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Reality check for Putin after Turkey shoots down plane


President Vladimir Putin has found himself in a bind after the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey, which highlights the risks of his gung-ho Syria campaign and the difficulty of forging consensus on the war-torn country’s future.

The dramatic escalation in tensions between Russia and NATO member Turkey comes as Putin prepares for talks Thursday in Moscow with France’s Francois Hollande on building a broad coalition to fight Islamic State (IS) jihadists.

Putin, who supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has sought to capitalise on shifting dynamics in the West in the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris that were claimed by IS.

Welcoming Hollande’s call for greater cooperation on combatting the jihadists in Syria, he ordered his military to work with NATO member France “as allies” — a first since World War II.

But analysts say that the downing of the Russian plane on Turkey’s border serves as a reminder that global and regional powers are unlikely to band together in a broad coalition given their stark differences on the Syrian conflict, not least on the fate of Assad, a friend of Moscow but a foe of Turkey and the West.

– Global coalition unlikely –
“It is impossible to imagine Russia and Turkey in the same coalition,” Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the government-linked Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, told AFP.

“But the situation did not change — and maybe even improved — as far as Russia’s cooperation with the United States and France is concerned.”

Turkey’s NATO allies called for a rapid de-escalation of tensions and stressed the need to prevent such incidents in the future.

Russia, for its part, said it would not retaliate militarily and Moscow’s ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, even said Moscow was ready to establish a “joint staff” to fight the Islamic State together with Paris, Washington and Ankara.

But Putin’s fury was on full display Tuesday when he accused Turkey of betraying Russia and backing Islamic State and suggested Russia could retaliate with economic and political measures.

“Judging by the president’s face yesterday, no losses to Russian companies will be able to stop him,” Lukyanov said.

“The entire model of economic ties with Turkey — tourism, food, consumer goods, construction and so on — all of this will be under huge pressure.”

Putin’s domestic critics flayed the Kremlin strongman for the loss of one of the warplane’s pilot and another soldier who was killed during a failed operation to rescue the crew.

Their deaths became Russia’s first known combat casualties since Moscow began a bombing campaign in Syria on September 30.

The loss of the Russian jet was also the first known downing of a plane over Syria since a Jordanian aircraft came down over the country in 2014.

– ‘Humiliation of adventurer’ –
Political observer and satirist Viktor Shenderovich accused Putin of taking the country to the brink of war with a NATO member.

“The international humiliation of the military adventurer had to take place one way or another,” Shenderovich wrote in a blog, predicting the Kremlin would try to harness the incident for political gain.

“There is no doubt they will manage to use the nation’s shock for their own political purposes; not for the first time,” he said.

Some Russian analysts suggested Turkey shot down the Russian jet out of anger over Putin’s cavalier attitude to the conflict and apparent disregard for Ankara’s interests in the war-torn country.

While Putin insisted the plane posed no threat to Turkey, Ankara said Moscow was bombing Syria’s Turkmen, a minority it views as an ally in its struggle against the Assad regime.

“The Turks want Russia to acknowledge that along their border there lies a zone not suitable for sorties and bombings,” military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told AFP.

“Russia is not simply bombing the Turkmen, it is clearing a path for an offensive by Assad and Hezbollah,” he added.

“This could lead to the ethnic cleansing of Turkmens, which is unacceptable for Turkey.”

Russia said it would ratchet up its firepower in Syria and send its most advanced air defence systems to its airbase there, adding that bombers flying sorties would be accompanied by fighter jets.

The military buildup will in turn increase the risk of new incidents.

“The longer the operation, the greater the risks,” Lukyanov said.

“You have to be a complete lunatic to believe — after everything we have seen in the Middle East over the past 15 years — that an intervention in a civil war in the Middle East will be easy and problem-free.”

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