Europe Politics

'We don't plan to go to war with anyone,' Putin says, amid Syria-Turkey tensions

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Key Points
  • "We are not going to fight against anyone. We are going to create conditions so that nobody wants to fight against us," President Putin told Russian news agency TASS in an interview published Monday.
  • Putin's comments come against a backdrop of rising tensions in Syria between government troops — who are backed by Russia — and Turkish forces and rebel groups.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin last April. 
Adem Altan | AFP | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country is not going to go to war with anyone, and that it would seek to deter any other country that considered an armed conflict with Russia.

"We are not going to fight against anyone. We are going to create conditions so that nobody wants to fight against us," Putin told Russian news agency TASS in an interview published Monday.

"Moreover, our annual expenditures are falling. In contrast, other countries' [military] spending has been rising," he said.

Putin's comments come against a backdrop of rising tensions in Syria between government troops — who are backed by Russia — and Turkish forces and rebel groups in the northwestern Idlib province, which is now the center of a battle for control between opposing sides.

Government forces under President Bashar al-Assad want to wrestle the region, which borders Turkey, back from Syrian rebel groups and Jihadist forces. Idlib is seen as the last major province still largely under rebel control.

Turkey, meanwhile, backs some rebel groups opposed to Assad and does not want to give up control of the border amid fears of being over-run with refugees fleeing the conflict. There are already over three million Syrian refugees in Turkey and the country says it cannot cope.

Tensions between Turkey and its neighbor Syria escalated further last week when 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike carried out by Syrian forces. On Sunday, when Turkey launched a retaliatory operation, called 'Operation Spring Shield,' 19 Syrian soldiers were killed in Turkish drone strikes on Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Sunday.

There are now concerns over how far Russia could get involved in the dispute, which marks another chapter in Syria's nine-year civil war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart have been communicating regularly over the escalating tensions, with both stressing "how important it is to improve the effectiveness of coordination between the Russian and Turkish defense ministries," the Kremlin noted, of a phone call that took place on Friday. 

Safe zone

Russia and Turkey are in an awkward position given their good record of diplomatic relations, but opposing positions regarding Syria. Turkey has urged Russia to use its influence to rein in Syria. Erdogan is due to visit Russia on Thursday for a one-day trip to discuss the Syrian developments.

On Sunday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country did not "aim to face-off with Russia. Our only aim is to stop the Syrian regime's massacres, radical groups, the displacement of civilians."

The Kremlin said on Monday that Russia's stance on Syria remains unchanged and that it wanted to see the Turkish-Russian agreement upheld, Reuters reported.

Turkey has a deal with Russia that aims to create a "safe zone" or "buffer zone" in Syria along the Turkish border that is occupied by Turkish troops. The aim is to stop Kurdish forces (which Turkey labels "terrorists") establishing a separatist area on its doorstep — a move that it sees as a threat — and to keep prevent refugees entering Turkey.

Russia's military said it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish planes over Syria's Idlib province, however.

'Vested interests'

Anthony Skinner, director of MENA at global risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, said the risk of Russia and Turkey going to war was low, despite the escalation in conflict between Assad's forces and the Turkish army.

"Erdogan and Putin have a vested interest in trying to resolve the conflict through a political deal. While Putin is committed to supporting Bashar al-Assad, he would prefer not to lose Erdogan as a regional partner," he said in a note Monday.

"Erdogan for his part has been able to work with Putin on a range of issues and is probably using escalation against the Syrian army at least partly to weaken al-Assad's hand in future talks where Moscow will yield strong influence."

Skinner added that, in fact, we had already passed a juncture when the conditions for escalation between Turkey and Russia were in place. He noted that that airstrikes which killed scores of Turkish soldiers last week "were likely committed by the Russian air force, as Syrian fighter jets do not conduct air sorties at night."

"And yet, both Moscow and Ankara have decided to point the finger of blame at al-Assad, reflecting how little appetite there is on either side for more direct confrontation," he said.