Sultan v Czar, a 21st century version

Sultan v Czar, a 21st century version

Although the current involvement in Syria by the Russians and the engagement of Turkey, at least at the border, is not a direct lineal descendant of an age-old conflict, a long-time strategic conflict may underpin the troubles between Turkey and Russia. J. BROOKS SPECTOR fires up his time machine.

Each day brings a new wrinkle in the Turkish-Russian wrangle evolving out of the downing of a Russian Sukhoi-24 jet fighter-bomber by two Turkish F-16s. The Russian plane was supposed to be part of an effort of Russian attacks against IS, even though it apparently had attacked a Turkmen fighter position – a group opposing the Assad government’s forces – operating in an area between the Syrian port of Latakia and the Turkish border.

The Russians have insisted that their jet was inside Syrian air space, while the Turks have countered that the Russian jet had overflown Turkish air space, and that their planes had warned it off multiple times before finally shooting at it. The Russians issued a flight path plot that, fascinatingly, had their jet making what could only be called, in local parlance, a speedy “sho’t left”, then an equally sharp “sho’t right,” as they skirted Turkish territory while they were screaming along at about 1000 kms/hour. Meanwhile, the Turks have insisted the Russian plane had followed a straight-line trajectory that clearly transgressed the border twice as it overflew a small wedge of Turkish territory at its southernmost spot. (See map below)

This particular air action finally ended as one of the two Russian pilots on board were dead, along with a Russian Marine who had been part of a helicopter recovery party. He was apparently killed by local ground forces. But what has followed since the incident has become yet one more part of an increasingly complex tangle of interests and actions in the already-chaotic Syrian civil war that has drawn in a growing list of foreign participants – in addition to all the local protagonists.

Once it became clear the Turkish pilots had shot down the Russian one (rather than the initial Turkish claim that the lethal shots had come from ground fire), the Russian rhetoric quickly heated up. As the New York Times described this rather dramatic change of heart, “Russia has a new Enemy No. 1. His name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, or as the TV news program hosted by the Kremlin’s main ideologue described him on Sunday night, ‘an unrestrained and deceitful man hooked on cheap oil from the barbaric caliphate’ — referring to the Islamic State.”

This problem is compounded, explained Ivan Krastev, a political scientist and chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, because, “you have two presidents who are both highly status conscious, and both high-risk players. Not looking weak is something very important for both Putin and Erdogan. Neither knows how to retreat, nor apologize. In that way they are like twins.”

As the New York Times commented further, “Both are trying to restore luster to the empires that were lost in World War I — Czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire. One is sometimes derisively likened to a czar, and the other a sultan. Both nurse a sense of historical grievance that the West does not fully accept them.”

As part of the rapid decline in relations, Vladimir Putin has now started speaking menacingly about “stabs in the back” by the Turks and alluding to the dangerous, murky designs of Turkey’s NATO allies. A group of Turkish business visitors were detained over some newly discovered visa irregularities; and trade and investment deals were reported to have been side-lined – or cancelled entirely. These are not trivial things. Turkey is now a major Russian tourist destination. Is a market for Russian oil and natural gas and Turkey is a growing source for household goods such as kitchen appliances (Turkey is now a major manufacturer). There has apparently even been a (perhaps tongue in cheek) demand for the Turks to return the Hagia Sophia to the Eastern Orthodox Church from its use as a famed mosque for the past 600+ years. Moreover, Turkey’s numerous construction contracts inside Russia now seem to be under threat as well. Turkish President Erdogan did offer comments meant to calm and smooth things down and to urge caution – but he refused to issue the full-throated, grovelling, abject apology over the incident that the Russians so obviously wanted him to provide.

Nevertheless, as the AP reported the other day, “Turkey won’t apologise to Russia for shooting down a warplane operating over Syria, the Turkish prime minister said Monday, stressing that the military was doing its job defending the country’s airspace. [Prime Minister] Ahmet Davutoglu also said Turkey hopes Moscow will reconsider economic sanctions announced against Turkish interests following last week’s incident.

