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Making History by Mistake

Tags: Turkey , International Affairs , Russia , East Asia , Europe

Saunders, Paul J.

March 22, 2016

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Ankara had been courting relations with Moscow in the wake of the slow death of its attempt to join the European Union, but relations quickly deteriorated in late 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian bomber that had reportedly violated Turkey’s airspace. Paul Saunders warns that a similar incident in East Asia could have profound and unpredictable consequences.

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The collapse in Turkish-Russian relations after Ankara’s decision to shoot down a Russian Su-24 bomber in late 2015 dramatically illustrates how quickly events can alter strategic realities—and the many ways in which leaders can miscalculate. As East Asia’s security environment becomes increasingly tense, it is important to keep these realities in mind. A similar incident in the region could have profound and unpredictable consequences.

In explaining their decision to attack the Russian Su-24, Turkey’s leaders argued that the plane had violated Turkish airspace despite repeated warnings. Analysts also note that Russian airstrikes against Turkmen fighters in norther Syria angered Ankara. Moscow disputed Turkey’s claims and described the move as drastic and unprovoked. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to it as a “stab in the back.”

Erdogan’s Global Game Plan

Prior to downing the Su-24, Ankara had invested a decade in improving its relations with Russia—and with all its neighbors—in an effort to establish itself as a global player in the wake of the slow death of its attempt to join the European Union. This included, among other things, Turkey’s refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia following Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in order to protect the Turkish-Russian economic relationship, which generated $5.9 billion in exports to Russia and $25.2 billion in imports to Turkey (predominantly energy) in 2014. It also included frequent meetings between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prompting speculation at various times that Turkey might seek to join either the BRICS group or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan during a meeting in Baku, June 2015. © Kremlin.ru
Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan during a meeting in Baku, June 2015. © Kremlin.ru
Erdogan’s ambitions to earn a global role for Turkey required a serviceable relationship with Russia as well as favorable relations with Turkey’s neighbors. After all, if Ankara were preoccupied with regional security, Turkey’s leaders would have little extra capacity to engage in global affairs. To develop a truly independent role—and gain the maximum possible benefits for Turkey on the international stage—Erdogan needed to court Putin as well, as this was the only way to avoid undue reliance on the United States, NATO, and European governments.

What is remarkable is that the Turkish president chose to risk this, and to render his earlier extensive efforts ineffective, by choosing to confront Moscow over the Su-24’s reported incursion into Turkey’s airspace. Since Erdogan appears to have made his earlier policy direction a national priority, this suggests that Turkey’s leaders did not accurately assess Moscow’s response to losing an aircraft and a pilot. (The plane’s second crew member survived, though Turkish officials could not have safely assumed that either flyer would do so.)

Russia retaliated swiftly, imposing a variety of economic sanctions, banning charter flights serving Turkey’s lucrative tourist industry, and deploying advanced S-400 air defense missiles to the region. Moscow has also restricted its contacts with Turkey and demanded an apology that Erdogan has refused to offer.

No Easy Path Forward

As a result, Turkey has veered sharply back toward the United States and its European allies, who appear to have seen no alternative to offering rhetorical support for Turkey in the immediate aftermath of the crisis—though to what extent Western leaders actually support Turkey’s actions is less obvious. European Union governments certainly have compelling reasons of their own to make Turkey a priority, as is demonstrated by the recent EU-Turkey agreement to slow considerably the flow of refugees from Syria and the Middle East through Turkey to Europe.

Even now, however, the prospects for Turkey’s eventual EU membership look quite dim so long as Turkey’s president continues to squelch political opposition inside the country, openly violating the standards that Brussels and European capitals would insist that Ankara meet. Thus both Turkey’s economic prospects (due to Russian sanctions) and its international position have deteriorated, with no easy path forward.

While there is no war underway in East Asia like the war in Syria, which created the conditions that led to the crackup in Turkish-Russian relations, the region does have more than its fair share of territorial disputes and related close encounters between military and civilian aircraft and ships. Some of these have even generated casualties.

Though none of these incidents appears to have provoked a government to pursue a major strategic realignment, at least so far, some of them do seem to have accentuated concerns about China’s conduct and intentions. Depending on the circumstances, future collisions—to say nothing of deliberate attacks like Turkey’s—could nevertheless have profound consequences. That is a good reason for all of Asia’s leaders to think carefully about how they act to protect important national interests.

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