The Russian state-run propaganda machine is currently fanning anti-Turkish vitriol full-time. Economic ties between Russia and Turkey are being effectively severed, while military forces have been put on high alert. Is this escalation a mere PR exercise to mobilize the public so that it may forget about Russia’s economic doldrums, or could this crisis spin out of control?
On November 24, two Russian Su-24M jets carried out attacks over the northern part of Latakia province, close to the Turkish border, where they were dropping “dumb” 250-kilogram OFAB-250 bombs. One of the jets apparently ventured for a short time into Turkish airspace, according to the Turkish military (something the Russians stringently deny). A Turkish F-16 fired a short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missile. The Su-24M crashed, but its crew of two ejected. The first pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peskov (45), was apparently shot dead by local antigovernment rebels while he was drifting down in his parachute. The second pilot, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin (39), landed safely and was eventually rescued by Russian and Syrian government special forces. During the search-and-rescue operation, a Russian Mi-8 transport helicopter was disabled by rebel fire and, after crash landing, was destroyed by a TOW missile that had been supplied by the United States. A Russian marine was killed during the search-and-rescue operation (Kommersant, November 26).
President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of treachery, of supporting terrorism and of “stabbing us in the back.” The Su-24 bomber, according to Putin, “did not threaten Turkey in any way” to warrant an attack (Kremlin.ru, November 24). Putin refused to speak to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, by phone or meet him in Paris on November 30, where both attended the COP21 United Nations climate-change conference. The Kremlin demanded that Turkey must first apologize, offer to pay compensation, and promise to punish those involved in the downing of the Russian jet—something Erdoğan seems unwilling to do (Interfax, November 26).
At a press conference in Paris, Putin accused Turkey of sponsoring terrorism and supporting the Islamic State (IS) while allegedly trading in contraband oil extracted from IS-controlled oilfields. Putin confirmed that Russian jets are intensifying the bombing of northern Latakia province inhabited by Turkish-speaking Turkmen tribes and that the Syrian (pro-government) forces are bombarding the same region, using “multiple-rocket-launch systems newly supplied by Russia.” It is possible he was describing the powerful TOS-1A “Solntsepyok” multiple fuel-bomb launcher or “heavy flamethrower system,” which can destroy entrenched enemy forces in underground bunkers. According to Putin, Russian bombers attacking targets in Syria will be escorted by fighters, and a long-range S-400 antiaircraft missile system has been deployed at the Russian airbase in Latakia as a defensive measure (Kremlin.ru, November 30).
Russia’s defense ministry announced, on November 24, that the cruiser Moskva, armed with S-300F anti-aircraft missiles, has been deployed close to Latakia and that fighters will escort Russian attack jets: “We warn—all potentially threatening targets will be destroyed.” In addition, all military contacts with Turkey have been terminated (Interfax, November 24). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu later announced the immediate deployment of the S-400 system in Latakia and confirmed: “Any air target potentially threatening our air force will be destroyed” (Mil.ru, November 25). This could include Turkish jet fighters that the Russian military might shoot down preventively.
Russia’s best military pilots are bombing Syria. Lieutenant Colonel Peskov and Captain Murakhtin were instructors from the Lipetsk all-Russia combat training center. The Turks handed over the body of Peskov, who was buried in Lipetsk with military honors. The commander of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), Colonel General Viktor Bondarev, accused the Turkish air force of premeditatedly attacking the Russian Su-24 and promised to revenge Peskov’s death (Rg.ru, November 27).
The Russian customs authorities effectively stopped allowing Turkish goods into Russia. Russian-Turkish trade in 2014 totaled $31 billion, and an economic breakup seemed too costly for both countries, but the sanction war is escalating anyhow (Govorit Moskva, November 25). Moscow announced sanctions that include an almost total ban of all foods, primarily fresh fruit and vegetables. Turkey is a highly popular summer tourist destination, but now tourism is effectively banned. Turkish building projects in Russia are threatened, Turkish nationals and businessmen are being harassed. The sanctions already officially announced seem relatively reserved, covering mostly foodstuffs; their implementation has been postponed until after New Year’s, so as not to affect the Russian consumer market during the run up to the holiday (Vedomosti, November 30). The real situation is much worse: Russian customs authorities are continuing an effective blockade of all Turkish goods—they are either turned back at the border or piled up to rot while authorities take weeks to “inspect” them. The Turkish government, apparently bracing for a full trade embargo, announced it is taking measures to call back shipments of perishable goods destined to Russia (Interfax, December 2). An informed Russian government source told Interfax that the two most ambitious Russo-Turkish projects—the building of the “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline under the Black Sea and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in southern Turkey—have been postponed indefinitely, while gas shipments from Russia to Turkey through the existing Blue Stream trans–Black Sea gas pipeline will continue (Interfax, November 30).
Nevertheless, Turkey is preparing to survive without Russian gas if the crisis escalates further. Meanwhile, the Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft has announced that it could divert Russian oil exports from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, if Ankara closes the Turkish Straits to Russian ships and tankers: “Under international law, Turkey cannot do it, but we are ready if it does” (TASS, December 1). Essential supplies of armaments and munitions are transiting through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to Russian troops and Russian allies in Syria; this supply mission could be seriously affected if Turkey curtails sea transit trough the Straits.
In his annual address to a joint session of parliament, on December 3, Putin continued to lambast Turkey and its “corrupt ruling clique,” which he accused of sponsoring terrorism. According to the Russian president, “Allah decided to punish Turkey’s ruling clique by depriving it of sense and reason,” so they dared to take on Russia. “We will not saber-rattle or take dangerous, hysterical actions,” continued Putin, “But those who hope we will be content to [stop trade in] tomatoes or constrain some construction work after they committed a war crime by killing our men, are wrong—we will remind them time and again and they will regret it, time and again” (Kremlin.ru, December 3). Putin’s strong words could someday transform into actions.