December 17, 2015

The escalating tensions between Turkey and Russia—brought to a head with the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber jet in late November—have exposed the competing objectives that presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin are pursuing in Syria. Combined with Moscow and Ankara’s lingering disagreements in the region, these latest tensions now threaten to spill over into the Caucasus.

What motivates each side in the dispute, and where can we expect it to go in 2016? How do domestic politics play into each president’s posturing? And what implications would a protracted Russo-Turkish split have on Eurasian, and Transatlantic, security? On December 15, the Center on Global Interests held a panel discussion on this important topic with three distinguished experts, moderated by Anya Schmemann of the Council on Foreign Relations. The event took place at the Rome Auditorium of Johns Hopkins University – SAIS.



Kemal Kirişci, Director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, opened the discussion with the observation that there are two Turkeys when it comes to foreign policy. The first is a country whose foreign policy was driven until recently by a model of “trading state interests and considerations.” The second Turkey emerged after the Arab Spring, and sees itself as a “central power” that can shape its neighborhood. After the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, Turkey expected the regime in Damascus to fall rather quickly and maintained an open-door policy towards Syrian refugees. As the conflict has deepened, however, Turkey has found itself implicated in the Syrian war along with the other major players. This is the point at which Russian and Turkish relations began to head towards a major confrontation.

For Turkey, Syrian President Bashar al Assad is “enemy number one,” followed by the Kurdish challenge in northern Syria and only then by the Islamic State. These priorities differ fundamentally from those of Russia, which primarily seeks to preserve the Assad regime. After the downing of the Russian jet by Turkish forces, Russian President Vladimir Putin starkly called the move a “stab in the back.” This suggests that the Turkish-Russian relationship moving forward will continue to be “very intimate”–due to their significant economic interdependence–“but extremely complicated” amid their competing interests in the conflict.

Maria Snegovaya, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and columnist for the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, presented three main questions about Russia’s behavior in the conflict. First, why did Russia fly its jets into Turkish airspace? Second, did the escalation with Turkey take Putin by surprise? And third, where can we expect the situation to go? According to Snegovaya, Russia has been consistently violating the airspace of neighboring countries–including NATO members–for at least the past two years. The goal of this behavior was to re-position Russia as a major player on the international stage while at the same time testing NATO resilience. Given the lack of any significant retaliation from the violated states, Russia had been achieving its objective in that regard–until the incident in Turkey, which took Russia by surprise. In addition, when Moscow entered the Syrian conflict, it understood that the goals of Erdogan and the Turkish government were strictly opposed to Russian interests in the conflict. By flying its jets over Turkey, Russia wanted to show Ankara “who the real decision-maker is in this game.”

From the tactical perspective, the deployment of Russian jets was a response to Turkey’s plans to create safe zones for Sunni opposition fighters in Syria, which would have prevented Russian bombing campaigns in those areas. It was also motivated by Russia’s need to hold on to the Latakia Province in Syria that houses the Russian naval facility in Tartus. This pitted Russia against the Turkmen militia in the northern Latakia province, who are supported by Turkey in their fight against Assad. Despite the emotional response among Russian officials to the downing of the jet, however, Snegovaya said Russia has been reluctant to escalate the conflict with Turkey in any tangible way. Not only would this risk the loss of access to the Bosphorus strait, which Ankara controls, but it would hurt Russia’s objective to reignite its relationship with the West after the fallout over Ukraine. A third factor is Russia’s deep economic ties with Turkey, whose products have been used to substitute European goods that were banned by Russian tit-for-tat sanctions. As such, Moscow may do something to humiliate Ankara in an attempt to save face, but will likely not engage in any significant military escalation.

Michael Cecire, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions, discussed the potential of the Turkish-Russian conflict to spill over into the neighboring Caucasus. While the global narrative often portrays Russia as a “rising power,” Cecire said that within the Black Sea region and the Caucasus, it is Turkey that is seen as the rising power returning to its previous place of strength in the region. As Turkey has been reasserting its presence in its own “near abroad,” it is not surprising that it bumped heads with Russia, the traditional regional hegemon. While these tensions have been bubbling beneath the surface, the incident with the Russian jet has shown that we have the makings of a tinderbox for regional conflagrations.

According to Cecire, the three states in the South Caucasus are almost equally divided between Turkey and Russia. Armenia is essentially a “client state” of Russia, hosting thousands of Russian troops and weaponry on the Turkish-Armenian border. Georgia is the converse of that–an aspiring NATO member and a very close ally of Turkey, that sees Ankara as its most important partner. Azerbaijan is the most complicated case; since 1991 it has developed its historical and cultural ties with Turkey, and has a mutual defense treaty with Ankara (like Russia has with Armenia). But after the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, the Azeri regime has veered away from a multi-vector approach to foreign policy and towards a closer strategic partnership with Russia.

The risk is that Turkey and Russia will find another theater in which to compete, such as the line of patrol in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions. In this regard, there are many moving parts. On one hand, Azerbaijan is interested in maintaining its claims to Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh while continuing to maintain good relations with Russia. On the other hand, Russian military buildup in Armenia is an unfriendly act that risks sparking a confrontation with Turkish forces across the border. A third factor is Armenia’s own attempts to normalize relations with neighboring Turkey, and by extension with the West. This is opposed by Russia as it would significantly diminish Russian influence in the country. Lastly, Cecire noted that it would be a mistake for Russia to underestimate Turkish influence in the North Caucasus, which have robust trade ties with Turkey that they are not willing to give up for the sake of political allegiance with Russia.

Before opening up the discussion, moderator Anya Schmemann noted that “the panelists painted a picture of a fraught region with many potential pitfalls, but also expressed broad agreement that both Russia and Turkey understand the importance of de-escalating tensions and the hope that that would happen.”