Russian bear bares fangs at Turkey

Vladimir Putin (r) met Syria's leader Assad last month. (Reuters)

Vladimir Putin (r) met Syria's leader Assad last month. (Reuters)

The Turkish embassy in Moscow was pelted with eggs, stones and paint. Viewers of state television heard that the “cynical” Turks showed no remorse for their “dastardly” actions. The Russian state news agency, Sputnik, warned: “The sick man of Nato: [Recep] Erdogan’s madness ‘could provoke WWIII’”.

But while the rhetorical fury was dialled up to the max in the aftermath of Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber over the Syria- Turkey border on Tuesday, the message between the lines was that Russia would not allow the incident to spiral out of control.

One of the main announcements made on Wednesday was that Moscow would, from next week, ban certain Turkish poultry imports. It was hardly a suggestion of serious bellicose intent.

Before Tuesday’s incident – the first time a Nato member state had shot down a Russian warplane since the Korean war – Turkey had been an important part of Russia’s attempt to find new partners outside the United States and the European Union after Ukraine-based sanctions. That will now change.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was dismissive of the hour he spent on the phone on Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavusoglu.
He had assured Ankara, he said, that there would be no business as usual.

But despite the anger, it is clear Moscow does not want the situation to degenerate. A break in diplomatic relations is not on the table.

So what of those “significant consequences” that Russian President Vladimir Putin so starkly warned about on Tuesday? Lavrov and other officials were at pains to point them out, but it seemed they might manifest themselves more in tone than content.

On Wednesday, a Bill to make denial of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians a crime was introduced to the Russian Parliament. France has a similar law on the books about the genocide, which Turkey denies took place. The timing of the Bill did not appear coincidental.

And, after Putin’s remarks about the attack on the Su-24 having been carried out by “the accomplices of terrorists”, Russian officials also said they would begin carefully investigating links between terrorist groups in Syria and other countries.

This was presumably a suggestion that Moscow could try to embarrass Turkish authorities by proving longstanding whispers about tacit support for the Islamic State by some Turkish politicians.

The one concrete measure that is likely to have an effect is the announcement that Russian tour agencies are now banned from selling holidays to Turkey. About four million Russians a year travel to Turkey, mostly tourists, and the ban will severely affect Turkey’s tourist industry, especially on the country’s southern coast. Many huge hotels around Antalya cater specifically for the Russian market. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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