Turkey will not apologize for downing a Russian fighter jet it says violated Turkish airspace near the Syrian border, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an exclusive CNN interview Thursday in Ankara.
“I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us,” he said from the Turkish capital. “Those who violated our airspace are the ones who need to apologize. Our pilots and our armed forces, they simply fulfilled their duties, which consisted of responding to … violations of the rules of engagement. I think this is the essence.”
In a meeting with community leaders in Ankara, Erdogan said, “If the same violation occurs today, Turkey has to react the same way.”
Turkey has repeatedly said it shot down the Russian warplane on Tuesday only after the plane ignored several warnings and entered Turkish airspace.
Russia has contested the claim, and its rescued co-pilot Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin told state media that “there were no warnings — not via the radio, not visually.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the downing of the Russian jet did not appear spontaneous, but more “like a planned provocation.”
Turkey’s military has released audio it says proves its claim; Russia’s Defense Ministry tweeted Thursday that the audio purporting to capture warnings issued by Turkish pilots to the crew of the downed jet was “a habitual fake.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the plane was attacked a kilometer inside Syrian territory, while Erdogan says it crashed in Turkey, injuring two people, after being in Turkish airspace for 17 seconds.
“We knew there were two aircraft. One aircraft went back into Syria, and the second one was still in Turkish airspace and it was shot down by our aircraft,” Erdogan told CNN.
Turkey’s strike against a Russian fighter jet was unexpected, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Moscow on Thursday. “It did not even come into our mind that we could be struck by a party that we considered to be our ally,” he said. “We considered Turkey to be a friendly country.”
Charges of terrorism
Tensions in the Middle East have escalated since the downing of the Russian warplane, with Erdogan accusing Russia of deceit and Moscow announcing it will deploy anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. A post on the Russian Defense Ministry’s Facebook page showed an S-400 missile system being unloaded from a Russian cargo plane.
The post said the system will be installed at Syria’s Hmeymin airbase near Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, as Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu promised Wednesday on his ministry’s Twitter feed.
The missiles have a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles), according to Missile Threat, which monitors ballistic missile capabilities around the world. The Turkish border is fewer than 45 kilometers (30 miles) away.
The countries’ militaries officially suspended their channels of cooperation, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, a move they had announced Wednesday.
Russia and Turkey have each accused the other of supporting terrorism. Speaking at an event in Moscow, prior to CNN’s interview with Erdogan, Putin said Turkey had not apologized or offered compensation for the downed warplane. He charged that Turkey was trying to bring its relations with Russia to a “dead end.”
Erdogan dubbed a “huge mistake” Putin’s claim that Turkey is an accomplice to terrorism and that shooting down Russia’s plane “represents a stab in the back.”
He also addressed a claim — repeated Thursday afternoon by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova — that Turkey had oil and financial ties to ISIS.
“If Mr. Putin is saying that we are cooperating with Daesh, that we are accomplices, I think that would be a huge mistake, because we are doing the exact opposite,” he told CNN, using another name for ISIS. “Yesterday there was a declaration which was very unacceptable. Some people claimed that we were buying oil from Daesh — and the fact that people in positions of authority in Russia said this is very, very unacceptable.”
He said Russia has no room to talk because it is not taking on the terrorist outfit itself: “Russia is not engaged in a fight against Daesh in Syria. On the contrary, they are actually targeting moderate opposition.”
The assertion is supported by CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, who said, “None of the targets that … the Russians were going after had anything to do with ISIS. Those were all those Turkmen groups.”
Late Thursday, however, Russia insisted again it had taken out “all terrorists” in the area where the navigator of the Russian jet crash was rescued, Konashenkov said. Russia’s air force conducted “massive airstrikes” and the Syrian army had provided artillery support, giving full control of the mountainous area in north Latakia governorate to Syrian troops, he said, claiming that Russia now controls all ISIS supply routes in north Syria.
Out come the economic weapons
Now the economic weapons are being unsheathed. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has issued a directive that government ministers draw up retaliatory economic measures against Turkey.
Russia’s Agriculture Ministry announced it’s strengthening controls over food and agriculture imports from Turkey. A statement on the Agriculture Ministry website said there would be “additional checks on the border and at production sites in Turkey” in response to what it said were “repeated violations of Russian standards by Turkish producers.”
Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachev is quoted on the ministry’s website saying that roughly 15% of Turkish agricultural products fail to meet Russian standards.
A gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, in which Russia and Turkey have jointly invested, could also be targeted, Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev said in a tweet.
In addition, Russia’s state-run consumer protection body said it had concerns about the quality and safety of children’s clothing, furniture and cleaning products originating from Turkey.
Some Russian tour operators have already said they will be curtailing travel to Turkey — a top destination for Russian vacationers.
The unusual clash between Russia and a NATO member highlights the dangerous and unpredictable nature of the Syrian war, which has drawn global powers, including the United States, into a chaotic and complex conflict.
Turkey says Russian plane breached its sovereignty
Ankara is supporting rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Moscow. And Erdogan’s condemnation of what he says is Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace is nothing new. Airspace violations in October prompted a meeting between Turkey’s and Russia’s foreign ministries to prevent future incidents, he said.
He has charged Russia with propping up the Assad government — a regime he said was inflicting terrorism on its own people — while Putin steadfastly insists that the plane Turkey shot down was conducting an anti-terrorism mission.
Erdogan has disputed that claim, saying, “There is no Daesh” in the area where the Russian plane was flying.
“Do not deceive us! We know the locations of Daesh,” he said.
Turkey believes Russian planes have bombed moderate opposition including Turkmens. The Syrian regime’s aim, Erdogan told CNN, is to “rid the whole region of the Turkmens, clear that whole area.”
The Turkmen minority in northern Syria have strong ties to the Turkish government, which will seek to provide them a degree of protection, he said. Bombing the area constitutes an attack on “our brothers and sisters — Turkmen,” Erdogan has said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country doesn’t want to “drive a wedge” into its relationship with Russia, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. And the two countries’ foreign ministers have already spoken by phone and plan to meet in person over the coming days, the news agency reported, citing a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Two high-ranking Russian military officers have visited the Turkish general staff since the plane was shot down, Anadolu reported.
“Every question about the incident has been answered,” the general staff said, according to the news agency. It said that images from radar displays were shown to the Russian attaches during visits in Ankara.
Even as Erdogan has insisted Turkey doesn’t want to escalate the situation, the anger in his words — and in Putin’s — demonstrate how the conflict in Syria has stoked a new wave of international turbulence. Syria, of course, doesn’t need more quagmires, given how the U.S., Russia and other global, regional and local forces are entangled in the civil war.