For centuries, the Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire fought each other, Russia usually emerging victorious. The rivalry stretches back to the 1500s when the first Russo-Turkish War took place in 1568. Ten more wars between the countries would take place until 1917, and in the 20th Century, the Republic of Turkey’s decision to join NATO kept embers of the ancient showdown alive during the Cold War.
And now, nationalism has pitted the Russian Federation and Republic of Turkey against each other once more. On Tuesday, the Turkish Armed Forces shot down a Russian SU-24 plane which had crossed into Turkish airspace. Both pilots ejected from the plane in time to avoid injury, but were captured by a Syrian Turkmen militia fighting in Syria. One is dead, killed by the militiamen that found him. The other has been transported to Turkey and will be returned to Russia.
In a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Putin, visibly angry, condemned the attack in choice words, calling it a “stab in the back” and publicly accusing Ankara of supporting the Islamic fundamentalists in Syria and Iraq under the table. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled his trip to Turkey upon hearing the news and called it a “planned provocation”. The Turkish Embassy in Moscow was the subject of a raucous protest where stones and eggs were thrown at the building.
Ankara fired back immediately, insisting they were merely defending their territory and that they had warned the jet to change course multiple times before they shot it down.
Russia has been crossing into Turkish airspace many times since the Kremlin decided to get directly involved with the Syrian Civil War. Russia possesses a military base in northern Syria not far from the Turkish border.
Luckily, cooler heads are starting to appear. The Turkish Foreign Minister expressed his condolences to Mr. Lavrov and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called for a deescalation of tensions.
It’s important to remember even with the angry words thrown about that further escalation leading to war between Russia and Turkey is a very distant and unlikely possibility. Despite the strength of both countries’ armed services, war would be catastrophic for both sides. Russia risks walking into a direct conflict with NATO, an event that could only end in worldwide disaster, and Turkey would almost immediately sink their energy sector into oblivion as they receive ample supplies of natural gas from Russia.
Neither side has much of a moral high ground in this spat. Not long after the plane was shot down, evidence emerged that the Russian SU-24 plane was in Turkish airspace for less than a minute. While NATO and Turkey have both warned that unwanted planes in their airspace could lead to the use of force, Ankara’s decision to shoot down a plane for spending mere seconds in their air comes across as trigger-happy and as if they were looking for a fight. It’s true that this is hardly the first time Russia has crossed into foreign airspace much to the irritation of various EU countries, but the Turkish Air Force regularly patrols and crosses into Greek airspace, which implies they operate under the idea of “Do as I say, not as I do”. The Russian pilot that has returned to Turkey has claimed the Turkish Air Force never warned him that they would use force, further complicating matters.
It is too early to tell whether this will lead to a significant change in policy when it comes to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, but it certainly doesn’t help much. A concrete solution to the Syrian Civil War could be delayed because of this spat and it’s sent a chill into relations between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey’s vehement opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad, who is supported by the Kremlin, will likely become more pronounced, as Ankara was quick to voice its skepticism about a “grand coalition that included Russia to defeat Da’esh. Whispers of a ceasefire and a permanent resolution may be on hold. Some have speculated that it’s time for Russia to directly arm the Kurds in northern Syria and stand by them when this war ends. This is a noble idea in theory as the Kurds have been Daesh’s bane for many months, but it would infuriate Turkey, which still suffers from a festering wound in its conflict with the PKK. Turkey’s place in NATO will also contribute to hurting an already frayed relationship between the organization and the Kremlin. Closer to home, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has speculated that the energy ties Moscow and Ankara may be put under some strain.
Both Russia and Turkey are driven by a strong sense of patriotism and even nationalism. Russia’s centuries of history have produced a rich and complex culture and a perseverant people. Russians are often known for being very patriotic even when things look grim. Likewise, In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundation for a new and advanced secular republic in a region still struggling to find identity from colonial occupation and plenty of internal wars. Turkey, despite its problems, has grown into a wealthy, democratic, secular, and influential power. Ataturk’s thoughtful and determined likeness is everywhere in Turkey, from the bills and coins of the lira to the names of landmarks throughout the country.
Patriotism is a noble value which both countries possess in large quantities. Nationalism, however, can be venomous, especially if it incorporates an ethnic element rather than a civic element. And pride can blind a government into rash action that it can come to regret. When two fiercely patriotic countries clash with centuries of bad blood in the rearview mirror, someone’s bound to end up hurt, or killed. It’s time to put aside pride and make sure this is an isolated incident.