Putin Takes Ineffectual Aim at Turkey

Sanctions will hurt ordinary Russians most.

The feeling is mutual.

Photographer: Cagdas Erdogan/AFP/Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin is so angry with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey that he won't talk to him on the phone or meet with him at the United Nations climate talks in Paris. But Putin can't do much to hurt Erdogan or his country; he can only make life a little more difficult for Russians.

Putin has demanded an apology and compensation from Turkey for shooting down a Russian bomber that had strayed into its airspace. Erdogan wants Russia to apologize. The war of words, waged through the media, has given rise to an outpouring of anti-Turkish rhetoric from the Kremlin's propaganda outlets. It became difficult for Turks to visit Russia or bring goods there. Yet Russia hasn't done much to impose specific economic sanctions or taken military action, making Putin's emotional reaction look puerile and ill-considered.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Immediately after the downing of the warplane, Russia promised that its bombers flying missions in Syria would always be accompanied by fighter planes, and it deployed S-400 antiaircraft systems at its airbase in that country. Russian propaganda outlets are reporting that the presence of the air defenses has prevented the U.S.-led coalition from conducting airstrikes in Syria. The allies have denied that claim, and even if it were correct, the only beneficiary would be the Islamic State, which Russia has called its enemy No. 1 in Syria.

None of this much affects Turkey, because it isn't conducting airstrikes. There's also little risk that more Russian planes might fly into Turkish airspace or that Turkey might shoot down another one: Neither country wants war, and that is a better deterrent than the S-400s.

Russia's domestic propaganda machine churns on all the same. Dmitri Kiselyov, host of the weekly Vesti Nedeli program, the most popular news show on state television, has accused Erdogan of a range of evils, from buying Islamic State oil to trying to restore the Ottoman Empire. The ultranationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky demanded that 100 Turkish pilots be killed as revenge for the Russian who died after bailing from the aircraft last week. The Russian airwaves are filled with vows that the Turkish affront will never be forgotten or forgiven. 

There also have been dozens of incidents of Turkish citizens being denied entry to Russia despite the visa-free regime between the two countries, and of Turkish goods being declared unfit for sale in Russia on "sanitary" grounds. In Moscow, several hundred people threw eggs and stones at the windows of the Turkish Embassy as the police looked on. In Ulyanovsk, locals pulled down a Turkish flag at the local brewery, owned by Anadolu Efes, which is based in Istanbul. 

In addition, on Nov. 28, Putin ordered visas for Turks reintroduced starting in January and controls strengthened for Turkish trucks and ships. He also banned the hiring of Turkish workers starting next year and asked the government to develop an economic sanctions package.

On Monday, top government officials discussed ideas for punishing Turkey, and came up with a ban on the sale of package tours and charter flights, curbs on truck traffic and an embargo on fruit and vegetables. The latter won't be effective immediately: Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said any measures must not lead to price rises. Russia's food embargo against most Western countries, imposed last summer, led to 20 percent to 30 percent price jumps. As it is, Russia reported an 11.7 percent drop in retail sales in October, compared with a year earlier. 

The fruit and vegetable embargo and the disruption to tourism are painful for both sides, but could hurt ordinary Russians most. Turkey's agricultural exports to Russia reached $1.2 billion last year, about 7 percent of total food exports. Turkish farmers probably will close the gap without much trouble. Last year, their counterparts in Europe experienced an increase in exports despite the Russian embargo.

For Russia, the loss is greater: About 20 percent of vegetable imports are from Turkey, as are about 90 percent of citrus fruit sold in major retail chains. 

And Turkey was by far the biggest tourist destination for Russians last year, attracting 3.3 million visitors, almost 19 percent of the Russian tourists who traveled overseas. Turkish resorts made billions, but losing this trade won't be a matter of life and death for the industry. According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, last July, at the height of the tourist season, Turkey received 686,256 Russian visitors and almost 3.1 million from Europe. 

The ruble devaluation has made European vacations too pricey for most Russians. Egypt, the second most popular destination last year, has been off-limits since a terror attack brought down a passenger plane last month. 

Putin could have hurt Erdogan much more by cutting off the flow of Russian natural gas -- Turkey is 60 percent dependent on it -- or scrapping the construction of Turkey's first nuclear plant by Russia's state-owned Rosatom. Russia's energy suppliers would lose a lucrative market, and the natural gas supplier Gazprom would stand to lose southern Europe, too -- to suppliers such as Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijan already pipes gas to Turkey, and would be happy to supply more. Instead of risking that, the Russian government is imposing new costs on its own citizens, hoping it can offset them with inflammatory propaganda.

Despite the tactic's  past efficiency, it's getting hard to sustain given how many enemies Putin has made during his third presidential term. As their country clashes with a growing number of its neighbors and the world closes in, Russians may eventually realize that perhaps Putin is the problem, not the solution. For now, though, Putin's angry rhetoric finds support at home -- and is feeding a similar vindictive mood in Turkey, which is making Russian cargo ships wait for hours before they're allowed to pass through the Bosphorus.

Erdogan is as adept as Putin at using foreign threats to distract his citizens, but he doesn't have as many adversaries. He's likely to benefit more than Putin from the crisis.

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