While escalation of the conflict between Russia and Turkey is unlikely for now, so too is any full restoration of ties between the two estranged nations. What’s most likely is a new type of frozen conflict.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening of G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. Photo: RIA Novosti

After Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the adoption of economic sanctions against Turkey, the acute crisis in Russian-Turkish relations incited by the Nov. 24 shoot-down of a Russian military aircraft has, by all accounts, turned into a protracted standoff.

In addition, Putin’s refusal to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Paris climate summit, like his previous avoidance of answering the latter’s telephone calls, bears witness to Moscow’s firm desire to extract more from the Turkish side than just “apologies.”

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In this type of situation, there are four possible scenarios:

Escalation. This possibility cannot be excluded so long as the chance exists of future clashes between Russia and Turkey in the Syria-Turkey border zone. It may turn into an reality if Ankara continues supporting the Syrian Turkmens and Russia does not cease its strikes on the positions of the Turkmens and other Turkish allies among the Syrian opposition forces. Any incident could lead to unpredictable military consequences. Political reasons for escalation may be steps taken by either side that sharply alter the balance of mutual interests; for example, if the Bosporus is closed to Russian ships.

Freezing. The two sides maintain their current positions, continuing with their sharp political rhetoric but hold themselves back from actions that could further exacerbate the situation. In particular, Russia suspends flights along the Turkish-Syrian border, and Ankara does not support the Turkmens and closes the border to prevent the entry of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) militants, weapons, ammunition and contraband. In diplomacy, this is expressed in not imposing further sanctions on each other.

Warming. Ankara and Moscow, through the mediation of a closely connected country (the attempts of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in such a role have been reported), agree on regular contacts with a view to gradually restoring contacts at least at the level of military and diplomatic agencies. Some of the sanctions are gradually lifted at the same time. For the realization of this scenario, the Turkish side must find a new language to replace the minimalistic “regrets” about what has transpired.

Restoration. For this to happen, there needs to be a meeting at the highest level: Putin and Erdoğan. After such a meeting, it is possible that Moscow will announce the repeal of the sanctions imposed earlier. The sides start to cooperate in Syria across a broad spectrum of military and political issues. There is one condition essential to such a scenario – a high level of trust between the sides, enforced by real mechanisms of cooperation between Russia and NATO.

Future escalation is disadvantageous to both sides. For Russia, which is in an economic crisis, events developing in this direction can put a strain on the budget. Moscow must bear the costs alone, under the permanent threat of fresh clashes with foreign air forces. There will be no coalition in Syria and the NATO countries will be forced to support Turkey.

For Ankara, escalation is also a dead end – the displeasure in Europe at its conduct will expand, and if the conflict with Russia deepens, the attitude toward Turkey could change. The problem arises of increasing numbers of refugees. And this is highly disruptive for both Turkey itself and for the European countries.

A warming of relations is not predicted for the near future. After the imposition of sanctions and dramatic announcements, any quick withdrawal would be perceived as a sign of weakness. The controversies between Moscow and Ankara are deep and fundamental, and they stem from differing perspectives on the nature of the Syrian conflict. Keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power is a priority for the Kremlin while his removal is a priority for Ankara. In view of this, complete restoration of relations is also unlikely at this point.

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On the other hand, it must be recognized that despite all of the tough rhetoric, there is nothing to be gained by severing the path to compromise. Sanctions against Turkey are still limited. In Syria, it will be necessary to come to an agreement about the demarcation of flight paths. For Moscow, there is no sense in fighting a war on two fronts – an open one against ISIS and another one against Turkey – a hybrid, indirect one. It is exactly the same for Erdoğan, who cannot simply retreat. Thus, as of today, the most realistic scenario is that that the conflict will enter into a frozen phase.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.