Russia and Turkey have had a long and tumultuous relationship, but successful trade between the two countries had previously been able to avert serious tensions. Now however, both countries’ opposing views in foreign policy are overwhelming and have led to the rapid decline of their relationship. This has caused some to warn of the increasing likeliness of a war between the two states.
Russia and Turkey have always been on opposite sides of the Syrian crisis, with Russia supporting the Assad regime, and Turkey supporting the regime’s opposition. In spite of this, both countries had been able to put their differences aside and manage this disagreement by remaining close trading partners.
In 2013, trade between the two states reached 32 billion USD, with Russia becoming Turkey’s second most valued trading partner behind Germany. Turkey was also the only NATO country that refused to impose sanctions on Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea.
However, after Turkey shot down a Russian jet that crossed into Turkish airspace during November 2015, cooperation between the two nations began to dramatically decline. Following the incident, Russia retaliated with a number of sanctions banning the import of Turkish fruits, vegetables, poultry and salt.
Russia also banned the sale of charter holidays for Russians to Turkey and construction projects with Turkish firms in Russia unless a special exemption could be granted. As a result, Turkey began to look for other trading partners with special regard for those that could fulfil the 55 per cent of its gas needs, which Russia filled prior to the disagreement.
Since this incident, there have been little signs of either side making efforts to de-escalate tensions. Putin especially, has ignored pressure from allies such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, signalling his unwillingness to normalize relations with Turkey.
Recent increases in military action in Syria by both countries have caused already unstable relations between Ankara and Moscow to reach new heights. For many, Russia and Turkey’s support of opposing sides in the Syrian conflict seems to be prompting them both towards direct confrontation.
The latest rise in tensions between the two nations revolves around Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are backed by Moscow, but whom Turkey view as antagonists in the region.
Russia’s strikes against anti-Assad rebels in Syria’s northern Aleppo province have created an atmosphere of chaos that has been exploited by the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia, which has seized towns held by rebels who were backed by Turkey. As a response to this and also the YPG’s advance on the Turkish border, Turkey began shelling the Kurdish fighters.
The Russian foreign ministry said Turkey’s actions had hit Syrian towns “recently liberated from the terrorists”, prompting Russia to begin to its own airstrikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Tensions between Moscow and Ankara further increased after Turkey warned it would hold Russia responsible for the terror attacks on its own soil on 17th February 2016 that killed 28 people. Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said that Salih Neccar, a member of the YPG, had carried out the attack.
Yet, even though Russia supports the YGP as a partner in the Syrian War, Moscow has denied any connection with terrorist actives. Despite this, Turkey has said that “if these terror attacks continue, [Russia] will be as responsible as
French President, Francois Hollande, responded on Friday 19th February 2016 saying, “there is a risk of war between Turkey and Russia” over Syria and that “everything must be done to avoid it”. He stated that “there is an escalation”, “negotiations must resume, bombardments must stop” and “aid must come”.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Friday, that it intends to call a session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss a possible ground operation in Syria. Russia then proposed a UN Resolution that demanded the immediate halt of cross-border shelling by the Turkish army into Syria, seeking to “cease any actions that undermine Syria’s sovereignty”.
When asked whether the United Nations supported the move, François Delattre, France’s UN ambassador, replied, “the short answer is no”. Delattre then said the current military escalation is “the direct result of the brutal offensive in the north of Syria led by the Syrian regime and its allies”, further stating that Russia’s support for Syria’s President is “a dead end that could be extremely dangerous”.
The Kremlin responded, “we can only express regret that this draft resolution was rejected” and that “Russia naturally continues with its consistent, transparent and clear line to provide stability in the fight with terrorism, to preserve the territorial integrity of the country [Syria] and the region.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan further stated, “Turkey has every right to conduct operations in Syria and the places where terror organizations are nested with regards to the struggle against the threats that Turkey faces”. Erdoğan continued by expressing that Turkey’s war in Northern Syria has “absolutely nothing to do with the sovereignty rights of the states that cannot take control of their territorial integrity”.
The growing rift between the two countries has alarmed western diplomats, with NATO divulging that it “cannot allow itself to be pulled into a military escalation with Russia as a result of the recent tensions between Russia and Turkey”. EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has also warned against the risk of a “hot war” between Turkey and Russia – urging Europeans to try and “contain and scale down the tensions”.
Although both Ankara and Moscow were previously able to contain tumultuous relations through strong trade agreements, it seems as though recent events mainly surrounding the Syrian Civil War have led to unforeseen levels of destruction in the way both nations now view and interact with one another. Despite warnings from allies, both Turkey and Russia have allowed levels of tensions to rise so high that a possible war between the two countries is now being suspected.