JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
March 12, 2016
Of the many disaster scenarios that could spring from the civil war in Syria, the prospect of war between Russia and Turkey is by far the most troubling.
Turkey and Russia are old enemies, but Moscow’s intervention eight months ago in the Syrian civil war on behalf of embattled President Bashar al-Assad has put the two on a collision course. Since the start of the Syrian war five years ago Turkey has been supporting the various competing rebel factions, and even sustaining the terrorist jihadis of the Islamic State group by buying their oil.
The inevitable clash between Ankara and Moscow came on November 24 last year when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane it said had intruded from Syria into its airspace. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin swiftly responded by imposing tough economic sanctions on Turkey, shutting down bilateral trade worth about $US44 billion. Putin’s embargoes included a ban on Russian tourists, one of Turkey’s largest contingents of visitors, a halt to construction of a new gas pipeline to Europe through Turkey, and a cut in agricultural imports from Turkey.
Putin’s measures indicate a level of unfriendliness he expects to last for a considerable period.
That’s not all. In the last few weeks Putin has added a military threat to the stand-off with Turkey. Russia has significantly enhanced the capabilities of its air base at Gyumi in Armenia, less than 10 kilometres from Turkey’s eastern border in the South Caucasus. Moscow has deployed more fighter jets to the base, has added a combat helicopter squadron, several transport helicopters and an unknown number of its most sophisticated unarmed reconnaissance drone aircraft.
As well as a response to the shooting down of its jet, Moscow is also reacting to several incursions into Armenian airspace by Turkish warplanes in October last year.
For the moment, Russia’s build up of air power in Armenia is more psychological warfare than an imminent military threat to Turkey. The deployments send the message that Turkey is being watched and contained without giving the impression that an attack is imminent.
But Ankara made its own psychological warfare response this week. Ankara’s navy started holding joint exercises in the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara with the Ukrainian navy. Frigates from both navies practised communications for co-ordinated tactical manoeuvreing and anti-aircraft combat.
This is a very pointed prod at Moscow, which is, of course, at loggerheads with Kiev over the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. The exercise is a reminder to Moscow how easily Turkey and allies could deny the Russian Black Sea Fleet access to the Mediterranean Sea by blocking the Bosphorus Strait link, the international waterway that runs through the heart of Istanbul.
There have been indications since last December that Ankara is examining closing the Bosphorus to Russian shipping as a tactic in their confrontation. On December 29 Turkey’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar made an inspection tour of his naval forces in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. The stock-taking by the general came after the December 4 incident when a Russian soldier stood ostentatiously on the deck of a warship passing through the Bosphorus carrying a surface-to-air missile launcher.
Turkey angrily demanded that this kind of aggressive display not happen again. Indeed, if Russia does again brandish weapons on its warships negotiating the strait, Turkey will be quite within its legal rights to detain and search Russian vessels.
Over 50,000 ships a year pass through the Bosphorus, whose use is governed by the 1936 Montreux Convention. The strait is defined as a Turkish national waterway, but with rights of international passage for vessels in peacetime.
The convention allows countries with Black Sea coastlines, including Russia, access to the Mediterranean for their warships. And it restricts access to the Black Sea for warships from non-littoral states. The restriction to no more than nine vessels at any one time and none of them to be more than 15,000 tonnes has hampered North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) efforts to support Ukraine’s security in recent years.
On the other hand, the right to transit the Bosphorus has in the last few months become essential to Russia’s operations to take military personnel and equipment to its naval base at Tartus in Syria. The transport chain from the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk has become essential to Moscow’s support for Syrian President Assad.
Even so, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will think long and hard before closing the Bosphorus to Russian shipping. Putin would undoubtedly see such a closure as a cause for war.
Yet the characters of the men at the helm in both Ankara and Moscow are a cause for concern. The power of both Putin and Erdogan rests on well-earned reputations for the swift and decisive use of brute force. Neither of them can afford to lose face. That can lead to catastrophic mistakes.
Putin’s quest to make Russia great again after the ignominy of the collapse of the Soviet Union over 25 years ago has become ever more essential to his political survival as the economy has stagnated. If Russians cannot hope for improvements in living standards any time soon, they can at least bask in the glow of revived national pride.
Putin, the old Cold War KGB agent, is a master of capitalizing on his enemies’ weaknesses. In the last few years, he has effectively blocked the eastward expansion of both the European Union (EU) and NATO. The acceptance of Georgia, Moldova and now Ukraine into these two clubs has been blocked by Putin’s creation of disputed territories loyal to Moscow in all three countries.
Putin has maintained another territorial stalemate in the South Caucasus, just over Turkey’s eastern border. Moscow supports Turkey’s immediate neighbour Armenia, and Armenia’s claim to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. There was a full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then there have been almost constant skirmishes and attacks from both sides. These have become more frequent and more intense in recent months as Russia has increased its military presence in Armenia. There is some speculation that Putin may be purposefully stoking instability in the region in order to provoke Erdogan into making an unwise intervention.
Turkey, like Canada, is a member of NATO and has the group’s second largest armed forces after the United States. That is another reason to look at the confrontation between Turkey and Russia with concern. A pillar of the 28-member NATO alliance is Article Five, which says that if one member is attacked, the others will come to its aid.
Turkish President Erdogan is not a man to be trusted with this kind of blank cheque. There is, thankfully, enough suspicion of him in NATO capitals that if he gets himself into a war with Russia, he cannot count on an automatic invocation of Article Five.
Since coming to power in 2003 as Prime Minister and becoming President in 2014, Erdogan has changed the entire public culture of Turkey for the worse. What was once a secular culture well on the way to becoming a stable democracy has been changed by Erdogan into something approaching an Islamic autocracy. He has destroyed political opposition, launched one of the most brutal and effective campaigns anywhere against independent media, and is in the process of changing Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into an executive presidency with himself at the summit.
Erdogan has also re-ignited the war against Kurdish separatists in the east. Indeed, he has used the cover of joining the international air campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq to attack Kurdish bases in those countries.
Although Erdogan still professes to want to join the EU, his actions and body language say his real dream is for Turkey to again be the arbiter of Middle Eastern affairs that it was in the days of the Ottoman Empire.
It is the same hankering for past glory that drives Putin.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”
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From F&O’s archives:
Could Russian jet downing lead to wider war? By David J Galbreath, November 24, 2015
The dangerous skies over Syria have now earned their reputation. The Turkish foreign ministry has confirmed that its forces had shot down a fighter aircraft near the Turkish border with Syria. The Russian foreign ministry confirmed soon afterwards that it has lost an SU-24 over Syria.
Turkey’s Erdogan seeks military support after falling out with Islamists, by Jonathan Manthorpe, 2014
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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