The downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Turkish border on November 24 has opened a can of worms for the big powers engaged in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The already frayed relations between the main players - including Russia, Turkey and the US - will become a lot more complicated as a result.
It is still not clear what happened and specifically if the Russian Su-24 bomber was in Turkish or Syrian airspace at the time. More information is expected today.
There are hopes calmer heads will prevail. Michael Harris, head of research and Turkey strategist at Renaissance Capital, told delegates at bne IntelliNews’ panel discussion on Turkey on November 24: “This is a geopolitical risk, but it can be managed and doesn’t need to spin out of control.”
However, it is already clear the Kremlin is taking this extremely badly and one result will be the incident will almost certainly kill the Russian-proposed Turkish Stream gas pipeline that was due to replace the abandoned South Stream pipeline. Turkish Stream is the cornerstone of Russia’s policy to further turn the screws on Ukraine by completely bypassing the Soviet-era gas pipeline infrastructure that runs through Ukraine to its main customers in Europe.
Turkish relations in tatters
Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the newswires within hours calling the downing of the plane a “stab in the back” from those abetting terrorism.
“This goes beyond the war against terrorism,” Putin said during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, according to the Kremlin. “Today's loss is a stab in the back from the accomplices of terrorism. I can't qualify it differently.”
Relations with Turkey were already deteriorating after a brief honeymoon earlier this year. Russia had abandoned the South Stream project after the EU effectively blocked it over rules goverbning third-party access to pipelines. Russia switched the route to run across the Black Sea to a gas hub in Turkey, from where would it be sent through existing and new pipelines to markets in Europe.
However, since the summer relations between Moscow and Ankara have visibly deteriorated after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he was negotiating gas and pipeline deals with Iran. Russia responded with a threat to cut the volume of gas piped through Turkish Stream in half, from 62bn cubic metres to 31bn cm.
Tensions increased further after Russia launched airstrikes against rebel positions in Syria at the end of November when a Russian plane reportedly crossed into Turkish airspace and Ankara then threatened to shoot down any plane that repeated the stunt. Russia at the time said the incursion was a “mistake”.
The incident will also impact the fraught relations with the US and the EU, which are locked in a dispute with Russia over the fate of the Ukraine. While relations with the West have been warming somewhat over the last month, Putin took the initiative on Syria away from the West by launching attacks that have given him some real diplomatic leverage in this dispute. That advantage was only multiplied by the attacks on Paris on November 13 as several European countries – most noticeably France – called for closer cooperation with Russia to defeat IS, even if it is actually pursuing its own agenda of bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position on the ground.
The Kremlin is also bound to tie the incident into more general fears about Nato’s expansion. Putin in his speeches has repeatedly complained about Nato’s eastward march right up to Russia’s borders following the accession of the Baltic states. These fears have been dismissed in the West where Nato is seen as a defensive alliance. However, the downing of the Russian jet – the first time a Nato member has downed a Russian (Soviet) plane since 1970 – will be seen as an offensive act (irrespective of what actually happened) and so underscore Russian fear that Nato’s expansion is an aggressive move that directly threatens Russia’s security.
The upshot could be that Russia will further dig its heels in over Ukraine, as it fears Ukraine will eventually opt to join Nato, just as most other new EU members have decided to do to counter the Russian threat. And indeed there are vague statements in the Association Agreement that Ukraine signed with the EU.
“The Parties shall explore the potential of military and technological cooperation. Ukraine and the European Defence Agency (EDA) will establish close contacts to discuss military capability improvement, including technological issues," a clause in the agreement reads. However, there is no mention of Nato and nothing more in the document about military cooperation other than this clause. But its appearance has fuelled Russia’s Nato paranoia.
Risks rise, but manageable
The first test of the new relationship between the EU and Russia since the downing of the jet will come on November 26 when French President Francois Hollande arrives in Moscow for talks with Putin. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, France has been the most outspoken EU member calling for a compromise with Russia and full cooperation in the fight against IS in Syria. The Kremlin was optimistic these talks would produce some real progress on cooperation.
"Before Moscow, French President will visit Washington, and we consider it as a creation of the widest anti-terrorist coalition," presidential aide, Yuri Ushakov, said on November 20, adding that Putin and Hollande would meet again during a conference in Paris on November 30.
And Putin has just met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to discuss the Syrian conflict, Iran nuclear programme, and tackling terrorism, including IS on November 22 in preparation for Hollande’s meeting.
Even before the incident between Turkey and Russia, Hollande faced a tough challenge to get US President Barack Obama to agree to a partnership with Moscow, but that will be even harder now. The meetings over the next two weeks will be crucial to setting the tone and if things go badly, will result in an extension of EU sanctions on Russia, which are due to expire at the end of December.
“The compromise solution at the 17/18 December European Council will likely be an extension for a time period shorter than the previously typical six months. Sanctions could be reconsidered in March 2016, when the Crimea-related measures against individuals and commercial entities also expire,” says Otilia Dhand of Teneo Intelligence.