Russia retaliates against Turkey for downing warplane
Russia on Thursday stepped up its retaliation against Turkey for the downing of one of its warplanes, tightening controls over Turkish food imports as President Vladimir Putin demanded Ankara apologize.
Tensions have soared after Turkish fighter jets shot down the bomber on the Syrian border on Tuesday, leading to the loss of one of two pilots and a soldier who took part in a failed rescue operation, Russia’s first combat losses since the start of its Syria campaign.
Moscow ruled out any military retaliation against NATO-member Turkey but has struck out at its key tourism and agricultural sectors even as officials in Ankara and the West have sought to put a lid on the dispute.
“We still have not heard any articulate apologies from Turkey’s highest political level nor any proposals to compensate for the harm and damage nor promises to punish criminals responsible for their crimes,” Putin said at the Kremlin.
Turkey insists its forces repeatedly warned the Russian jet, an assertion backed up by the United States, and Ankara issued what it said was a recording of the communications.
But Moscow says the plane never crossed over the border from Syria, and the rescued pilot said there was no warning before his plane was shot down in flames.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov branded the incident a “planned provocation” while Putin accused Turkey of a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists.”
Turkey’s military said it did not know the warplane was Russian and that it was ready for “all kinds of cooperation.”
However, the downing raised fears it could fuel a wider geopolitical conflict and highlighted the difficulty of forging consensus on the fate of Syria as Putin prepares to host French President Francois Hollande on Thursday.
After jihadists killed 130 people in Paris this month in attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, Hollande went on a diplomatic offensive, floating an idea of grand coalition to fight the jihadists in Syria.
The French leader travelled to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama and then met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris.
But few expect the Kremlin talks to produce a breakthrough.
Experts say it is hard to imagine Russia and Turkey in the same anti-IS coalition given their stark differences on the Syrian conflict and the new tensions over the Russian jet.
Tourism and food imports
Putin has backed a warning to citizens not to travel to Turkey, which is hugely popular with Russian tourists, and the federal tourism agency recommended a ban on the sale of package holidays to the country.
Russia also went after Turkey’s agricultural sector, upping checks on food imports over alleged safety standard violations.
But while Moscow’s rhetoric has been tough, authorities conspicuously stopped short of banning Turkish food imports altogether.
Some 15 percent of Turkish agricultural produce does not meet Russian standards with levels of pesticides and nitrates considerably above safe limits, Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachev said.
The move is expected to become a major nuisance for Turkey which over the past 10 months exported agricultural produce and food worth just over $1 billion (940 million euros) to Russia, down a fifth from the same period last year.
Russia also said it could redirect its own exports to Turkey including wheat and oil — which totalled $1.3 billion over the past 10 months — to countries in the Middle East and Africa.
On Wednesday, lawmakers from the Kremlin-friendly A Just Russia party introduced a bill calling for a maximum punishment of five years in jail for those who deny the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey in 1915 was a genocide.
If passed, the measure is expected to particularly infuriate Ankara which has always denied that the killings were a premeditated attempt by the Ottoman Empire to wipe out the Armenians.
In another retaliatory move, Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister and football federation chief, said the body recommended clubs cancel any visit to Turkey unless it involved an official calendar event.
A question mark is also hanging over a summit between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that was expected to take place in Russia next month.
Russia has said it would ratchet up its firepower in Syria and send its most advanced S-400 air defence systems to its airbase there, adding that bombers flying sorties would be accompanied by fighter jets.
Russia’s air campaign in Syria had raised fears of such a mid-air misunderstanding with planes flying over the country as part of the US-led anti-IS coalition.