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Putin's latest message to Turkey could 'spin any future incident beyond control'

Natasha Bertrand
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force Viktor Bondarev (C) watch an air show dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Air Force at Zhukovsky outside Moscow August 11, 2012. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

(Thomson Reuters)
Viktor Bondarev, commander-in-chief of the Russian air force, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia has reportedly equipped its warplanes flying in Syria with air-to-air missiles for self-defense for the first time, Reuters reported on Monday, citing Russian news agencies.

The move comes one week after a Russian Su-34 fighter bomber was shot down by Turkish F-16 jets in an incident that has heightened tensions between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan.

The missiles, reportedly capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 37 miles, will supplement the state-of-the-art S-400 missile systems Russia says it has deployed to the Russian Hemeimeem air base near Latakia, Syria — about 30 miles south of the Turkish border.

The air-to-air missiles and the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, if deployed, are evidently meant as a message to deter Turkish jets from shooting down Russian planes in the future.

"They are following through on Putin's orders from last week that all sorties will be escorted with air-to-air capable jets," said Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

"The message remains as it was last week from Putin: We won't let it happen again," Zilberman told Business Insider.

Russian jet turkey radar map

(CNN Turkey)
A radar map released by Turkey purporting to show the location where Russia violated Turkish airspace on November 23.

Turkey has defended its decision to down the plane, contending that it was in Turkish airspace and had been warned repeatedly before it was shot down by Turkish F-16 jets. But Putin said the plane was destroyed by a Turkish missile while flying in Syrian airspace, roughly a mile from the Turkish border — and he has wasted no time in retaliating.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Friday that Russia would be suspending its visa-free travel agreement with Turkey. On Saturday, Putin approved a decree that would place wide-ranging sanctions on Turkish imports and services in Russia, Reuters reported.

The sanctions — which also ban charter flights from Russia to Turkey and halt certain business activities of Turkish firms in Russia — could bite into more than $30 billion in trade ties between the two countries.

'High-risk players'

On Saturday, Erdogan said he was "saddened" over the incident, which some experts perceived as an olive branch. But the Turkish leader has maintained that his country was within its rights to shoot down a plane that had violated its airspace.

"I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us," he told CNN in an interview from Ankara on Friday.

Putin's aides say he is furious over the incident and Erdogan's unwillingness to apologize, Reuters reported over the weekend. But as many experts have pointed out, Putin's options for further retaliation are limited if he wishes to avoid a larger-scale confrontation with NATO.

putin erdogan

(Osman Orsal/Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (sitting left) and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (sitting right) with Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey.

"Putin's options are limited... [which is why he is] taking action on the margins/asymmetrically," Zilberman said in an email.

"That being said ... the Russian-Turkish relationship is a tinderbox. The deterioration in the relationship is a loss for both Moscow and Ankara," he added.

Indeed, the countries share important bilateral economic ties. Turkey is the second largest buyer of Russian gas, and Russians account for about 12% of Turkey's annual tourists.

"There's a very significant economic relationship between the two sides — tourism, trade, and most importantly energy — that neither Putin nor Erdogan want to interfere with," geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider last week.

Moreover, Putin has important geopolitical considerations to keep in mind.

"Putin doesn't want to create more antagonism with NATO just as he's making progress with the Europeans — France in particular — in turning back the US-led Western 'isolation' of the Russians," Bremmer added.

Obama and Putin

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Putin with British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama.

On Saturday, Putin said that Russia was "ready to cooperate" with the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. "But of course incidents like the destruction of our aircraft and the deaths of our servicemen," he added, "are absolutely unacceptable."

As many experts have pointed out, Putin and Erdogan are strongmen leaders with big egos and a desire to please their nationalist supporters at home.

"The problem is that you have two presidents who are both highly status conscious and both high-risk players," political scientist Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, told The New York Times on Monday.

He added: "Not looking weak is something very important for both Putin and Erdogan. Neither knows how to retreat, nor apologize. In that way they are like twins."

And with that in mind, Putin has made his latest move in retaliation. By adding surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles into the mix, he avoids looking weak and appeases his supporters — but he also significantly increases the stakes of any future incident.

To that end, Zilberman added, "The egos of Putin and Erdogan may spin any future incident beyond control."

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