Predicting Putin’s next move

Russia will seek revenge for the downing of the jet – and no Paris meeting between Putin and Erdogan will change this.

Russian President Vladimir Putin [REUTERS]
Last week Moscow bullied the wrong kid in the playground, writes Coffey [REUTERS]

As world leaders gather in Paris this week to discuss climate change, many were wondering if a possible meeting between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would take place.

According to Putin’s spokesman it will not.

After the downing of the Russian SU-24 jet last week in southern Turkey, relations between Moscow and Ankara have been tense. According to the Kremlin, Erdogan must first apologise before Putin will meet him. 

Right now Russia and Turkey are engaged in a war of words.

Putin says that Russia was “stabbed in the back” by Turkey when it shot down the warplane. Russia has since placed visa restrictions and limited economic sanctions on Turkey. Moscow has also demanded an apology, but Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said that his government would not “apologise on an occasion when we are right“.

Can Turkey and Russia resolve their dispute?

Even so, Erdogan has said that he was “saddened” by the event but suggested that Moscow would be “playing with fire” if it retaliates on Turkish nationals living and working in Russia.

Complex relations

The West might view recent events between Russia and Turkey as a new phenomenon, but this fails to take into account the complex and fraught relationship between the countries.

The downing of the Russian jet is simply the latest drama in a saga that has been playing out since the middle of the 16th century.

In one form or another, Russia has driven Turkish foreign and defence policy for centuries. Since 1568, Turkey and Russia have been to war 12 times. At least nine of the occasions have been over Crimea – which Russia illegally annexed last year.

Also read: Turkey won’t lose any sleep over Russia’s harsh words

Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire have contested regions in the Black Sea, the South Caucasus and the Balkans for centuries.

In one form or another, Russia has driven Turkish foreign and defence policy for centuries. Since 1568, Turkey and Russia have been to war 12 times.


In 1772, Russian troops raided and briefly occupied Ottoman territory in the Levant. Even during World War I, Russian troops got within 160 kilometres of Ottoman-controlled Baghdad. The ensuing friction led to much bloodshed.

After World War II, Joseph Stalin’s designs on Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia Region and Soviet Russia’s wish to control the Turkish Straits were what originally drove Turkey into NATO’s arms.

Continue backing Turkey

Although NATO members have been steadfast in their support for Turkey’s actions in shooting down the Russian plane, there is no telling how long this support will last.

Turkey has long been considered a troublesome ally inside NATO. As countries such as France start calling for a broader coalition to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that includes Russia, Turkey runs the risk of being left out to dry.

This would be a shame.

Turkey has been securing NATO’s southern flank for decades. It also has the second largest military in NATO after the United States and it has been willing to use it.

During the Korean war, Turkey sent 15,000 troops as part of the United Nations Command, of whom about 20 percent were killed, wounded, or captured. It has participated in NATO-led peacekeeping missions in the Balkans. Since 2001, Turkey has twice commanded the NATO mission in Afghanistan and has deployed thousands of troops there.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [AP]
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [AP]

While Turkey can be a bothersome ally at times, especially under Erdogan’s leadership, it is, on balance, an important member of the Alliance.

NATO’s leaders would be short-sighted if they marginalised Turkey for perceived closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against ISIL.

Even if the Kremlin changed course and Erdogan and Putin met in Paris this week, it would not change the animosity that now exists between the two leaders.

Russia’s revenge

Erdogan can hold a grudge – as seen with his relationship with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That went in just a few short years from the two families holidaying together to Assad becoming enemy No 1.

Also read: Turkey’s move against Russia: Cold War redux?

For Putin, a leader always thinking strategically and a few moves ahead of his opponents, the downing of a Russian jet presents an opportunity to act aggressively and expand Russian influence elsewhere.


Russia will seek revenge – and no brief encounter in Paris between Putin and Erdogan is going to change this. But Putin might seek his revenge elsewhere.

Russia could focus on the Baltic States. Moscow could take another 500 metres of territory in Georgia. Putin could encourage pro-Russian separatists to breakaway in Moldova’s ethnic Turkic region of Gagauzia.

Or the Kremlin could back rebels in the Donbas region to bring about a breakdown of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement in Ukraine. In one way or another, all of these could cause problems for NATO and the West.

Russia regularly illegally probes the airspace of other NATO members, especially the Baltic States and the United Kingdom.

But last week Moscow bullied the wrong kid in the playground and Lieutenant t Colonel Oleg Peshkov, a father of two, needlessly lost his life. If Russia would have only stayed outside Turkish air space this would have never happened.

No meeting in Paris could have changed this fact.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.