“The Turkish resort town of Antalya is ‘like a second home’ to many Russian holidaymakers, he said, but refused to yield on Turkish security. ‘No Turkish prime minister or president will apologise… because of doing our duty,’ Davutoglu told reporters after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. ‘Protection of Turkish airspace, Turkish borders is a national duty, and our army did their job to protect this airspace. But if the Russian side wants to talk, and wants to prevent any future unintentional events like this, we are ready to talk.’”

Not too surprisingly, while the US has been telling both nations to play nice and be adults, American Ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, said he saw American data that “corroborates Turkey’s version of events. So the airplane was in Turkey, it was engaged in Turkey.”

People with rather longer memories than just the present conflict may possibly recall a certain Korean Air passenger liner that transgressed Soviet territory on 1 September 1983 – Sakhalin Island off Siberia, to be precise – when the passenger jet’s on-board autopilot computer was reportedly mis-programmed by the pilot. Soviet era pilots, scrambled to deal with the intruder, essentially said they had tried to signal the KAL flight via military radio channels, but since there was no response from the Korean Air jet, the Soviet pilots assumed the worst and shot it out of the sky – sans apology.

Yes, that was then and this is now, of course. Still, in the past several years, Russian military jets and ships have increasingly engaged in some increasingly assertive manoeuvres around Europe, including sending in a couple of subs into Stockholm harbour, all designed to check on response times and defensive capabilities. (See map below for incidents in the past year)

On the geopolitical front, in a landscape where confusion over who is actually supporting whom – and for whose benefit in the complex Syrian civil war – things have become even that much more complicated, as Turkey and Russia now seem to be squaring off against each other within Syria. More suspicious types may argue at this juncture that the Turks are far more concerned about the movements and activities of Kurdish nationalists in the border region than they are of the depredations of IS; while the Russians, despite public pronouncements, seem to be much more interested in defeating any rebels opposed to Bashir al-Assad’s regime, the Russians’ long-term client in the Middle East, than they really are interested in finishing off IS once and for all.

As a result of the downing of their SU-24, the Russians have dispatched a ground-to-air missile defence system to provide cover for their fighter jets attacking anti-Assad rebels and the occasional IS position, and they have apparently added additional boots on the ground in and around their bases in Syria. Most recently, the Russians have also charged that the Turks are secretly procuring oil from IS-held wells for sale onward to some shady consumers, and that the Turks real interest is in repressing their unruly Kurdish minority, rather than dealing with IS.

And then, just to keep things even more complex, the French have added their own airborne military action against IS positions from both land-based jets as well as carrier-based ones, in the aftermath of the deadly Paris attacks. As a result, Syrian air space has now become increasingly crowded and dangerous – and it may be increasingly likely to generate future awkward or even deadly stand-offs between the various forces in the air over Syria. This might even include occasional actual Syrian air force raiders attacking various rebel positions that end up tangling with a western jet or two. Crucial, now, seems to be the apparent lack of any sort of overall coordination of air strikes, and any sort of IFF (identify friend or foe) electronic regimen, let alone any kind of broad international agreement over the way forward in bringing the fighting, carnage and chaos to some kind of end, somehow, some when.

To the casual observer, the Turkish – Russian face off would seem to be a modern phenomenon that has arisen out of the chaos in Syria, and the conflicting objectives and conceptions of the two nations’ respective national interests, as they see them. But the ties and conflicts go way back into history. Some eleven hundred years ago, Varangian warriors and traders were active in Byzantium’s Constantinople. The Varangians, of course, were the increasingly Russified Vikings who had become the elite of Kievan Rus. They sometimes served as mercenaries for the Byzantine Empire, and sometimes they were traders bringing timber, slaves, firs and grain southwards across the Black Sea.

