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Putin's mind games with Turkey

Allah may have stolen the Turkish government's sanity, but who stole Russian President Putin's? Fiona Clark looks at the escalating tension between the two countries.

If it weren't enough to accuse the Turkish president's family of being directly involved in funding terrorism

by selling "Islamic State" (IS) oil,

Russia's president has now continued his verbal assault by claiming Turkey's leadership has lost its collective mind - apparently through divine intervention.

"It seems Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by relieving them of their sanity," Putin said, as that could be the only reason for why they'd shoot down a major trading partner's fighter plane at a time when both countries are supposed to be fighting a common terrorist enemy - IS.

Speaking at his recent annual presidential address to Russia's Federal Assembly, he went on to say that Russia wouldn't rattle sabers at Turkey but the country could think again if it thought that the sanctions Russia has imposed on it in terms of food and investment deals would be the end of the story.

"If people think that after carrying out a cynical war crime, killing our people, they'll get away with a tomato ban or some limits in the construction sector, they're very wrong. We will keep remembering what they did. And they

will keep regretting it."

It's not personal

Putin said he had no trouble with the Turkish people as such, just those at the top who had 'betrayed' Russia. But the actions Russia has taken against Turkey do seem incredibly personal. There are upwards of 70,000 Turks working in Moscow, many of whom have families, bringing the total estimated number of Turks in Russia to around 200,000. According to the Moscow Times, an English-language local paper, some families have reported that police have visited their homes and intimidated them. Others say their children have been bullied at school. Some returning to the country to visit family have been denied entry. That's very personal.

two men shaking hands Copyright: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

Who are they kidding?

The sanctions on Turkish fruit, vegetables and chicken products that are due to come into force on January 1 will hurt families and small businesses, and undoubtedly the cancellation of charter holidays to Turkey will take its toll too. But ironically, it's going to hurt Russians as well.

About 20 percent of Russia's fruit and vegetables come from Turkey, and Russia's minister for economic development Alexei Ulyukayev has warned that there could be shortages as the government tries to secure new suppliers at short notice. Add that on top of the shortages created by the sanctions Russia has put on European supplied food and things will be looking bleak on the supermarket shelves. They might be able to make fake cheese out of palm oil but it's a very different story when it comes to oranges and tomatoes.

Two-way street

Trade goes both ways too. Turkey imports 55 percent of its gas from Russia and 30 percent of its oil from Russia. If it decides to find another supplier, that will cost Russia dearly. In terms of an overall balance of trade 2014, Turkish trade figures show that Turkey's exports to Russia were worth $5.9 billion while its imports from Russia were worth $25.2 billion. If Turkey decides to reciprocate, that will make a very nasty dent in Russia's struggling economy.

Russians are already paying more for their food. Many have lost their jobs and those who still have them have endured stagnating salaries or even pay cuts. The situation has become so bad that a Soviet-style survival system - bartering - has remerged, but with a modern twist. According to a story on Russian television, websites have started to emerge where people trade household items such as books, electrical goods and clothes for food. One, in the Siberian city of Omsk, has more than 58,000 followers.

fruit stand Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Shipenkov

Stock up while you can

Theoretically speaking

So why such a response? According to some analysts, the

reasons behind the dispute are far deeper

than the death of two pilots or who does or doesn't support the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

While some postulate that it's Russia's attempt to discredit Turkey as a NATO member and prove it's an unreliable ally for the west, others say Turkey is trying to either expand its role in the middle east as a power player or do the same to Russia and keep it on the side-lines because of its support for the Kurds. The Kurds who are spread across sections of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria wish to be reunited after having their homeland carved up in the 1920's. There has been talk of a Kurdish corridor in Syria that to Turkish eyes could look suspiciously like the re-establishment of Kurdistan. This could threaten Turkey's sovereignty and result in a chunk of Turkish territory - which has been subject to pro-Kurdish separatist activity for decades - being carved off to reunite the Kurds. That's not a scenario Turkey would take well to.

Whatever the reason, at the moment, there is no apology forthcoming from Turkey and Putin isn't in the mood to back down. Unless that changes, the best-case scenario is that relations will remain cool if not frozen. The worst case is that a tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions and abuse will escalate into something far worse - and then there will be no winners. One could be forgiven for thinking that if Allah stole Turkey's sanity, God must have done the same to Russia's leadership - because none of this is rational or proportionate, and it's certainly a far cry from a united front to battle IS.

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