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Memo to Putin: Going After Erdogan Personally May Be Unwise

Publicly humiliating Erdogan by accusing members of his family of involvement in the illegal oil trade may simply cause Erdogan to dig in

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The last few days have provided further proof that behind the mask of calculation Putin is a passionate man.

His reaction to the shooting down by Turkey of the Su-24 has been exceptionally strong, and has surprised many in the West.

It has also shocked the Turks, who clearly did not expect it.

Ever since the Su-24 was shot down the Turks have struggled to contain the fallout.  

Erdogan has made repeated efforts to contact Putin - by trying to telephone Putin immediately after the SU24 was shot down, and by angling for a meeting with Putin at the climate change summit in Paris.

Instead Putin has chosen to escalate the row.  

Not only has he refused to speak to Erdogan since the shoot-down, but his language has become steadily harsher, calling the Turkish action a “stab in the back”, and openly accusing Turkey of colluding with the Islamic State’s oil smuggling operation.

Matters have now escalated to the point where Putin is openly saying the SU24 was shot down to protect Turkey’s illegal oil smuggling operation.

On 2nd December 2015 the gloves finally and fully came off.

The Russian military held a press conference in which they provided overwhelming evidence not just of the illegal oil smuggling operation between Turkey and the Islamic State, but of its industrial scale.

Echoing Putin’s anger, the tone of the press conference was angry and emotional, with charges that corrupt Turkish businessmen are plundering Iraq and Syria of their oil resources.

The single most incendiary thing that came out of the news conference was however the claim that members of Erdogan’s own family are involved.

I find these allegations perfectly plausible, though it is fair to point out that the Russian military did not provide evidence against members of Erdogan’s family that would stand up in a court. 

The shady business dealings of members of Erdogan’s family - including his son - have however long been talked about, and anyone who who follows Turkish politics at all closely will not be surprised or shocked by the Russian claims.

Having said this, I question whether making this charge public in this way was wise.

Whatever view one has of Erdogan the reality is that he dominates Turkish politics and is likely to do so for some time. 

His party has just won - by a resounding margin - parliamentary elections.  There is no obvious alternative to him.  He is genuinely popular with many Turks, and he has a solid base of support amongst the Turkish people.

Given that this is so I wonder whether it was wise to embarrass him in such a public way.  It is impossible to see how his relationship with Putin can now be repaired, and it looks like any sort of constructive dialogue between him and Putin has for the foreseeable future become all but impossible.

This matters.

There is undoubtedly a need to put pressure on Turkey to close the border with Syria and to stamp out the illegal oil trade.  Orchestrating pressure on Turkey to do this is essential.  Exposing the scale of the illegal oil trade between the Islamic State and Turkey was unquestionably the right thing to do.

Closing the border and stamping out the oil trade is however something that will need Erdogan’s personal agreement.  I wonder however whether publicly humiliating him by accusing members of his own family of involvement in the very criminal activity he is being called on to stamp out is the right way to get him to give it.  

Erdogan must be feeling ashamed and furious, knowing that the illegal activities he surely knows all about have been publicly exposed, even if the Western media has drawn down a curtain of silence over what has happened.  

An angry and humiliated man is generally a less pliable man, especially if he is as proud and prickly as Erdogan is known to be.  

On the face of it what has happened must incline him to be more defiant and more resistant to pressure to close the border and stamp out the oil trade - as the Russians want - than he might otherwise have been.

In saying all this I realise that I am not informed about what has been going on behind the scenes.  

Clearly the Russians have been talking to Erdogan in private about the illegal oil trade for some time, and clearly he has been playing them for fools, causing the talks to go nowhere. 

Anyone who has ever engaged with Russians in business conversations quickly learns this is the stupidest thing one can do. 

It would not be surprising in light of this if Russian anger with Erdogan has been building up for some time, and if the incident with the SU24 finally caused it to boil over.

I do hope however that this is not just an emotional response, and that the Russians have fully thought this thing through.

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