Staunton, December 6 – Moscow faces a Hobson’s choice in dealing with Turkey: If it ultimately backs down, it will lose face at home and abroad; but if it doesn’t, it will likely suffer something far worse -- a defeat of the kind Russia suffered at the hands of Japan in 1905 and one that had profound domestic consequences as well, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
In an article in today’s “Novaya gazeta” entitled “Don’t Give Matches to Pyromaniacs,” the St. Antony’s College analyst says that the next steps in the Russian-Turkish conflict are unclear. They could lead to a local military conflict like the Balkan wars of the 19th century, or a much larger war like in the 20th (novayagazeta.ru/politics/71047.html).
But “theoretically,” he continues, there are two obvious scenarios for a way out of the current crisis: “a peace ‘behind clenched teeth,’” and a war “according to the principle, “’a tooth for a tooth.’” Some in Russia would like “a new edition” of the Russian-Turkish wars, “but the main thing is that this one not become a replay of the Russo-Japanese one.”
Thus, Russia has again to “choose between “a bad” and “a very bad” scenario. The first, “a peace ‘behind clenched teeth,’” would mean that Russia could “lose face” but not necessarily its political system or territorial integrity. This would take place over time, and both Russia and Turkey would draw down their hostile rhetoric just as Moscow has now done with Ukraine.
Then Ankara and Moscow could talk to one another and reach agreements, involving “mutual concessions.” Turkey could give way on economic issues, and “Russia could informally promise to reduce the intensity of bombing in regions of Syria bordering Turkey,” Pastukhov suggests.
Many and especially Europeans would like this outcome.
In the second scenario, “a war based on the principle of ‘a tooth for a tooth,’” Russia would “save face” but it would become involved in a war “far from its borders.” Some Russian officials apparently want a symmetrical response – involving the downing of a Turkish plane – but it is unclear whether than would end the conflict or exacerbate it.
It is “completely impossible to predict how Erdogan would respond,” and thus if it takes that step, “Moscow would be playing ‘Russian roulette.’” Turkey could respond to such a strike in an asymmetrical way. That is because “the countries are divided not so much by the ambitions of their leaders as by their interests which is much more serious.”
The former can be moderated, but the latter are harder to restrict, Pastukhov says. “For Turkey, Syria is a Ukraine of local significance. Latakia is for it the same thing as ‘Novorossiya,’ but Asad is for the Turkish president much worse than Poroshenko is for Putin.”
Like Putin, “Erdogan fears revolution, but not an ‘orange’ one but a ‘green’ one. In order to survive, he must be involved in the export of counter-revolution,” just as Putin feels compelled to do. “Therefore, Erdogan simply cannot allow himself to close his eyes two the Russian presence in this zone.”
But the Kremlin isn’t able to ignore Syria either because it has been acting in foreign affairs over the last four years in order to prevent a new round of domestic challenges by redressing what it sees as its losses in the “great game” of international affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Thus, Pastukhov says, “both countries are constrained by their pasts and are not free in their maneuvers.” “The Russians intentionally bombed the Turkmens in order to guarantee the security of the Asad regime, and the Turks intentionally brought down the plane in order to guarantee their borders against Russian interference in the conflict.”
Having taken up the cause of the defense of the Middle Eastern Shiites, Russia “is conducting itself just as it did 150 years ago when it fulfilled the mission of defending the Balkan Slavs. Then this led to a series of Russian-Turkish wars which on the whole ended positively for Russia.”
“The memory of those wars gives rise in society certain illusions and expectations,” the St. Antony’s scholar continues. “However a new Russian-Turkish war may turn out to be like the Russo-Japanese one and become a serious test not only for the Russian army but also for the social and political system of Russia.”
If the Turks “go for broke,” then “the Russian military base in Syria threatens to be transformed into the Port Arthur of the 21st century” because “the local military superiority in Turkey is so great that the Russian expeditionary corps (including its naval group) is in fact condemned.”
At the same time, a large-scale Russian attack on Turkey, given that Turkey is a member of NATO and that there are nuclear weapons on its territory, makes that “extremely improbable.” And “in this situation Russia would have to live with the shame of military defeat,” something that has a greater impact on public consciousness than victory.
Consequently, “the escalation of the military conflict with Turkey would have a strong revolutionary impact on Russian society, and thus the political circle would be closed: the figiht from revolution would be ended by a revolutionary flight.”
Thus a peaceful settlement is in everyone’s interests, but the problem is that so far no political wisdom has been shown on either side. Instead, matches are now in the hands of pyromaniacs, and the world can only hope that the instinct for self-preservation has not deserted them completely.