Ashgabat, 18 December 2015 (nCa) — Power can sometimes be vast but never unlimited. This is a lesson that nations and leaders keep forgetting all the time.
The USA learned it after Vietnam and promptly forgot. It took another round of global humiliation, and appalling legacy of senseless bloodshed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other places to learn it again.
Russia in the garb of USSR learned this lesson in Afghanistan and forgot it as soon as things took a turn for the better. And, the extent of pain required for re-learning this lesson will depend entirely on how soon sanity can prevail in Kremlin.
Putin, in using the downing of one of his warplanes by Turkey on 24 November 2015, has widened his tussle with Erdogan in a fast and furious manner, flexing all the muscles he has.
In doing so, he has ignored a cardinal principle of statesmanship: Leave the door ajar for negotiations.
This is intoxication by power.
To understand the Russian approach, one needs to mark two points in the timeline: on one side is the first week of November 2015 when nonstop provocation started to goad Turkey into some kind of retaliation and on the other side is Putin’s press conference yesterday (17 November 2015) where he used unparliamentarily and vulgar language against the Turkish leadership.
Connecting these two points is a thick, dark line, highlighting Putin’s current frame of mind.
The prognosis is obvious: Putin is using Turkey as a lightening rod to repair his relations with the west and Houdini out of the crippling sanctions.
In yesterday’s press conference he said that he would like to improve relations with the USA, Ukraine and Georgia. The only country in the crosshairs of his wrath was Turkey, presumably because he thinks that he can hurt Turkey and get away with that without any consequences.
However, under the hard but thin veneer of defiance, there was the vulnerability that threatens to sink the Russian economy if oil remains where it is today and sanctions remain where they are today. Russia can live through either low oil prices or sanctions but not both and no one understands it better than Putin.
Throwing all the debris on Turkey will not make Russia look pristine; it is difficult to understand why Putin thinks so.
Let’s see, if Russia stays the course and keeps the door to negotiations shut, how far can it go?
The nature of Russian involvement in Syria is such that it must increase with the passage of time. It is that or retreat because the conflict is already above the brewing point.
If Russia wants to increase the conflict-participation it would need to throw more missiles at whatever targets and those missiles cost millions of dollars. Russia would need to spend faster than it can earn. The other option is boots on the ground and Putin will perhaps not want that because body bags returning home don’t add to the popularity of a politician.
A Forbes report published on 17 December 2015 gives the following figures (real sector data for November):
- Retail sales fell 13.1%
- Real wages fell 9%
Unemployment rose to 5.8% (from 5.5% in October)
- Industrial sector hovered at -2.9%
- Investments fell 4.9%
The Russian economy is shrinking but that, by itself, will not sink the ship. The escalation in conflict will.
If Putin thinks that Iran will remain absolutely committed to the Russian approach, he needs to think again. With the lifting of sanctions in sight, Iran will have its own priorities and there may not be total compatibility between the national interests of Russia and Iran.
It will be a lonely rage – Putin will need to find the support and resources from within his own borders to continue this quarrel and that may be the undoing of Mother Russia. This would amount to cutting the nose to spite the face.
Power has its limitations and possibly Putin is on the verge of realizing this.
Meanwhile, can the current Russian course hurt Turkey beyond repair?
The immediate and biggest challenge for Turkey would be to go through this winter without the Russian gas. Putin is possibly confident that he can shut down the gas supplies and bring Turkey to its knees.
Nevertheless, if we replace the word ‘gas’ with ‘fuel and energy,’ the options suddenly brighten for Turkey.
Assuming that Turkey would need 3-5 billion cubic meters of gas this winter without depending on the Russian supplies, the alternates exist already. Iran and Central Asia have the pipeline networks and ready gas to fill the gap.
A considerable volume of this gas would be required for power generation and if electricity can be supplied to Turkey by the regional producers, it would mean less need of gas.
For domestic consumers, there can be several other options that will make life tough for a few months but the Turkish nation, with its profound sense of self respect can endure that.
Except for this Turkey is not facing any immediate threat to its economy. In fact, Russia would be the net loser.
The trade turnover between Turkey and Russia is around US $ 30 billion, of which Turkey’s share is little more than $ 3 billion. Those unsold tomatoes and cucumbers can be sold elsewhere or processed into value added products. Those construction contracts can be found in several other parts of the world. The tourists can come from other regions. No big deal.
It is also time for introspection for Turkey.
Turkey has seen firsthand that NATO is not a partner in any sense of the word. When Turkey was being provoked blatantly and ceaselessly by Russia, not a word of support from NATO – and now that Russia is making every move to corner Turkey, not a world of support from NATO.
The only overture in the recent weeks has been from Europe to offer peanuts to Turkey to serve as bulwark against the rising wave of refugees, the refugees that have been created by the violent policies of the west.
It is time for Turkey to think hard and redefine its identity; to evaluate as to where it belongs.
Simultaneously, Putin, a great politician by all standards, must understand that by pushing Turkey beyond a certain limit, he will lose respect in a large swath of territory.
Let there be no mistake, the collective ‘west’ which includes Europe and USA, doesn’t respect Putin. If Putin thinks otherwise, the joke is on him. His zone of respect lies from Turkey in a long line moving eastward, right up to China. Every passing day is eroding this hard-earned respect.