Grudge between Ankara and Moscow deepens in struggle for regional influence

Few eyebrows were raised when the Russian government accused Turkey of breaching Syria's fragile cease-fire on February 28 by targeting Kurdish forces in northern Syria. After all, this is just another example of the war of words between Moscow and Ankara that has brought 15 years of rapprochement between the two long-standing rivals to a full-stop.

The rift is festering and could, in the worst case, escalate as Russia and Turkey jockey to protect their vital interests in war-torn Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at an opening ceremony for the restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at an opening ceremony for the restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015.

Sanctions bite, but not too hard

The Kremlin's swiftest response to the downing of its attack aircraft by the Turkish air force on November 24 has come in the form of economic sanctions. Turkish exports of fruit and vegetables to Russia have been banned, visa-free travel has ceased and many Russian travel agencies have pulled the plug on tourist packages to Turkey under pressure from the Kremlin. The list goes on.

There is a worse weapon Moscow could have used: Slashing energy exports to Turkey, which receives up to 35 percent of its oil and almost 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. But President Putin has pragmatically refrained from making swingeing cuts in a year when the Russian economy is expected to contract by up to 4 percent.

Moscow understands that its sanctions regime will not on its own place the Turkish economy under severe pressure but could reduce Turkish economic growth by what the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimated in December at anywhere between 0.3 percent and 0.7 percent in 2016. Importantly, the Kremlin is using sanctions to ensure the Russian population knows that Turkey is an enemy and to bolster domestic support.

The impact of sanctions on Turkey could also increase when the price of oil and gas eventually rises. The possibility of external shocks, combined with the financial burden of the Syrian refugee crisis despite the promise of billions of euros in EU aid, would exacerbate the cumulative effect. As would the potential spread of conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to western urban centers, alongside new Islamic State attacks.

Geo-political play more painful

Where Moscow has really hit a raw nerve and is outmaneuvering Turkey is in Syria. Russia's aggressive air campaign in northern Syria in support of Damascus has displaced ethnic Turkmens and forced anti-government Sunni Arab groups sponsored by the Turkish government to retreat from areas close to the common border.

The Russians have also cut off Turkey's primary rebel supply line to Aleppo, bolstered the al-Assad regime, and allowed the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of Turkey's arch nemesis, the PKK, to take control of territory abutting Turkey. Moscow's ambition has not only been to humiliate Turkey, but also to weaken and divide NATO and the European Union.

The estimated 5,000 Russian air strikes in Syria between September 2015 and January have strengthened the flow of migrants to Turkey and Europe. Many politicians in Europe are opposed to the outline of a migrant deal between Turkey and the EU which, on the European side, was pushed through by German chancellor Angela Merkel — a leader typically respected for her precision and caution. Burden-sharing will likely remain a key source of friction between Ankara and European capitals and is one of the many issues being debated in the U.K. in the run-up to the June 2016 Brexit vote.

Two big egos

The biggest risk in Russian/Turkish relations is arguably the top-down structure of power in both countries, where conciliation is often equated to weakness and political failure. The fiercely nationalistic, unbending and forceful leadership of Russia and Turkey makes compromise incredibly difficult. Neither President Erdogan nor President Putin forgive or forget.

Turkey's president has proven time again that he is not one to be bullied. During the G-20 Summit in Antalya in mid-November, Erdogan told his Russian counterpart in no uncertain terms that Turkey would not tolerate further incursions into Turkish airspace. Russian jets had for months been testing and probing Turkey and the rest of the NATO alliance. Putin nonetheless brushed off the warning, advising his host to treat Russian attack aircraft which violate Turkish airspace as "guests." The next uninvited guest was shot down.

Nonetheless, Russia's president is likely to continue waving the red rag at the Turkish bull. Earlier this year, Russia announced snap exercises in the South and Central military districts, and mobilized elements of the Caspian flotilla and Black Sea Fleet — a move that was clearly aimed at Turkey.

Provoking war with Turkey could massively back-fire, but such a gamble could pay off especially if the circumstances of the initial clash were ambiguous or unproven. A short scrap which could be painted as a victory for the Motherland, would boost Putin's already high domestic ratings while potentially magnifying divisions in NATO and embarrassing the alliance.