26 November 2015

Turkey and Russia on a Collision Course

I was preparing a post on the growing animosity between Putin and Erdogan when the news of Turkey downing a Russian bomber aircraft broke.

While I don't expect this incident to have military consequences, it will certainly accelerate the retaliation plan Putin was slowly putting together.

You see, when Russia massively enlarged its military presence in Syria and began bombarding ISIS positions, Erdogan publicly threatened Putin about finding another natural gas supplier. Russia's response was to suspend the South Stream pipeline project and to refuse a Turkish request to buy an additional 3bcm of gas.

At the time, I called it a chin flick.

Putin did not stop there. The Director of the Middle East Institute in Moscow, Yevgeny Satanovsky accused Erdogan [link in Russian] of buying oil from ISIS and personally benefiting from the war. He also maintained that Erdogan was directly implicated in the illicit archaeological artifact trade.

This was different from his previous allegations where he accused Turkey of siding with ISIS. This time he was referring to Erdogan not just in his capacity as President but as a war profiteering individual. In the interview, he insinuates that Russia has solid evidence to back these claims up.

Yevgeny Satanovsky is not anybody. He was one of the directors of the pro-Kremlin Russian-Jewish Congress and he is known as Putin's mouthpiece for certain issues. Clearly, this was one of these instances.

A short week later, Putin showed up in G20 meeting with a startling declaration.
During the summit, “I provided examples based on our data on the financing of different Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) units by private individuals. This money, as we have established, comes from 40 countries and, there are some of the G20 members among them,” Putin told the journalists.
And he added this:
 "I’ve shown our colleagues photos taken from space and from aircraft which clearly demonstrate the scale of the illegal trade in oil and petroleum products," he said.
“The motorcade of refueling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon," Putin added, comparing the convoy to gas and oil pipeline systems.
Of Syria's neighbors, only Turkey is a member of the G20 club and Putin was evidently hinting that if pressured Russia could provide proof of this illegal trade.

When Erdogan made the foolish decision to down the Russian jet fighter for having violated Turkish airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds, Putin's reaction was swift. He called it a "stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists."

His Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov cancelled his trip to Ankara and denounced the attack as a "planned provocation."

Putin is an hardened apparatchik and he would not use a phrase like "accomplices of terrorists" lightly. He is obviously very sure of himself.

What Will Putin Do?

Most Turkish pundits are concerned about a retaliation that focuses on energy. Turkey gets 55 percent of its natural gas and 16 percent of its oil and petroleum products from Russia.

I doubt that.

This would hurt both economies. Sure, it would be much harder for Turkey to quickly replace Russia with another supplier but Russia would lose an important customer in the long run.

Instead Russia will do what it did to other countries it wanted to punish. Like scrutinizing Turkish exports, especially perishable food stuff.

Or discouraging Russians from visiting Turkey, which is a market worth 5 billion dollars. Or harassing Turkish visitors and business people at entry points.

And it will probably make it very difficult for Turkish companies to bid for construction and infrastructure contracts. Currently, there are 1,923 Turkish firms in Russia working on projects worth $61.2 billion. That would be a severe blow to Turkey's ailing economy and Putin doesn't even have to acknowledge it as a sanction.

But above all, Russia will begin publishing whatever proof it has on Erdogan's complicity with ISIS.

I was told by a reliable source that there is too much evidence linking him to the kinds of illegal activities alleged by Satanovsky. In fact, my source claimed that the US used this evidence as a leverage to get Erdogan to allow coalition forces to use the Incirlik airbase.

If my guesses are accurate, I think Putin will not announce official sanctions against Turkey.

He will first try to create a significant economic problem by squeezing Turkish companies with the hope that they would put pressure on Erdogan to back down.

If Erdogan remains defiant, and I believe he will, Putin will simply reveal what he knows about his dealings with ISIS.

That would have very serious repercussions not only for Turkey but Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well.

We live in interesting times.



As I was saying:
Hundreds of trucks bearing Turkish fruits, vegetables and other products were lining up at the Georgian border with Russia, Russian news media reported, as inspections slowed to a crawl and Russian officials suggested there might be a terrorist threat from the goods. (...) 
In the Krasnodar region, a group of 39 Turkish businessmen attending an agriculture exhibition were detained for entering Russia on tourist rather than business visas — a common practice — and were slated for deportation, according to a report on the website of the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper.

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