The increasing frequency of Russian intelligence planes flying parallel to Turkey's Black Sea coast, coming right before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's trip to Moscow to boost bilateral ties, is a show of muscles directed at international actors rather than Turkey, analysts believe.
“I prefer seeing this as a global message, with Russia flexing its muscles in a show of military capacity,” Habibe Özdal, a Russia analyst at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), has said.
Despite their diametrically opposed stances on the civil war in Syria, Turkey and Russia seem to have managed to so far cooperate on some other fields such as trade, energy and tourism.
Noting that the two countries are not directly involved in any bilateral disagreements, with Syria being a case of an international conflict, Özdal told Sunday's Zaman that “this is not a message directed at Turkey.”
In the past three weeks, Russian intelligence planes, IL-20 aircraft as reported on the website of the Turkish General Staff, have flown along Turkey's Black Sea coast three times. Each time, Turkish F-16 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the Russian aircraft, which did not violate Turkish airspace, however.
The latest incident of a Russian plane flying close to Turkish airspace over the Black Sea took place at the beginning of the week, when a Russian IL-20 intelligence plane reportedly flew an average of 15 miles off the Turkish coast, from East to West, while Turkish F-16s intercepted and trailed the Russian plane at a distance of half a mile up to 10 sea miles. Two Turkish F-16s flew over Trabzon, Giresun, Ordu, Samsun, Sinop, Kastamonu and Bartın within Turkish airspace to pursue the Russian warplane, while another pair of F-16s also flew over Bartın, Zonguldak, Düzce, Sakarya, Kocaeli, İstanbul and Kırklareli to watch the Russian fighter jet.
Turkish Foreign Ministry officials have treated the issue as something not worth making a fuss over. “This should not be considered a sign of tension,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Oct. 26, a statement which came after a Russian intelligence plane, for the second time, had been pursued by Turkish jets the day before.
A few days after the third appearance of a Russian warplane near Turkey's Black Sea coast, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Levent Gümrükçü said on Nov. 7 that such incidents are routine. “There has been no violation of Turkish airspace,” he added. Özdal feels that the Russian planes flying so close to Turkey's Black Sea coast may also be part of an effort by Russia to monitor NATO and US intelligence facilities on Turkey's Black Sea coast.
By flying intelligence planes parallel to Turkey's coast from one end of the Black Sea to the other, Russia is sending a message to the world that the Black Sea is its zone of primary influence, analysts believe. Noting that Russia started, as of approximately 2010, sending the message that it would assume the role of a major power in world politics, Kürşat Atılgan, a retired brigadier general who served as a pilot in the Air Force for years, told Sunday's Zaman that the “message is not to Turkey but to the West.” “Russia is saying that the Black Sea is its zone of primary influence, and not the West's. Warplanes are used in this way all over the world,” he added.
When Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war back in August 2008, a number of warships belonging to the US Navy entered the Black Sea, which was almost certainly not well-liked by Russia at the time. Noting that in the past couple of years, the Black Sea has become an area of interest for the West, Atılgan, who described IL-20 planes as important intelligence aircraft, said, “[With these flights], Russia is saying, ‘The Black Sea is my space, not yours'.”
Russia also criticized Turkey back in 2011 for allowing a NATO early warning radar system to be set up in Malatya province, which Russia took as a threat to itself. For İlyas Kemaloğlu, a Eurasia advisor at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), Russia's interest in the Black Sea should not come as surprise to anyone as Russia also displays, from time to time, its military force in areas other than the Black Sea such as the Mediterranean and the Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean. “Because Russia places importance on these areas, it wants to indicate that it has a major say there,” Kemaloğlu told Sunday's Zaman.
But analysts believe that bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey are strong enough to withstand small cases of tension. Erdoğan is set to make a two-day visit to Russia on Nov. 21-22 for the fourth edition of the High-Level Cooperation Council between the two countries. According to Kemaloğlu, who is also a professor of history at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in İstanbul, during Erdoğan's visit, Russian officials may seek to boost military cooperation, even offering transfer of technology, with Turkey, although a Russian offer in a long-range air defense missile tender by Turkey was recently eliminated because of its high price and likely very limited offer of technology transfer.
Economic ties between Turkey and Russia have become stronger and stronger in the past few years. While the more than 3,000 Turkish companies in Russia have investments that now exceed $12 billion, the purchase of Denizbank by Russian Sberbank last year means that Russian capital in Turkey has exceeded $12 billion. Additionally, Turkey's first nuclear power plant, an investment of $20 billion in Akkuyu, Mersin province, is being built by Russia with Russian capital, thereby bringing the two countries even closer.
Noting that relations between the two countries have even endured the test of the Syrian conflict, Atılgan said: “Turkish-Russian relations have taken a strategic dimension with strengthened ties in trade and energy. Unless there is a vital conflict of interests, relations between the two countries will not get disrupted.”