Tensions between Turkey and Russia have reached boiling point on Thursday as Vladimir Putin threatened to down any Turkish aircraft that dare to fly over Syrian airspace.
In a defiant and bold speech to reporters, Putin said that relations with Turkey are now beyond repair due to their deliberate downing of the Russian bomber. He declared Syria a no-fly zone for all Turkish military aircraft.
“Turkey used to violate Syrian airspace all the time,” Putin told reporters. “Let them try and fly there now” that Russia’s most advanced air-defense system covers the whole country, he warned.
The Nov. 24 shoot-down, the first by a NATO member of a Russian aircraft in decades, came less than two months after Putin joined the Syrian war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. That has complicated efforts by the U.S. and its allies, which have been bombing jihadist groups for almost two years, to end a conflict that’s killed a quarter million people and sparked Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
Putin, speaking during his annual press conference in Moscow, reiterated his refusal to allow outside forces to decide Syria’s fate, but he said Russia and the U.S. are moving closer to an agreement on how to end the war and form a new government. Russia’s plan for Syria, which is wedged between Turkey and Iraq, is generally in line with a UN resolution drafted by the U.S. that will be discussed at talks in New York on Friday, he said.
Over the course of three hours, Putin fielded dozens of questions from mostly domestic journalists on topics ranging from oil and power to murder and corruption.
The Russian leader said he wants to settle as soon as possible the separatist conflict in Ukraine, which led to the U.S. and European Union sanctions that have helped push Russia’s economy into recession. He said Russia has military advisers in eastern Ukraine, while continuing to deny U.S. assertions that professional troops have been sent.
He even weighed in on the U.S. presidential election, saying Russia is prepared to improve ties and work with whomever is elected next year. After the conference, Putin hailed Republican candidate Donald Trump as the “absolute leader” in the race and praised his plan to build better ties with Russia.
But it’s the war in Syria that will be the focus of Russian and U.S. cooperation when diplomats from the former Cold War foes join their international colleagues for a meeting in New York on Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he reached “some common ground” with Putin on Syria after three hours of talks in Moscow on Tuesday.
“Russia will do all it can to resolve the situation in Syria,” even with the tensions with neighboring Turkey, Putin told reporters Thursday.
Putin has demanded an apology from Erdogan after a U.S.-made F-16 operated by Turkey destroyed a SU-24 bomber last month, killing one of the pilots.
Turkey should have called and apologized if it was an accident, Putin said at the news conference. He said he wasn’t aware of U.S. involvement, but he speculated that Turkey may have been trying to curry favor with the world’s largest military power.
“If someone in Turkey decided to kiss Americans on a certain body part, I don’t know whether it was right or not,” Putin said.
Senior officials in Moscow and Ankara say the volatile, sometimes impetuous personalities of Putin and Erdogan exacerbate the feud because neither is willing to back down.
Both Putin, 63, and Erdogan, 61, have ruled for more than decade and been criticized for autocratic tendencies, as well as their unwillingness to back down under pressure. Both have called for reasserting national glory, drawing comparisons to their imperial predecessors — czars and sultans. Both invested in what appeared to be a special relationship based on that bond.
But those days are long gone.
Turkish officials have been looking for alternatives to Russian natural gas supplies since relations soured, meeting with counterparts from countries including Qatar, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in recent weeks.
Erdogan himself flew to Qatar for gas talks this month. While there, he said Turkey will have no choice “but to take countermeasures” if Russian reactions to the plane incident, such as economic sanctions, continue.
“What did they think, that we’d run away?” Putin said Thursday. “That’s not the kind of country Russia is.”