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Diplomatic Relations With Turkey Strained After Russian Plane Shot Down


Relations between Turkey and Russia are tense. The Turks shot down a Russian jet on Tuesday, a warplane that was flying a combat mission into Syria. Turkey says they warned the Russian pilot before they shot. One of the Russian pilots says they didn't. And they weren't over Turkish airspace anyway. Turkey's president said he would like to meet with President Putin face to face during the climate talks in Paris next week. Putin says he wants an apology from Turkey before any meeting. Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a columnist of foreign policy. Thanks very much for being back with us, Julia.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: President Erdogan says he's concerned this issue's been escalated. Could it lead to anything wider?

IOFFE: I think it could. And that's why, I think, everybody is so on edge, precisely because, you know, the tinderbox is ready for some kind of spark to ignite it. And I think that's precisely why you saw the NATO countries, particularly France and Germany and the U.S., pouring as much cold water as they could on the situation after the plane went down because nobody wants to go to war with Russia, and I think rightly so, and particularly, not on behalf of a leader who is himself not the most exemplary president.

SIMON: You know, in the U.S., we think of Turkey as kind of an uneasy ally in NATO and Russia as an adversary, certainly under Vladimir Putin. But I wonder how Turkey and Russia see each other.

IOFFE: So this isn't the first conflict that the two countries have had. The first time, for example, Crimea was annexed by the Russians. It was annexed from the Turks - from the Ottoman Turks - back in the late 18th century. And this is actually seen as the first time that the Ottoman Empire was partitioned in any way and was - is seen as a kind of - the beginning of a slow decline. So as the two empires - the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire - shared a lot of borders. And there was a lot of friction along those borders as Russia tried to expand, as the Ottoman Empire tried to defend itself. This kind of friction between Moscow and Istanbul goes back hundreds of years.

SIMON: Putin criticized the U.S. over Turkey's action, saying the U.S. could have somehow restrained Turkey from shooting down the Russian plane. Could this set to - between Turkey and Russia - somehow draw in the U.S.?

IOFFE: I think that's precisely the danger. And I think officials in Washington and in Brussels recognize that, which is precisely why, at a meeting at NATO on Tuesday, the party they scolded was not Russia, who actually did invade Turkish airspace. But because the invasion was so short and so limited, it was Turkey that was being scolded for escalating the situation, for potentially drawing in various NATO members into a massive conflict with Russia, which is in nobody's interest.

SIMON: Does this make the U.S. and some other NATO member states reassess Turkey in the alliance?

IOFFE: I doubt it, not at this time. But you know what's interesting is that after Ukraine, all eyes were turned to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. And the Pentagon actually, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, started drawing up contingency plans should Russia invade the Baltics, which are NATO members. So the question was how do we defend them? If we don't defend them, is NATO null and void essentially? So while we were figuring that out, you know, the potential for conflict between Russia and NATO moved much further south. And it seems like we're caught off guard once again.

SIMON: Julia Ioffe, thanks very much for being with us.

IOFFE: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.