Russia’s War of Words with Turkey: Brink of War or Cooperation, or Just Brinksmanship

Russia and Turkey are embroiled in a war of words. Vladimir Putin, incensed that Turkey had the audacity to shoot down a Russian warplane flying in Turkish airspace, has called Turkey a terrorist accomplice. He accuses Erdogan of stabbing Russia in the back and of financing terrorism by buying oil from the “Islamic State” (IS) terrorist group (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh). Today Erdogan fired back, calling such accusations slander. Putin demands an apology and compensation at the very least, though he’s apparently not responding to calls from Erdogan himself. In the meantime Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev is proposing retaliatory measures including trade consequences and travel restrictions to Turkey, one of Russia’s top tourist destinations.

The tension is palpable and frightening,  particularly since Russia just decided to deploy its most advanced long-range surface-to-air S-400 anti-aircraft missile system to the Turkey-Syria border. That’s in addition to the air-to-ground assault aircraft, attack helicopters, drones, air defense systems, ground assets and military personnel Russia has already amassed in Syria since September. Despite the high-level war of words, both Turkish and Russian foreign ministers have been a bit less blunt, saying their countries don’t want war. Hopefully, their words mean what they say, because a war between Russia and NATO member Turkey would undoubtedly be a major step to World War III. How tragic and ironic would it be that just at the time Russia and the West are both threatened by a true common enemy in ISIL terrorism, against which French President Francois Hollande is presently working on forging a “Grand Coalition” with heretofore isolated and shunned Russia, we end up with an even grander world war?

World wars involve perhaps the grandest of coalitions. And world wars also result from the failures of grand coalitions.

How did we get here?  How did we get to this place where a NATO member country could shoot down a Russian plane, something we haven’t seen since the bitterly Cold War years of the 1950s?  The answer lies in Ukraine, the epicenter of Russia’s unresolved bitterness of the Soviet Union’s fate since the end of the Cold War.

The tensions we see today between Russia and the West entered its heightened stage as a result of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine almost two years ago, when people took to the streets and squares of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to protest then President Yanukovych’s decision to dump a European Association trade agreement in favor of accepting a previously rejected offer from Putin.

Yanukovych’s flip-flop – moving toward Europe, then moving back toward Russia – felt like a stab in the back and a retreat to Ukrainians, living long under Russian and Soviet control. They were so excited and already poised to becoming more integrated with Europe, finally on the brink of aligning with European values and moving beyond their Soviet legacy. The Orange Revolution of 2004 seemed a distant and unfulfilled dream.

We know what happened next. The Euromaidan protesters grew in numbers and strength, and Ukraine’s president soon abandoned his office and fled to Russia after clashes with riot police left over 100 people dead in the streets. Ukraine quickly formed a temporary government and began the painstaking work of putting the country on its long-awaited track toward Europe.

Russia didn’t exactly take this defeat lying down. In fact, it immediately began a mega war of words. Russia’s state-run media, particularly on influential Russian TV, kicked into high gear denouncing the protests as the work of violent neo-Nazi fascists and nationalist thugs backed by the U.S., even calling the temporary government a CIA backed coup d’Ă©tat. Russia’s war of words escalated to a fever pitch not only inside Russia but abroad on Russia’s propaganda outlet “RT” aimed at foreign audiences. To counter the defeat of Russian policy in Ukraine, Russia used its international media resources to spread a false narrative in order to undermine the fledging new Ukraine.

But Russia didn’t stop there. In fact the war of words was a critical prelude to an even more critical series of events. Remember, Russia up to this point was Ukraine’s ostensible friend and strongest ally. Russia had guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum, where Ukraine agreed to give up the third largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world in exchange for security as well as sovereignty. 

