MOSCOW BLOG: Kremlin mulls retaliation as media machine cranks into gear

MOSCOW BLOG: Kremlin mulls retaliation as media machine cranks into gear
By Ben Aris November 25, 2015

The downing of the Su-24 Russian bomber on the border between Syria and Turkey on November 24 has lit the fuse on a fireworks display of conjecture and conspiracy theories in the Russian media.

The Russian media machine has rolled into full campaign mode, not willing to waste the golden propaganda opportunities the incident has afforded.

The surviving co-pilot has given a press conference in which he categorically denied that his plane was inside Turkish airspace or that the plane was given any warning by the Turkish F-16 fighter jet that shot it down.

"There was no warning what ever neither by radio or visual," he said. "You have to understand the difference in speed between a bomber and an F-16. If they wanted they could have done it visually by flying a parallel course. But they fired without warning and hit us in the tail section," the officer said in a live press conference on the evening news. "Someone has to pay for the death of the commander."

Other reports have focused on the death of the pilot, who was allegedly killed by machine-gun fire from the ground after he bailed out. TV is airing phone video footage claimed to comes from rebel territory showing local fighters celebrating the discovery of the pilot's body and shouting: "It's a Russian pilot! Allah is great!"

Play the game

Both the West and Russia now have very well established narratives that these news events have to fit into. While the West has a habit of playing up the stories that fit its narrative and playing down those that don't, Russia's media machine explores a bewildering range of barely credible conspiracy theories that are meant to explain what really happened. This tactic has been encouraged this time by Kremlin hints that the shooting down of the plan was a "planned provocation".

The downing of the Su-24 and death of its pilot play perfectly to many themes already well established in the Russian media. Since the loss of Ukraine and the downturn in the Russian economy, the Kremlin has been encouraging a siege mentality, warning that the West is trying to stop Russia once again becoming America's global geopolitical rival.

This sense of siege has only been heightened since the IS attacks in Paris and the bombing of the A321 Russian tourist plane in Egypt over two weeks ago, killing all 224 on board.

Russia is well acquainted with terrorist attacks after the sieges at the Nord-Ost theatre in 2002 and the Beslan school in 2004. These fears were reawakened at the weekend after all major shopping centres introduced tight security measures.

At the Europa shopping mall at Kievskaya in central Moscow, the largest mall in Europe, every car entering the parking was searched and metal detectors with alert security staff manned all the pedestrian entrances. Elsewhere in the capital, public venues heightened security and police were issued with body armour and ordered to stop all trucks and vans for inspection.

No war

On the morning of November 25 the speculation in Moscow was over the possibility of going to war with Turkey in retribution for the shooting down of the plane. Yet the comments from senior Russian diplomats make it clear this retaliation will be economic and not military.

The Kremlin has been quick to assure the global community that it would not launch retaliatory strikes at Turkey, despite President Vladimir Putin's public outrage at the incident.

Turkey has been a Nato member since 1952 and a Russian attack would inevitably lead to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invoking article five of the treaty. This call for all Nato members to come to another's aid has only been invoked once, by the US on 9/11.

Instead the Kremlin has hinted that economic retaliation is being planned. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on November 25: "Of course, we do not want to artificially create problems nor for Turkish manufacturers and exporters, which, of course, do not take any responsibility for what happened, nor do we want to create unnecessary problems for our citizens, or for our companies that work with the Turkish side."

Nomura International bank strategist Tim Ash pointed out in a note that if Moscow imposes barriers and reduces Russian tourism to Turkey by 25% that would cost the Turkish economy some $500mn a year in a country that already suffers from an acute balance of payments problem.

Alexander Shokhin, a former minister and the current president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) which represents Russian big business, told Russian news agencies: "Clearly, the response should be in the economic, humanitarian, not military areas. The countermeasures will be accepted without an escalation of tensions."

Economic retribution against Turkey would be extremely painful as the country is both one of the biggest investors into Russia and also one of its biggest trade partners. Many Turkish companies have been building infrastructure for the 2018 Fifa World Cup, but Shokhin suggested their activity would be "limited" now.

He also suggested that import bans on Turkish agricultural products could be introduced that would be a "terrible blow" for Turkish producers but "positive" for Russian producers.

But economic retaliation will inevitably hurt both countries. In particular it could doom Russia's plans to build the Turkish Stream pipeline to carry Russian gas to its European customers via Turkey, though both sides' interest in this project already seemed to be cooling.

Russia could also retaliate by intervening more forcibly against Turkish allies in the Syrian civil war or increasing support to Kurdish groups, including the PKK guerrillas inside Turkey.

Russia has accused Turkey of actively aiding and abetting IS as part of its strategy to defeat the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), whose allies are one of the few successful military counters to IS in Syria. Ankara has also been aiding pro-Turkish rebels along the border region that are sworn to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Russia is backing.

Erdogan was putting a brave face on it on November 25, reiterating that Turkey didn't want to escalate tensions. "We have no intention to inflame the situation. We just came to the defence of our security and the rights of our brothers," he said during a speech at a business forum in Istanbul.

Ball in Putin's court

Ash, who is in Turkey at the moment, says that he believes the Turkish side has been surprised by the venom of the Russian response, but in the context of the domestic narrative Russia is perhaps showing its paranoia about the West's intentions towards it.

From the other side of the fence, Ash reports that the Turks feel the Russians have been attacking "its" people on the ground and that Russia is almost as much of an aggressor as Assad.

"I think also for Turkey the sensitivity is that ethnic Turks, the Turkmen in Syria were being pounded by Russian jets. From Turkey's perspectives these are not ISIS but part of the moderate anti-Assad opposition, which they have been supporting," Ash said in an emailed note. "There is certainly no desire to escalate, or further confront Russia over this, and there is also some disappointment over the Russian reaction particularly warnings over Russian tourists visiting Turkey."

The desire from Turkey is to de-escalate, reports the analyst, but now the ball is in Putin's court and while this will almost certainly not turn into a "hot" war between Russia and Turkey, it will very likely turn into a "cold" war, adding Ankara to Russia's growing list of adversaries.