Putin Confronts Turkey

The nature and significance of Russian president Vladimir Putin is on display when he walks.  He does not swing his right arm; all the movement is on the left side of the body. He may not be a gunslinger on the model of John Wayne, but almost certainly his walk is linked to KGB military training, with weapons close to the chest or in the right hand, leaving the left hand free to move.

The macho image of Putin, the 63-year-old judo black belt, on his horse, on his motorbike, in the gym, and in the hockey rink, is now a familiar part of the theater of international politics.  From the early days fighting in the streets of Leningrad, he has been eager to throw the first punch and make known his point of view.  That toughness has been amply demonstrated after Turkey's aggression against Russia.  Putin has shown he is a man of action, implementing what he says.  Unlike other political leaders, he declares he is now engaged in a war against Islamist terrorism.

Sometimes, Putin surprises the world by some of his views.  He may be anticipating the result of the U.S. presidential election by calling Donald Trump "a very colorful, talented person."  More surprisingly, he nominated Sepp Blatter, the suspended president of FIFA, currently the subject of criminal investigation for corruption, as a "very respected person" for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Putin denied there were any regular Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, but only personnel carrying out "certain tasks," some of which were in the military sphere.  Putin has also remarked that the biggest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century was the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Though some of Putin's statement are questionable, unsound, or perhaps facetious, his views on Turkey, whose leaders he called "accomplices of terrorism" and whose actions against Russia he considered a "stab in the back," and on Islamist terrorism are strong and important and should be considered by the U.S. and western Europe.

One might remember the words of Winston Churchill recalling a letter he wrote to Stalin on April 29, 1945.  In the House of Commons on December 10, 1948, Churchill expressed to Stalin "a very warm and deep desire to be friends on equal and honorable terms with the mighty Russian Soviet Republic and to work with you, making allowances for our different systems of thought and government."  In view of the fact that Putin has forthrightly recognized the threat of Islamist terrorism and his willingness to fight it, the U.S. administration should act with the same realism and wisdom, if not compassion, as did the anti-communist Churchill, in reaching a rapprochement, notwithstanding significant fundamental differences.

It is still baffling why a Turkish F-16 jet, 300 miles from its base, on November 24, 2015 shot down, without a warning shot, the Russian Su-24 plane that had crossed into its airspace for 17 seconds on its way to bomb ISIS.  The appalling deed was compounded by the shooting of one of the pilots as he was parachuting down, and by the crowds shouting "Allahu akbar" as they found the body.

Russia is Turkey's second largest trading partner; more than 3 million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2014, and there are 94,000 Turkish nationals working in Russia.  Putin had invited Turkey to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian political, economic, and military organization of five, formed in 2001.

It was disgraceful that on the same day as the attack on the Russian plane, the NATO Council expressed solidarity with Turkey, a NATO member.  Only France objected, saying that Turkey was undermining the operation against ISIS.  Indeed, the question can be raised of whether the Turkish action was one perversely and deliberately aimed at increasing tension between Russia and NATO.  A related question is whether Turkey should be allowed to remain a member of NATO.

Turkey offered no apology for the downing of the plane.  Putin immediately called it a hostile, an enemy, act and imposed economic sanctions against Turkey, notably against imports from Turkey, from which Russia has been obtaining 20 percent of its vegetables; Turkish companies in Russia; and Turks working in Russia.  Russia has restricted fabric imports from Turkey as well as fruits and vegetables.  Putin has ordered tour operators not to organize tours to Istanbul.  Now Russian T-shirts are produced with one of two slogans – "I won't be going to Turkey" on one and an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with "Run, Turk, Run" on the other.

Putin drew attention to the creeping Islamization of Turkey, a phenomenon that must have Kemal Atatürk "rolling in his grave."  Russian media has cast Turkey as an abettor of Islamist terrorism, allowing jihadist calls to be made in its territory, and indicated that the son of Turkish President Erdoğan was involved in an oil deal with ISIS.

Equally important have been the political differences between the two countries and the challenge to Russia of the declared ambition of Erdoğan to assert Turkish leadership in the area, already shown by his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The two countries have disagreed on a number of subjects: the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan; the breakaway regions of Georgia; the Turkish support for Mohamed Morsi, leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood; the Turkish opposition to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; and Turkish animosity toward the Kurds.   

Turkey since 2010 has been particularly hostile to Israel, breaking diplomatic relations after nine Turkish citizens were killed when Turkey sponsored the Mavi Marmara, the protest ship bound on May 2010 for the Gaza Strip.  In a strikingly different attitude from that of Turkey, Israel has said it will not act against Russian war planes if they encroach on Israeli air space, as they have been doing for some time, on their way to bomb ISIS in southern Syria.

Putin's decision to support, or more precisely not to depose Assad is the result not only of the desire to play a more prominent role in the Middle East, but equally or more importantly a concern to support a secular ruler, even a brutal dictator, in the area who can limit the rise of Islamist terrorism.  Putin has recognized that it is more important to eliminate ISIS than to remove Assad from power.  So did French president François Hollande when he visited Moscow on November 26, 2015 and called for an end to any chill and for a kind of "sacred union" between the two countries.  Semi-officially, France has said it is more prepared to work with Putin than President Obama is.

To that end, Russia has been increasing its role in the Middle East, including 4,000 combat sorties in Syria, using bombers like the TU-22 M3 deploying the S-400 anti-aircraft system in Syria and a planned expansion to its al-Shayrat Air Base in central Syria, less than 20 miles from Homs.  Differences exist at present about the degree to which Russian planes are helping destroy the infrastructure of ISIS and their accuracy in hitting their targets.  Certainly, Russian air strikes helped break the siege by ISIS in November 2015 of Kweiras, the military air base near Aleppo.  Russia has attacked the supply lines that connect rebel areas with Turkey.

In contrast, Turkey has not been helpful in the fight against ISIS.  Among other things, it has allowed many Chinese Uighurs, involved in the East Turkestan Independence Movement, to enter the country, some of whom have joined ISIS.  Turkey has been attacking Kurdish positions in northern Syria.

To prevent any further Turkish hostility, Russia should supply advanced weapons to the Kurds and help them form an independent Kurdistan, composed of part of Iraq, Syria, and southeast Turkey.