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Another Russian jet violates Turkish airspace: What is Russia's strategy?

In the wake of Russia's warplane being shot down by Turkey just two months ago, the Turkish foreign ministry is claiming another incursion. What lies behind Russian aggression?

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    In this Oct. 22, 2015 file photo, a Russian Su-24 takes off on a combat mission at Hemeimeem airbase in Syria. Turkey said Saturday Jan. 30, 2016 that a Russian warplane SU-34 has again violated its airspace despite several warnings.
    Vladimir Isachenkov/AP/File
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A Russian warplane - an SU-34 – violated Turkish airspace Friday for the second time in recent months, Turkey’s foreign ministry claims.

The previous incident, in November, ended with the Turkish air force shooting down a Russian SU-24, an all-weather attack aircraft, and resulted in a rapid deterioration of relations between the two countries. 

Moscow denied the incursion, calling it "baseless propaganda."

So why is Russia apparently provoking Turkey once more? What strategy is it pursuing?

“Russia is probably showing the Turks that they haven’t been deterred by what happened before,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“Russia believes Turkey would be taking a huge risk in shooting down another plane, and that NATO allies will place a lot of pressure on Turkey not to react.”

The downing of Russia’s jet in November was far from an isolated incident. It represented the culmination of a series of events, confrontations between Russian and NATO military assets, both in the skies and on the seas.

But of all the NATO countries, Turkey perhaps bore the brunt, suffering incursions into its airspace and witnessing what it perceived as a slow encirclement of its nation by the Russian military.

So dire was the situation that the newly appointed Turkish Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar declared his country to be caught “inside a circle of fire”, as Akin Unver, assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul, notes in Foreign Affairs.

But, as Dr. Mankoff says, prior to this flurry of confrontation, relations between Turkey and Russia had been much warmer.

The Kremlin had, in fact, seen Turkey as a “strategic partner,” and Mr Putin not so long ago paid President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan what The Economist describes as “perhaps his ultimate compliment,” in calling the Turkish leader “strong” for supporting Russia, when the West was turning a cold shoulder over the conflict in Ukraine.

The war in Syria has played a central role in wearing down Turkish-Russian ties. The two powers back opposing forces, and while they were largely able to keep these differences confined to that arena for a time, the Turkish missile that felled Russia’s fighter caused the tensions to boil over.

“When that happened, a lot of steps taken in recent years were not only put on hold,” says Mankoff, “they were put into reverse.”

There has been little military pushback, other than via proxies in Syria, but Russia has taken economic and cultural steps to impose penalties on Turkey.

Moreover, this comes at a somewhat fortuitous time for Russian authorities, able now to focus their people’s attention on another foreign enemy, to mobilize support for the Kremlin, as events in Ukraine calm.

On a trip to Moscow last December, Mankoff spoke to Russians in the capital, members of universities and think-tanks, and he says their interpretation of Russian policy towards Turkey was one of regime change.

Not regime change in the sense of a military intervention, but rather in the sense that there can be no return to normal relations until Mr. Erdogan is gone. They used the analogy of the United States and President Putin: it will be hard for US-Russian relations to recover until he is replaced.

So, what does the future hold?

"The government in Ankara is steeling itself for a period of difficult relations with Russia," says Mankoff.

And, as Akin Unver notes, Turkey has "suffered greatly" over the centuries, when Russia has been on the rise. “Today, Russian resurgence threatens again.

“Only with active and intensified negotiations that ease NATO’s perceived pressure on Russia in the Arctic and Pacific, and by communicating Turkey’s concerns to Moscow at the NATO level, can Turkish-Russian relations be spared the ghosts of the past.”

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