The clash of empires. The new Cold War between Russia and Turkey

On November 24, 2015, Turkish Air Force F-16 jets shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet because it “approached Turkish national airspace in Yayladağa/Hatay region,”[1] near the Syrian-Turkish border. Following the Turkish narrative of the incident, the F-16 warplanes shot down the jet as it failed to listen the 10 warnings in which the pilots were asked to immediately change their headings. After 17 seconds, while the other Russian Shkhoi left Turkish national airspace, the plane in question was fired and crushed in Latakia’s Yamadi village, near the Syrian border. Both the pilots ejected themselves out of the jet before it crashed. One of them was killed while the other one was captured by Turkoman forces in the region.

Turkey’s statements of defense have been based on a sort of terrible mistake that could had been avoided: initially, Turkey’s President, Receop Tayyip Erdoğan, underlined that the plan was unidentified at the moment of the downing and it was mistaken for a Syrian one. Following this theory, if the jet had been identified as a Russian one than the reaction should have been different and Erdoğan should have apologized. But he refused to apologize to Russia, affirming Turkey’s right to defend his borders, and the downing turned out to be the most serious incident between Russia and a NATO nation in recent memory.

Russian Defense Ministry reported that the plan was attacked when it was inside the Syrian territory – the two Shukoi S-24 did not constitute any threat for Turkey – and it did not violate the Turkish airspace. According to the pilot who survived the crash, there were no warnings before his jet was hit and he was forced to parachute himself out the plan to safety. He was than rescued while his co-pilot was shot dead before his parachute could touch the ground. For all these reasons and for the rejection of Erdoğan to apologize, Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has condemned the downing as premeditated, labeling it as “a stab in the back by the terrorists accomplices.”[2]

The initial Russian retaliation is going to focus on economic measures. The construction sector is the first one which is going to be involved. The Kremlin put in act some measure to forbid Turkish construction companies to be involved in any project from January 1, 2016: the new sanctions are pointing firms owned or based in Turkey which are prohibited from “activities in architecture, engineering and technical testing” of buildings.[3]

The other sector which can be surely affected is the tourism. Turkey is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians. In a first time, Russian touristic agencies suspended sales of tour packages to Turkey. Than there has been the recommendation to Russian citizens to do not visit Turkey at all and a restriction of the air travel to the country.

Russian special sanctions could involve even one of the major projects with Turkey, the Turkish Stream Gas pipeline. It is a 910 km channel planned to run for 180 km on the Turkish European border, passing through the Black Sea and serving both the Turkish and the European market. The beginning of the construction was scheduled for 2016 but negotiations suffered a setback and the future of the entire project is still unclear.

As a consequence, what is really in danger is the trade between the two countries: in the past 30 years, Turkey has become increasingly dependent on Russian gas to the point where Russia accounted for 58% of its gas imports in 2011. At the same time, the energy sector is not the only major economic tie between Putin and Erdoğan: this long-dated partnership has been broadened by the addition of the construction of a nuclear power plant at Akkuyyu, on the Mediterranean Sea coast -which has been financed by a Russian company. On the other side, Russia has identified Turkey as a key partner in order to bypass rivals coming from the European energy diversification projects in the south of the continent,[4] because it identifies as a central transit country for Russian exports.

But Putin and Erdoğan are not only economic allies. They have so much in common to define “birds of a feather.”[5] Both have had a hard childhood, growing up in a kind of poor conditions and both of them played sports, Putin became black belt in Judo and Erdoğan was a skilled footballer. In their political vision, both of them claim to restore their country’s imperial past: Erdoğan embrace the vision of a restored great Ottoman Empire[6], one of the greatest empires in history which has been defeated at the end of the First World War; Putin, with his nostalgia for Imperial Russia, is trying to build a new state and restore the prestige of Soviet Empire, whose collapse was for him one of the worst geopolitical disasters of the 20th century. Putin experienced different waves of protest – people were complaining for political repression and official corruption and demanded a change in the current political system that prevent opposition from running in elections – to his 15-years-power which culminated in 2011-2012 when he won elections for the third time in controversial circumstances. The harsh treatment reserved to protesters is similar to the one used by Erdoğan’s government during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. According to some western sources, those events reveled how under Erdoğan’s power Turkey has experienced increasing restrictions on a basic human right like freedom of speech and regressed in crucial areas like the rule of law and transparency in business life[7].

The question now is why the relation between the two countries became so intolerable to the point that the past economic and intellectual ties seem not so much important as before. Beside the similarities mentioned before, we have to underline a very large divergence in the realm of foreign policy. Putin is the most relevant ally of the Al-Assad Regime in Syria while Erdoğan, since the outbreak of the uprisings in 2011, had always called for his deposition. Yet this divergence has never turned into public disputes and both Russia and Turkey made their politics in Syria without stepping on each other toes. But the downing of the Russian jet came as a boomerang that changed completely the game as a result of the shifting balance of power in the Middle East.

