In the end, even the most powerful presidents in the world are just people. And like all people, presidents also experience anger and bitterness when they feel that they have been betrayed by friends.
Yet presidents also have more options than most of us when it comes to expressing their resentment and disappointment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in this particular case, used his annual state of the nation address as an opportunity to publicly break off his friendship with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
End of a friendship
Just a few weeks ago, Erdogan was Putin’s guest in Moscow, where the two opened Russia’s largest mosque. In their speeches at the time, both men praised the bilateral relations between their countries, which seemed to have grown ever closer over the last several years.
However, when the Turks downed a Russian Su-24 bomber over the Turkish-Syrian border on November 24, Putin’s world took a drastic 180-degree turn.
Now, in his view, Turkey, and especially President Erdogan, are the new enemies.
Without calling his counterpart by name, the Russian president accused the “ruling leaders” in Turkey of cooperating with terrorists and described the downing of the Russian military aircraft “a war crime” that Turkey “will regret.”
Putin went further still. In a display of undiplomatic acrimony, he said that, “Apparently, Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by taking away their sanity.” That is Russian for ‘our friendship is over for good!‘
Putin ruled out direct military retaliation, but announced that Russia would punish Turkey harshly, and repeatedly, in the future – though he was vague about exactly what measures would be taken. It is probable that the so-called Turkish Stream gas pipeline project will be shut down, and perhaps plans for a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Turkey will be shelved as well.
More than feelings
Putin’s vehement attacks, however, are about more than his own personal feelings of disappointment over Erdogan’s betrayal. The anti-Turkish rhetoric has much more to do with a political calculation on the part of the Kremlin: all of the anti-Western propaganda that was built up over the course of the crisis in Ukraine can now be redirected at Turkey.
That redirection fits perfectly with Russia’s strategy to use the anti-IS coalition as a means to free itself from the isolation imposed by the West, while allowing it to maintain the fortress mentality necessary for Putin’s circle to retain its grip on power. At the same time, the Kremlin is exploiting the discord evident among NATO partners, such as France and Turkey, who have adapted very different approaches to the Syria question since the attacks in Paris.
And finally, it should not be forgotten that the recent Russo-Turkish friendship under Putin and Erdogan was a historical anomaly. Violent geopolitical differences have characterized Russian-Ottoman relations for centuries. It is therefore to be expected that the current deterioration of relations between Moscow and Ankara signals a return to normalcy, and that they will likely remain in that state into the future.