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2 Willful Leaders Heighten Tensions Between Russia, Turkey


The end of this year saw a collision between the headstrong leaders of two powerful countries - Russia and Turkey. The two countries are on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war. Russia is a longtime ally of Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has been hoping for Assad's fall. And after Russia bombed rebel targets last month in Syria, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane it set straight into Turkish airspace, something Russia denies. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul and Corey Flintoff is in Moscow. They join us to talk about the dangers ahead of this Russian-Turkish feud. Good morning to both of you.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.


MONTAGNE: Peter, let's start with you. Turkey has called the shooting down of the plane a pilot's mistake, but Turkey's president has not offered the apology Russia wants. Any chance that will happen?

KENYON: Well, there's no sign of it yet. And it would be a bit out of character. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have started out as a reformer, but he really enjoys being seen as a larger-than-life tough-guy figure. He doesn't go on photographed hunting expeditions, for instance. But he does have hero moments, such as when his convoy stopped in the middle of the Bosphorus Bridge and he allegedly talked down a jumper, prevented him from committing suicide. And when you've got an image like that, apologies tend to be something you demand rather than offer. He has crept up to the edge talking about mistakes by pilots. But he also knows that with leaders like himself and Vladimir Putin, apologies may not be the answer. Just look at Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized years ago to Erdogan over this incident off the coast of Gaza in which Turkish people died onboard an aid ship. And only just now is that relationship at least in talks to be improved.

MONTAGNE: Well, Corey, Russia's Vladimir Putin has projected himself as the ultimate tough-guy with those famous pictures of him riding around shirtless on horseback. I mean, he does do those things. Is his image somehow driving this conflict?

FLINTOFF: Well, he does cultivate this image of himself as a man-of-action and kind of as a bad-boy, too. You know, for instance, he has been shown riding with a nationalist motorcycle gang called the Night Wolves. There are allegations actually that he's associated with real gangsters in the past and that he runs his top circle sort of like a mafia family. But, you know, what is clear is that he seems to prize loyalty above all. He deeply resents anything that he sees as a betrayal. And it's significant that he has been using the, you know, language of betrayal in his rhetoric about Turkey. He called the shoot down a treacherous stab in the back by an accomplice of the terrorists. And that suggests that there could still be some harsh revenge in store for Turkey.

MONTAGNE: Although anything - any revenge has to be played out against the fact that the two countries have very close economic ties. A lot of Russians go to Turkey. Turks export food to Russia. What about that, Corey?

FLINTOFF: Well, yeah, one of the very first things Russia did after the shoot down was to stop Russian tourists from going to Turkey. They'll soon ban imports of fruits and vegetables - a lot of other products from Turkey. And just this morning a deputy prime minister said there are plans for more sanctions in the works. The state-run media here in Russia are portraying that as a huge loss to Turkey, you know, billions of dollars. But I'm curious to hear from Peter as to how serious that really is.

KENYON: Well, it's bad. There are problems with the Turkish products inside Russia and the tourism going down. People are worried about that. But the really big economic weapons, oil and especially natural gas, those have not been brought into play yet - mostly in the form of threat so far. So basically the view from here is that, yeah, things are getting bad, but they could still get much, much worse.

MONTAGNE: Well, Peter, Turkey is a member of NATO. There was real concern when that Russian plane was shot down that a clash between Turkey and Russia could drag in the U.S. and other NATO countries into a more serious confrontation with Russia. Is that still of concern?

KENYON: Well, actually, the theory is about the opposite at the moment, that Turkey's NATO membership is one thing that is forestalling the worst-case scenario - open conflict between Russia and Turkey - because neither Moscow nor the West wants a Russian NATO conflict to erupt. We are seeing reports that NATO's sending early warning radar planes and German military personnel to Turkey. That might reduce the chances of another incident like this jet shoot down. And obviously both NATO and the U.S. are pressing their ally Turkey to urgently deescalate the situation.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course in the midst of all of this, both of these countries are crucial to any possible peace settlement in Syria.

FLINTOFF: Yes, Putin has succeeded in many ways in making Russia an essential player there. He seems to have stabilized the Assad regime. And he has limited the options for the U.S. and its allies, you know. He has air control over a significant amount of territory. And he can prevent the allies from establishing a no-fly zone there.

KENYON: And I think it's important to remember the tensions between Turkey and Russia predate this jet shoot down by some time. I mean, Russia's long been Bashar al-Assad's strongest backer. Turkey says he's got to go. This Russian air campaign just made it clear that the regime isn't going anywhere soon. And Turkey could wind up feeling pretty exposed and isolated if a political transition that includes Assad does get off the ground.

MONTAGNE: Well, thanks both of you for this year-end chat. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul and Corey Flintoff in Moscow.

FLINTOFF: Thanks, Renee.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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