But they also occasionally raided Byzantine territory – or even participated in the internal civil strife of that empire’s imperial succession struggles. But by the 1400s, Rus and the other Russian states had been ground down by conquest and rule by the Mongols of the Golden Horde, and Byzantium had vanished under the conquest of the Ottoman Turks. By the time that event had occurred, the Russians had begun to think of Moscow as the third Rome, in sequence after both the original and Constantinople had fallen on hard times.

Thereafter, as the Golden Horde itself finally disintegrated, the Ottomans expanded their territories and influence around the Black Sea, into the Balkan lands, and up through the Caucasus Mountains and then into the southern Steppe lands, bringing Ossetians, Armenians, Georgians, Azeris, Chechens, Circassians and the Tatar tribes under their rule, among many others. Muscovy, meanwhile, was slowly gathering strength after the Golden Horde fell away and was expanding outward from its near hinterland. The two very different imperial orders first collided directly in the late 1600s.

Thereafter, the two nations found themselves in a dozen separate wars as Russia slowly gained supremacy over the Black Sea littoral, moved down into the Caucasus region and southwards into the borderlands of the Balkans. In the aftermath of Russia’s conquest of the Crimea (a vassal state of the Turks) in 1783, they built the port of Sevastopol as the base of operations for Russia’s new Black Sea Fleet. And in a subsequent war just a few years later, the Russians recruited foreign naval commanders to help lead their new navy, including American Revolutionary War hero, John Paul Jones.

Once much of the Black Sea littoral was in Russian hands, a key long-term Russian strategic goal became one of securing unhindered, free passage through the Dardanelles and Bosporus waterways that are adjacent to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople so that Russia could ship its bulk exports to the West and import western goods – as well as to have free passage for its ships during wartime as well.

By the middle of the 19th century, the decline of the Ottoman Empire was on an increasingly steep trajectory. Britain, France and Piedmont found themselves aligned with Turkey in the Crimean War to forestall further Russian moves. The British threatened war again in 1878 during still another Turkish-Russian conflict in order to ward off the distinct possibility that the Russians might actually be reach the gates of Constantinople following their victory at the Battle of Plevna. In that conflict, British patriotic fervour was whipped up by the snappy music hall tune by MacDermott and Hunt that went:

We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

By World War I, the Russians and Turks were again at war, most directly in a bitter conflict that raged through the mountains of eastern Turkey, and then with Turkish campaigns deep into the Caucasus, once the Russian Revolution had taken Russia out of World War I. Similarly, the British/Australian/New Zealand/French Dardanelles campaign was an effort to force open a way through those Turkish waters in order to support an increasingly beleaguered Russia. Then, post-World War II, Soviet demands – once again – for free passage through those straits, as well as other concessions, led to increasing American support to Turkey (as well as to a Greece beset by a bitter civil war), and this support took place in tandem with the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO.

Given this conflicted history, it should hardly be a surprise the Russians and Turks can be mutually suspicious of one another, despite their growing economic relations. These ties had, in fact, been growing significantly in recent years, at least until they were disturbed by the most recent incident. That they are jockeying for influence and position in terms of Syria (an area the Turks had ruled for five hundred years) – and in dealing with such disaffected minorities such as Kurds and Turkmens – would seem to be both a historical legacy as well as their different engagement in Syria, as well as the shooting down of the Russian Su-24.

Turning this around, now, will undoubtedly take more than just some soothing words between two prickly leaders and a bit of crow for dinner by Turkey’s Erdogan. Instead, this seems likely to be one more part of a very flammable mix of combat capabilities brought into the Syrian civil war by a wide circle of outside forces – for a variety of different goals. Hopefully, in the coming days, at the minimum, there will be some serious discussions over the establishment of comprehensive IFF mechanisms for all those jets flying around on their various bombing and strafing runs – or the possibility still exists for yet other deadly outcomes. A larger solution to the tragedy in Syria is still a distant vision, however. DM

Photo: A handout picture provided by Turkish Presidential Press Office shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) chatting before a press conference in the new presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, 01 December 2014. EPA/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE


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