The Budapest Memorandum’s guarantees turned out to be worth no more than the paper they were written on. While Ukraine was busy forming a new government and keeping order and sanity after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Russian troops by the thousands began to descend into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, where Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet were based. Before we knew it – in barely a month after the upheaval in Kyiv – Crimea was annexed by Russia and Russians were using the hashtag #KrymNash to proclaim a victorious “Crimea is ours.” A stunned international community responded by imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

But Russia wasn’t done. Within days of seizing Crimea and just weeks after the swearing in of Ukraine’s new government, Russian special forces crossed its border into Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas and took over the police and television stations. Before you could say “pro-Russia separatist rebels,” Russian TV was declaring an insurgency and separatist states, “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, that favored closer ties not to the new government in Kyiv, but to, who else, Russia.

Ukraine has been at war ever since. Despite peace accords and ceasefires, deaths have surpassed 8000, injuries 3 times that. Over a million refugees have been displaced inside Europe. Villages have been leveled, civilians spent their days and nights in dank basements, hungry, scared and confused. Today, international organizations confirm that eastern Ukraine is suffering a humanitarian crisis. Food, medicine is scarce. And though the majority of the fighting has stopped, people continue to live under dreadful conditions of war.

Russia’s war of words against Ukraine hasn’t stopped, but it’s considerably less in the media foreground since Putin decided unilaterally to intervene in Syria’s civil war in September. Putin spoke at the UN of the need for a new coalition to fight terrorism in the Middle East, calling the West’s present one ineffective and illegitimate. Days later Russia was bombing Syria. Putin’s move into Syria is strategic and meant to shore up Russia as a power player on the world’s stage. The more the West accepts Russia’s help, the more likely Putin knows the West shifts its focus away from Ukraine, and the more likely Western sanctions against Russia will be dropped in exchange for cooperation in Syria.

France’s president Hollande is in Moscow right now talking with Putin about uniting in a Grand Coalition to fight terrorist group ISIL. He has already announced in a press conference this evening an agreement to share military intelligence with Russia. This is a big step, though it’s unclear where it will lead, to more war or less, to more terrorism or less. What we do know is that Russia has been bombing Syria for weeks and has focused its fury against opposition to its ally Assad, not against ISIL. Putin has made clear that those fighting Assad, even those supported by the U.S. and the West such as the Free Syrian Army, must be destroyed.

The challenge for the world is this: how can Russia and the West come together to defeat terrorism if we don’t agree on the fundamental definitions and terms let alone our fundamental goals and principles?  As we’ve seen, “terrorist” and “terrorism” are powerful and malleable words, defined differently by different world players. In Ukraine, Russians helping to arm separatists and occupying Ukraine’s eastern regions are the terrorists. In Turkey, Kurds who want more autonomy and freedom are the terrorists. In Syria, rebels opposing Assad’s brutal rule that has killed over 200,000 civilians are the terrorists. In the U.S. and France, it’s al Qaeda and ISIL groups who have struck civilians in the West who are the terrorists to fight.

It would seem a no-brainer for world leaders to unite against terrorism. And plenty of people in the U.S., including presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, only see this simplistic picture. But there are significant questions and problems beyond the level of word definitions. The uncomfortable truth is, we can’t simply take leaders like Putin at their word. Time and again Putin has proven to be dishonest and untrustworthy. He still continues to lie and coverup Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as Russia’s involvement in the tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine which claimed 298 innocent lives in July 2014. And even though Putin has claimed Russia is fighting ISIL, the bombs are overwhelmingly striking others on the ground in Syria. In fact, it was Russia’s targeting of Turkmen in Syria’s northern border with Turkey that resulted in one of its warplanes being shot down by Turkey in the first place.

So, cooperation, coordination, and coalitions are wonderful. And perhaps Putin will indeed turn his focus to the same terrorists we consider terrorists. Perhaps we are not on the brink of war but on the brink of an urgently needed united front that will turn back the tide of the horrific and ungodly ISIL terrorists. But given Putin’s untrustworthiness on the world stage thus far, and his willingness to use aggression to insist Russia be recognized as a major power player, his words may be just another instance of the brinksmanship that has so thoroughly flummoxed the West since Russia marched into Ukraine.



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