role in dealing with the flood of refugees out of Syria and stemming the flow of fighters into the warzone.

Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian fighter plane is deeply rooted in this larger context, not simply in the technical fulfillment of Turkey’s rules of engagement with a foreign military aircraft approaching Turkish airspace. In addition to defending ethnic Turcomen, fellow Turks under fire, Erdoğan is defending Turkish interests in its neighborhood. He is demonstrating Turkey’s resolve and determination to take independent action if these interests are violated. Turkey is a NATO member, but this was Erdoğan’s and Ankara’s decision to show Turkey’s teeth. Erdoğan’s message that core security issues trump economic considerations is one for all the players in the Syrian chaos, not just for Russia.

The similarities between Erdoğan and Putin have now come into play in a dramatic way. Erdoğan and Putin are two leaders who cannot afford to be seen to be pushed around or lose face no matter how high the stakes. Erdoğan has already engaged in a prolonged and ruinous standoff with Israel over the 2010 Israeli assault on a Turkish ship headed to Gaza; and Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he is prepared to pay a high economic and diplomatic price in his confrontation with the West in Ukraine. The big question is what will these two strongmen do next? Will they engage in some bloodying of noses, reestablishing a mutual, but now more wary, respect for the next round of military and diplomatic interactions in Syria? Or will they take themselves down the Turkey-Israel or Russia-Ukraine-West path and engage in a more prolonged exchange of bruising blows?

The broader contours of the Turkish-Russian relationship suggest that that this incident will not escalate further. The realities of economic interdependence will encourage cooler heads to prevail. But when titans clash, lesser mortals shudder. One strong-willed leader has made his point to another strong-willed leader, and the point increases the risks for everyone else in the Syrian conflict.