Will Putin begin carving a little Turkey after the ‘stab in the back’?

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As Americans prepare to sit down with family and friends on Thanksgiving, a different sort of Turkey carving may soon begin to emerge. This could easily degenerate into a major challenge for the future of NATO and the geopolitical balance in both Europe and the Middle East.

{mosads}In the wake of the recent shooting down of a Russian bomber in Turkey, tensions between a NATO member state and Russia are rising to a hotter temperature than either side feels comfortable with. However, wishing the heat would go away won’t make it so.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared incensed over the incident, calling it “a stab in the back.” Putin’s penchant for aggressive rhetoric is often followed through, though not always in the most obvious way.

For years, Putin, much more of a 19th-century geopolitical tactician than any present Western leader, has played a relatively weak Russian hand well. His latest venture into Syria to, at least temporarily, prop up the Bashar Assad regime is another example of a tactical flexibility combined with a gambler’s instinct on when to strike. However, many observers now think he may have bitten off more than he can realistically chew, given ongoing sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine crisis and low global oil prices that have hit Russian coffers hard.

Don’t count on it.

While the exact form of retaliation Putin and Russia can be expected to take is impossible to determine with certainty, there are several options at his disposal. First, Turkey gets nearly 65 percent of its energy imports from Russia. While the Russian deputy energy minister has said that Turkey need not worry about energy being cut off in a fit of Russian pique, this remains a significant lever in the hands of Russian officials.

On one hand, it makes a great deal of sense for Russia and Turkey to continue cooperating. Turkey is a big market for Russian energy exports. Russia also needs all of the revenues it can generate in light of Western-led sanctions. Further, there are major pipeline projects, such as the Turkish Stream, that will benefit both nations greatly. However, should accusations continue to fly between them or, more ominously, should another incident like the shootdown occur, this option cannot be discounted.

Even more troubling for Turkey is the Kurdish question.

The entire present Middle East imbroglio has facilitated the rise in importance of the Kurds. While as recently as this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was engaged in deep peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), these have stalled since before the summer’s parliamentary elections. Subsequently, Erdoğan blamed the PKK, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Assad regime for the Oct. 10 bombing in Ankara that left over 100 dead. Now, Erdoğan has even threatened to strike U.S.-backed Kurds that have been fighting ISIS.

It takes little imagination to see that this is a soft underbelly waiting for exploitation by Russia, should it choose to do so.

The Democratic Union Party of Syrian Kurds has already reached out to Russia and discussed a desire for greater self-rule in Syria. Russia appears to have been open to this. While each side is likely playing their own game — the Kurds, perhaps, trying to pressure the U.S. for more arms by cozying up to a geopolitical rival — the prospects for further cooperation seems quite propitious after the bomber incident in Turkey. It is not difficult to envision the Syrian Kurds striking a deal with Russia to gain more autonomy, up to and including a de facto state. This is something the West can’t do given ties to Turkey and fears of a spillover effect into Turkey itself. Should such an agreement happen, Russia could follow this up with feelers to elements of the PKK in Turkey itself. Over time, this could represent the beginning of a literal carving up of chunks of southern Turkey.

This would not happen immediately, but Putin can afford to be patient. A masterstroke like this, if left unchallenged by the West, would represent a blow to NATO just as potentially deadly to the future of the alliance as the much more presently feared “little green men” in the Baltics. Further, given Turkey’s strained relations with the West, including Erdoğan’s own authoritarianism and role in indirectly facilitating the rise of ISIS, it is unclear exactly how the West would respond.

This is, of course, highly speculative.

It is more likely that Russia and Turkey will find a path toward a modus vivendi, even if a shaky one. Additionally, if relations do sour more, a proxy fight between them is more likely to play out solely in northern Syria as opposed to within Turkey itself.

Yet Putin is deeply offended by the Turkish action. He also continues to see the West as an enemy and probably thinks the United States played some dark role in what happened. Consequently, efforts to continue undermining the U.S. could make a good deal of sense from the Russian perspective. A Turkey stuck in the middle of a complex geopolitical cauldron could well be an easier target to undermine U.S. influence than any other. It would also have the added benefit of making Putin a kingmaker, not just with respect to Assad’s future in Syria, but a prospective future Kurdistan as well. This would further ensconce Russia into the region and give it much greater geopolitical leverage than the nation has had since well before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lawson is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.

Tags airspace Bashar Assad ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Kurdistan People's Party Kurds NATO PKK Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Russian jet Syria Turkey Vladimir Putin

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