Media reportage of incidents and events of a geopolitical nature merely skim the surface. The reality or deeper reality is obscured by the murky world of geopolitics and even world politics. This statement amounting to almost an axiom may capture the lows that the Turkish Russian relations have fallen to after the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military. It may be stated here that Turkey claims that it did not know that the jet was Russian; its military had warned the pilot of the jet after it strayed into Turkish airspace. After repeatedly ignoring warnings, Turkish military shot down the jet. This irked the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who has launched what amounts to war against the Islamic State. Putin ignored calls from the Turkish President, Reccep Erdogan , demanded an apology and Russia has vowed to scale down ties with Turkey.
On the face of it, the reaction to the shooting down of the Russian jet by Moscow seems churlish and even childish. States do not usually react this way. Moreover, Vladimir Putin is a shrewd and an astute politician who does not usually let emotion cloud his judgment. Even though Turkey is in a bit of doldrums contemporarily, it, however, remains a key player in the politics of the Middle East. In the words of the great Samuel Huntington, Turkey is a ‘cleft state’— a state whose multi-cultural nature makes it a contender of multiple allegiances. Turkey also has clout or potential clout in Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh and given the Turkic nature of many or all Central Asian Republics influence in these republics too. Turkey, despite being denied entry into the European Union, continues to be a Nato member. All in all then, Turkey is an important ,and significant state- a state that can neither be ignored nor toyed with.
So why is then Putin so upset and offended with Turkey?
While the downing of the Russian is sad, given the loss of life, in international politics and relations, it is not an event over which states will break off of tone down relations. What then could be the real reason for Russia’s truculence?
The answer may lie in the murky, topsy-turvy world of war. While Turkey does not support the Islamic State; it has been the victim of the terror group’s ire; the country apparently has turned what could be called a blind eye to the supply line or chain of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. More importantly, it is alleged that finance — the life blood of financing an insurgency or war — to the Islamic State is unhindered given that logistical requirements of the oil producing facilities under the control of the Islamic State is not hampered by Turkey. To repeat, finance is the sine qua non of an insurgency or militancy. Block the flow of finance to an insurgency or way and both die a natural death. Turkey , in the eyes of Russia, may be guilty of this ‘game’.
States are states: they play all sorts of games and take recourse to what might in the normal scheme of things be held to be unethical. But states are amoral entities whose primary rationale — especially in terms of international relations and orientation — is national interest. So states can basically do anything. If Turkey is indeed proving ‘arms length support’ by either omission or commission, then this is what Russia, which aims to smash the IS, may be upset and demonstrating angst at. This then may be the real reasons of Putin’s ‘anger’ and posturing. The downing of the jet, in this schema, is a mere pretext.
The relations between Russia and Turkey historically have been characterized by cycles of mistrust, poor relations and good relations. These have been determined by context. This time the context of world politics and international relations is defined by a degree of fluidity wherein Russia is seeking space to reassert itself. The Islamic State becomes the lightning rod to, at least, reassert Russian influence in the Middle East. Hence, decimating the IS — especially its supply lines , logistical facilities and finance — is key.
Vladimir Putin then appears to be posturing – the implied threat of breaking off relations and threat of breaking off co-operation in joint projects-to get what he wants. The question is: Will he? The answer remains in the grey zone. It cannot be foretold with precision. Politics in the Middle East will largely be determined by state interests within and without the region. Whether there will be a consensus on the nature of the IS and the threat it poses to each state in and outside the region will determine the overall response. Till then, expect subterfuge, obfuscation and more attacks. This is the prosaic reality of the politics and security of the Middle East and perhaps even the world at large.