In an attempt to explain his dogged refusal to provoke the Syrian regime, Russian President Vladimir Putin borrowed a quote from his late countryman, the legendary playwright Anton Chekhov.
Chekhov lived and worked during the tumultuous final decades of Czarist Russia; his work chronicled the slow decline of a long-entrenched aristocracy. More than a century has passed since Chekhov died, and the exact wording of the quote Putin referenced has been blurred by time and translation. But it goes something like this: If there is a pistol hanging on the wall during the first act of a play, it ought to be fired by the time the last curtain falls.
The statement was meant as a lesson in dramatic foreshadowing. But Putin, placing it in the context of modern geopolitics, hopes to make a different point: A loaded gun on the sidelines – in this case, a combat-ready NATO-supplied Patriot missile on Turkish border – is bound to be fired eventually.
That’s why Moscow is opposed to the idea of installing Patriot missile batteries to protect Turkey from Syrian aggression, Putin told reporters while visiting Ankara Monday, according to Russian news outlet RT.
But disagreements over Turkish missile defense didn’t seem to hurt Putin's relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. On the contrary, the two were very cordial and made significant progress on trade and energy deals.
On Syria, the two powers simply agreed to disagree.
Patriot missiles are highly automated weapons guided by ground-based radar; their purpose is to target and shoot down incoming projectiles. But if the missile batteries are situated in southern Turkey, as Ankara has requested, they could also be used offensively against warplanes in Syrian airspace and essentially create a no-fly zone in the northernmost reaches of war-torn Syria.
That’s just what the Syrian rebels want. It has been more than 20 months since ragtag militias first began fighting to oust the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; so far, about 40,000 people have lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands more have fled the country, with more than 100,000 pouring into overcrowded camps in Turkey. The bloodshed only spreads and worsens.
Turkey is keen to see Assad deposed, especially since the conflict has threatened stability across the region. Most of the international community agrees, but Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has blocked resolutions that would pressure Assad to step down.
Moscow has long been allied to the Syrian government, though the relationship has been strained considerably over the past year due to international pressure. Putin now claims not to support Assad. Russia, which has been the major arms dealer to Syria for decades, said in July it would stop sending new arms shipments.
Turkey accused Russia of breaking that promise in October, when Ankara officials forced a plane en route from Moscow to Damascus to land for an inspection. Erdogan said the craft was carrying munitions, which Moscow denies.
In the wake of that very public row, the missile debate is a touchy one. The two countries are plainly at odds, and Russian officials openly criticize Turkey’s plans for Patriot batteries on its territory. But Turkey, a NATO member state, cites self-defense, noting that errant Syrian weapons already have killed civilians on Turkish soil.
For Putin, the fear is that Chekhov’s gun might go off as the fine line between defense and offense begins to blur.
Too Much on the Line
The rift between the two countries was downplayed on Monday, and for good reason: Russia and Turkey are trade partners whose growing energy partnership is greatly beneficial to both parties. Recent economic problems are putting a dent in both states’ coffers, and neither can afford to compromise their profitable relationship.
Russia supplies about two-thirds of Turkey’s imported natural gas – about 30 billion cubic meters, or bcm, every year. Construction is expected to begin soon on South Stream, a $20 billion natural gas pipeline that will pass through Turkish waters and help cement Russia’s standing as Europe’s primary natural gas supplier. South Stream is expected to deliver about 63 bcm to southern Europe annually, beginning in 2015. In return, Turkey was granted long-term contracts with Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom. In addition, Moscow is slated to fund the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, to be operational by 2022.
On Monday, Erdogan and Putin made plans to triple yearly trade, which is already expected to reach $35 billion by the end of 2012.
With that much on the table, neither side is willing to get overly animated over Syria’s bloody crisis. By the end of Monday's talks, the two leaders had made no discernible progress on that front; vague statements about shared concerns were the only takeaway.
“Our biggest hope is that the ongoing conflict in Syria ends quickly and we see an end to the violence and bloodshed,” said Erdogan, according to Euronews. “Both our foreign ministers must work intensively and take steps in order to bring about a successful conclusion to the mission.”
Getting it Done
Unlike the U.N. Security Council, Turkey is not beholden to Russia on the issue of Syria.
The question of Patriot missiles will be taken up at a NATO meeting in Brussels this week, and Western diplomats – including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have expressed approval of the idea. For now, the establishment of a no-fly zone remains off the table; the missile batteries supposedly would be for defense only.
There are no agreements yet on how many would be installed. Even if NATO agrees to take on the project – which would be funded primarily by the United States – the weapons are unlikely to be operational until 2013.
Still, the expected approval will be a major step forward for countries that have so far been hesitant to engage in Syria. Turkey, which has helped Qatar and Saudi Arabia in arming the rebels, will become an even bigger player in the Syrian resistance – with or without Russia’s blessing.
The playwright Chekhov died after taking a sip of champagne on his deathbed in Germany in 1904. He did not live to see the fall of Imperial Russia in 1917, though judging by his work, he may have foreseen it.
The fall of Assad after so many years of bloodshed is likewise predictable – a question of when rather than whether. Patriot missiles in Turkey may be too interventionist for Putin to handle, but the Kremlin is essentially powerless to stop them. Chekhov’s gun is already in play, and soon it will be curtains for the Assad regime.
But in the meantime, Turkey and Russia are proving that they can maintain economic ties despite diplomatic disagreements. It will be boon to both going forward, but it’s bad news for the millions of displaced, targeted, or otherwise endangered Syrians for whom survival – not international trade – is the most pressing issue.
For now, Putin will stand his ground.
“We share Turkey's concern about the developments on the border,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “But we are calling for restraint because increasing [military] potential will not settle the situation but create the opposite effect.”