Analysis

Despite Bold Declarations, Russia and Turkey Have Too Much to Lose

While Erdogan's behavior after the downing of the Russian jet echoes Netanyahu's response to the Gaza Flotilla incident, Moscow and Ankara can't afford to break off economic and military cooperation.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan walks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin prior to their meeting at G20 summit, November 16, 2015.
Reuters

There’s probably not a single senior Israeli government official who didn’t indulge in schadenfreude over the sanctions Russia has imposed on Turkey. Some Israelis are also already calculating the economic benefits: Fewer Russian tourists in Antalya, more in Eilat, they hope.

And it’s curious that the Israel Air Force, which closely follows the movements of Western and Russian aircraft over Syria, has remained silent. Does it have any proof to back Turkey’s claim that the Russian plane it downed was in its airspace? Or is Russia’s story correct?

The downing of the plane begs comparisons with Israel’s botched raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza in 2010, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s behavior now echoes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior then: Erdogan expressed regret, but didn’t apologize; Ankara hasn’t (yet) offered compensation for the wrecked plane or the slain pilot; and Turkey doesn’t intend to put those responsible on trial. Israel is entitled to sue Turkey for patent infringement.

Only one thing is needed to complete the resemblance: Russia demanding that Turkey change its policy toward the Assad regime in Syria as a condition for ending the sanctions, just as Turkey demanded that Israel end its blockade of Gaza, and for Turkey to indignantly reject the demand.

Nevertheless, this resemblance may prove misleading, and the schadenfreude may prove premature. Turkey and Russia have a strategic relationship that neither is interested in destroying. Russia supplies more than half of Turkey’s gas, bilateral trade totaled more than $33 billion last year, and in late 2014 the two signed a series of agreements aimed at increasing this trade to $100 billion by 2020.

Turkey has also helped Russia evade sanctions imposed on it by the United States and the European Union, and last year it sold $4 billion worth of agricultural produce to Russia. Russia’s planned new gas pipeline to Europe is slated to pass through Turkey, while Turkish exports to the Central Asian republics usually go through Russia.

So far, Russia has refrained from damaging this web of strategic interests. It hasn’t threatened to reduce the amount of gas it sells Turkey or denied passage to Turkish goods en route to other countries. Its recommendation that Russian tourists not travel to Turkey and its order that tourist agencies not sell packages to Turkey are mainly declarative sanctions, since the tourism season begins only in about another six months, and by then, relations are likely to improve.

Last year, 3.3 million Russians visited Turkey, accounting for about a tenth of all Turkish tourism, but that number was already down about 20 percent from 2013. And in any case, the sanctions mainly hurt Russian travel agents, who get fat fees from the Turkish government for every planeload of tourists.

Russia did freeze charter flights to Turkey, but regular flights continue. And the announcement that visa-free travel by Turks to Russia will end only in early January indicates a hope that proper relations will be restored by then.

Turkey and Russia are also strategic partners in the diplomatic effort to end Syria’s civil war. Granted, they are diametrically opposed over what to do with Syrian President Bashar Assad, but both agree a diplomatic solution is possible, and both joined the international consensus reached in Vienna in October, under which the United Nations will compile a list of rebel and regime representatives who will start negotiations on establishing a transitional government.

Even military cooperation, which Russia publicly suspended, continues to take place de facto, and Turkey offered to expand intelligence cooperation with Russia in operations against Islamic State.

Moreover, Turkey is worried by Russia’s ties with the Syrian Kurds. Thus it wants to prevent the rift between Ankara and Moscow from playing into the Kurds’ hands and helping them establish an autonomous zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.

In short, both countries have plenty of reasons to contain the crisis and restore normal relations. And Erdogan’s rhetoric shows he is trying to do exactly that.