Suffice to say that these are hard times for Turkish citizens living in Russia, who have recently faced everything from harassment by border guards to surprise drug inspections in dormitories where Turkish students are known to reside. The fact that many Turks loathe Erdoğan and his policies matters not. In Russia, people are seen as representatives of their country and their governments as though they were fans of a rival football club.
The backlash against Turkey quickly exceeded the hate shown towards Americans and even Ukrainians in recent years. Given that the former are often said to be trying to undermine and destroy Russia while the latter have often been accused of attempted genocide against Russian speakers, it is strange that the same crowd which so readily falls for those TV-inspired fairy tales seems significantly angrier at the loss of a Russian military jet, a helicopter, and two servicemen.
Right off the bat we must admit there are legitimate reasons to be outraged. Turkey’s action was rash, uncalled for, and hypocritical in spite of their warnings to Russia about violating their airspace. This was a warning shot fired between two dictatorial presidents presiding over corrupt systems who both have pretenses of restoring their country’s alleged imperial greatness. What is more, the murder of the ejected Russian pilot is nothing short of a war crime. That being said, the mere loss of life doesn’t explain this rage. We’ve seen again and again how the state, its media, and the public ignore the deaths of Russian citizens in the dozens, be they servicemen or civilians. There was no mass outrage when 24 Russian paratroopers died as a result of their barracks collapsing on top of them, an incident no doubt attributable to corruption and gross negligence. So to understand the roots of this rage, we have to look back and find the key variables which prompted this explosion of hatred.
In 2014 Putin had begun his imperial gambit to show his people that he had “raised Russia from its knees.” The crowning achievement was the annexation of the Crimea, carried out by some of Russia’s best troops in their latest military accoutrements. Shortly after the annexation, a Russian Su-24 fighter made several close passes by an American warship, the USS Donald Cook, in international waters in the Black Sea. The US ship attempted to hail the Russian aircraft and got no response. Observers among the ship’s crew believed the Russian plane to be unarmed, and after the incident the ship carried on with its mission as planned without so much as going to battle stations.
Russia’s media told a completely different story, wowing its domestic audience with tall tales about how the Su-24 used some kind of top secret electronic warfare system that shut down all the destroyer’s electrical systems. Another laughably phony story claimed that the captain of the ship put in his resignation as a result of the incident. Clearly desperate for any “successful” military action against NATO and in particular, the United States, a commemorative coin was minted, depicting the non-event.
Fast forward to autumn of this year. The Russian media has forgotten about Ukraine. Now it’s all about Putin saving the world from the Islamic State in Syria. The TV channels show thrilling footage of Russian military hardware in action. The bombs begin to fall and audiences are told that they are witnessing Islamic State bases being destroyed. More proof that Putin has delivered on his promise of making Russia a global superpower. And then it happened.
A Russian Su-24, the very same model that supposedly struck so much fear into the captain of the USS Donald Cook he felt compelled to resign from his commission, was easily blown out of the sky by an American made F16 after a trivial airspace violation lasting and estimated 17 seconds. No valiant dogfight or evasive maneuvers. NATO 1, Russia 0.
Turkey’s real crime, the offense which has sparked outrage eclipsing that directed toward Ukraine and the US, was shattering Putin’s military fantasy. There has been all this talk of standing up to NATO, pushing back against so many imagined insults, and yet when NATO and the Russian air force actually met, the latter stood no chance and was handily destroyed. Destroyed, not by the US Air Force or the RAF, not the Canadians, the French, or the Germans, but by Turkey, the country where middle class Russians go for vacation. This bitter fact gives rise to serious doubts about Putin’s military machine and its overinflated budget. If Turkey could do that so easily, what would happen in the real, all out WWIII scenario so many Russian “patriots” love to speculate about?
Sure, Russian troops and vehicles have been lost in Ukraine, but officially they were never there. True, many Russians believe these forces were there and actually approve of that fact. Some wish Putin would send more troops and material to Ukraine. But any losses there can be dismissed due to official denial and the limited information about the actual order of battle in the rebel-held territories. Are the shattered tanks and vehicles shown in photographs from eastern Ukraine Russian, or are they “captured” Ukrainian hardware? It’s all too easy to deny and obfuscate.
Not so with Turkey’s “stab in the back.” And so there will be rage, especially as Russia’s ability to strike back against Turkey is severely limited, at least limited from the kind of measures that many fuming Russians would find more satisfying, such as direct military action against Turkey. Some initial reactions from Russia’s government border on comical, such as demanding that Agia Sophia in Istanbul be turned over to the Orthodox Church. Russia’s health watchdog, by miraculous coincidence, “discovered” listeria contamination in chicken imported from Turkey, just before the government officially announced which imports it was going to ban. Similarly, the Kremlin suddenly discovered that Turkey was buying oil from ISIS. Putin recently declared that Turkey would suffer more than the loss of a market for its tomatoes, but that remains to be seen. It’s one thing if Russia’s “answers” can’t damage Europe or the United States. If they are unable to produce damage in Turkey, the Russian government cannot help but look impotent.
At the end of the day, Turkey, and more disturbingly Turkish citizens who have nothing to do with their government’s actions, are being collectively punished because Erdoğan’s own regional power fantasy shattered that of Putin and his supporters like a brick through a window. Aspiring so much to a “multipolar” world in which Russia struggles with its rival the United States, it instead finds itself embroiled in skirmishes with Turkey and Ukraine, and with little success against either. Putin has promised the people superpower greatness in exchange for their freedom, yet in the attempt to keep that promise he has deliberately put his shiny new military into scenarios where it can be destroyed and weakened piecemeal, or at least one in which there’s a chance of suffering humiliation, as in this latest debacle with Turkey. Restricted to military parades and exercises, Putin’s new military can appear both modern and menacing. In the field, on the other hand, things don’t often go according to the script.