Putin is involved in Syria’s war for a bunch of reasons. First of all, there is an old tie between Syria and Russia that can be traced back to the cold war, when Syria decided to align with the Eastern bloc. When Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power during a coup in 1970, he asked Moscow to seek weapons and support in exchange of the permission to build a resupply station at the port of Tartus, which is nowadays surely the most important reason why Russia is still standing on Al-Assad’s side. The naval base in Tartus is a strategic place because it is the only warm water base Russia has that does not depend on other nations for access. The new Syrian potential authorities will not probably continue cooperating with Russia and Al-Assad’s regime seems to be the only one that can guarantee the existence of this base.

Protecting the old regime can be seen as a part of Putin’s strategy to improve Russia’s role in the world. Following his project to rebuild the empire which has been destroyed with the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin wants to win. And Syria is surely crucial to make Russia emerge as a global power. Furthermore, saving Al-Assad, “the symbol of the resisting color revolutions,”[8] from being overthrown offers the perfect occasion to stop the uprisings against authoritarian leaders which are still perceived as U.S. conspiracies.

On the other hand, Turkey and Syria have always had a difficult relationship. They were on the opposite sides during the cold war: while Syria was an Eastern bloc ally, Turkey became a founding NATO member and formed military and economic ties with United States and Israel, other Syria’s bitter enemy. Syrian claims to the Turkish province of Hatay and the request of a greater share of water from the Euphrates River were among the reasons why Hafez Al-Assad decided to support the PKK, the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group, until 1998 when, after a new military alliance with Israel, Turkey threat to invade Syria if it did not hand over Abdullah Ӧcalan, the PKK’s leader, whom it was giving shelter from the ‘80s. Even if the Syrian-Turkish relationship improved from that moment, it deteriorated one more time when the Syrian government began with its violent crackdown in March 2011.[9]

Even for the Turkish part, there are too many interests to be involved in the Syria’s politics. Even before the Syrian uprisings degenerated into a civil war, Turkey’s interest was largely economic: Syria has always be seen like an ideal route to transport oil and gas to the West, a gateway to the Arab world to make hospitable markets possible to flourish in the Middle East. To gain control over the country, Erdoğan’s coalition needed to counteract Iran – which was the first most influential regional power – from expanding in Syria to get a direct access to the Mediterranean Sea.[10]

On the political side, the main goal of Erdoğan’s foreign policy is to replace Al-Assad’s regime with a Sunni government composed by the Muslim Brotherhood Syrian branch. The new Syrian authorities are going to be Ankara’s best allies and they will cooperate for the stabilization of the Turkish-Syrian border. The complete collapse of the Syrian government is not even an option because it could empower the jihadist fighters who would probably give rise to a scenario like the one Taliban’s created in Afghanistan. Otherwise, it could also lead to the rise of the Kurdish separatists who represent the larger threat for Ankara’s government for two reasons: first of all, the sympathy of the international community is addressed to the Kurdish movement rather to the jihadist groups and second, but more important, the Kurds represent a domestic threat for Turkey.[11]

It became obvious that none of these countries is going to step back in pursuing their own interests. That is why many analysts see no end in sight in Syria’s war. Beside the fact that the multitude of internal players believe there is no alternative to war, outside powers – not only Turkey and Russia but also Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United States and Iran among others – are playing a key role to prevent the creation of a global alliance to start negotiations. The “different but similar” interests that they are pursuing reveal an important disagreement about which objective takes first priority.

Given the reasons why the conflict could not be solved in a peaceable way, there could be different results to this endless quagmire: the complete break-up of the country with the creation of a certain number of fiefdoms which reflects the main blocks of insurgents; a prolonged conflict – the best scenario for Al-Qaeda and Daesh that would have free reign to continue their operations, planning out new terrorist attacks; the victory of Al-Assad’s regime who would slowly defeat the rebels by brutal force, always supported by Russia and Iran, but it is going to be always threated by violent internal divisions.

An important “clash of empires” is already on the table but it seems that neither Russia nor Turkey will ever be “the real winner.”

Domenica Zavaglia

L’orientale University


[1] “Turkey Downs Russian jet”, Al-Jazeera, November 24, 2015

[2] Paul McLeary, “Putin: Turkish Downing of Russian Jet a “Stab in the Back”, Foreign Policy, November 24, 2015.

[3] Andrew e. Kramer, “Russia Expands Sanctions Against Turkey After Downing of Jet”, New York Times, December 30, 2015.

[4] Bourgeot R., “Russia-Turkey: A relationship shaped by energy,” in Russie.Nei.Visions, N. 69, March 2013.

[5] Ellis R., “It’s not their differences that have put Russia and Turkey at loggerheads – it’s the similarities between Putin and Erdoğan,” in Independent, December 2, 2015 in

[6] Stone N., “Erdogan’s dreams of empire are perilous for Turkey” in The Guradian, December 6, 2015, in

[7] Özkan B., “Why Turkey Aims for ‘Zero Problems’ With Russia’s War in Syria”, September 9, 2015, in

[8] “Why Russia is an ally of Assad” in

[9] Phillips C., “Into the Quagmire: Turkey’s Frustrated Syria Policy,” Middle East and North Africa Programme, December 2012,

[10] “Turkey’s interests in the Syrian civil war.” Youtube video. Posted by CaspianReport. September, 18, 2013.

[11] “Turkey’s Options to Manage Syrian Kurds and Jihadists, Stratfor Global Intelligence,” in

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