Russian-Turkish Tensions Reminiscent of Jet Downing, Ambassador Assassination
Signs of the deterioration in relations between Russia and Turkey to their lowest point in years were no longer limited to trading accusations over the situation in Syria’s Idlib province. They have been demonstrated in the lukewarm response from the Kremlin to Ankara’s request to hold a meeting between the two countries’ presidents to contain the escalating crisis. They were also underscored through death threats received by Russian Ambassador to Turkey Alexei Yerkhov. The tensions are reminiscent of the crisis that erupted in 2015.
Moscow announced that it was tightening security measures around the Russian Embassy in Ankara after Yerkhov revealed that the situation in Idlib had prompted anti-Russia hysteria on social media in Turkey.
In an interview with Russia’s Sputnik state agency, he said that the escalation in Syria was “painful and very alarming.” He noted that Russian officers and Turkish soldiers were killed in the unrest, leading to outrage on social media.
The envoy confirmed that he had received death threats through social media, saying he was reminded of the same tensions that pervaded five years ago also over Syria, but that time over Aleppo.
The tensions culminated in Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet over Syria and the murder of Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrei Karlov.
The downing of the jet in 2015 threatened to lead to a direct military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey said the aircraft was downed after it had violated its airspace. Russia retaliated by suspending all forms of trade cooperation. A war of words played out on the media before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented a form of apology several months later.
No sooner had calm been restored that tensions spiked again with Karlov’s assassination at an art exhibition in Ankara in December 2016. Questions were raised at the time about the lax security measures and Moscow accused Ankara of failing to provide the diplomat with enough protection.
In both cases, Turkey eventually blamed the incidents on “parties seeking to sabotage relations with Moscow”, starting with the network of cleric Fethullah Gulen.
In his interview, Yerkhov indirectly accused the Turkish government of stoking tensions.
“There is absolute reluctance to understand the partner, logic of their actions, to listen to their words and take for granted their right to own a point of view, different from your vision, of what is happening. That kind of attitude can turn into big trouble,” he remarked.
Yerkhov had raised eyebrows when he accused Turkish authorities of reneging on their commitments in Syria and attempting to shift blame towards Russia and the Syrian government over the failure to implement the Sochi agreement. He accused Turkey of failing to commit to withdrawing terrorist groups from the de-escalation zone in Idlib and opening the M4 and M5 highways.
He denounced parties that often criticize Russia and the Syrian regime and that blamed them for violating agreements and striking civilian targets. “If you don’t fulfill your commitments, do you have the right to ask the other party to do so?” Yerkhov asked. He demanded that both sides should fulfill their commitments and only then can there be talk of a balanced partnership.
Moreover, Yerkhov held Turkey responsible for “emboldening” terrorists to carry out more attacks against regime positions and Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria.
The ambassador’s remarks were not the only statements riling Turkey.
The Russian Embassy in Ankara recently provoked the Turkish public by releasing surveys over Idlib and relations with the United States. Among its questions was whether the Turkish people believed the US was truly their ally in wake of Washington’s announcement that it stands by its ally Ankara in NATO against the Syrian regime forces.
The mission also released figures that showed the extent of Washington’s support to Kurds, ending the message with “we leave you to decide”.
It appears that the embassy played a role in stoking anti-Russia sentiment, most notably in wake of the Idlib tensions and death of some 13 Turkish soldiers in clashes with the regime.
It seems that Moscow has taken the death threats against Yerkhov seriously, pushing the Kremlin to deliver a direct message to the Turkish government.
"We have no doubt that the Turkish side will implement all the necessary measures to ensure the safety of the Russian ambassador and all the staffers, every staffer of Russian companies and Russian diplomatic institutions located in Turkey, in compliance with the Vienna Convention and in the spirit of our bilateral relations," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday. He added that Russia and Turkey maintained close contact on the situation on Idlib at the level of presidents, defense ministries and experts.
Moscow announced that the Russian and Turkish chiefs of staff had held telephone talks to address the situation in Idlib. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart are also set to meet on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Sunday to tackle the crisis. Furthermore, Turkish authorities have tightened security around the Russian Embassy in Ankara.