Turkey and Russia are already waging a proxy war in Syria as Istanbul backs rebels against Syrian government troops supported by Moscow.
But the recent escalation in rhetoric has sharpened fears of a direct confrontation, analysts warn.
The two major players in the Syrian conflict have historic enmities dating back to the 16th century with the first Russo-Turkish wars, and more recently the Crimean War between Russia and the Ottoman Empire backed by Britain and France, in the mid-19th century.
Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria that began in September and the Turkish shelling of Kurdish positions in Syria have effectively created a separate sub-crisis within the geopolitical cluster bomb of the five-year-long war.
This conflict is also being played out on the ground as rebel groups backed in particular by Turkey are attempting to contain the advance of Syrian troops supported by Moscow, which is also backing Turkey’s sworn enemies the Syrian Kurds.
‘Eve of confrontation’
Currently the conflict between Moscow and Ankara is primarily a war of words. But analysts warn it could spiral into a real clash.
“We are on the eve of such a confrontation. Not because anyone plans to attack anyone else. But when there are so many weapons and armies and intersecting interests, chance can play a major role,” said Alexander Konovalov of the Strategic Analysis Institute in Moscow.
Ankara this week railed against Russia’s bombing, threatening an “extremely decisive response” and calling strikes “vile, cruel and barbaric.”
Moscow for its part has condemned Ankara’s “provocative” shelling of Kurdish positions in the strategic northern Aleppo province, and on Tuesday said that Turkish security services are training militants from ex-Soviet countries that are then dispatched to Syria.
Turkey has openly suggested it could launch a ground operation against the Islamic State group alongside its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which could lead to a direct confrontation with Russian forces.
Kurdish zone in Syria
Along with the fate of Assad, the question of the Kurds is one of the main obstacles to agreement between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds, who already control a large part of northern Syria, from establishing a permanent presence west of the Euphrates river and creating an autonomous zone on the Turkish border.
The Syrian Kurds have benefited from the alliance with Russia and this month opened a representative office in Moscow.
Asked about the risk of an escalation with Turkey Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “he would rather not answer,” adding that “our relations are in a deep crisis.”
The climate of confrontation has intensified since late November when Turkish F-16 fighters downed a Russian bomber plane which Ankara said strayed into its air space.
Russia was swift to react to this “stab in the back” with economic sanctions followed by a beefing-up of its firepower in Syria, notably deploying its latest S-400 air defence systems.
Meanwhile Putin accused his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of involvement in illegal oil trading with Islamic State jihadists in Syria.
Before the conflict, Erdogan was often likened to Putin with both keeping a grip on power and using glories of past empires to boost patriotism while cracking down on rights.
An escalation is possible if Turkey launches the ground operation, said independent military analyst Alexander Golts: “Russia will face the alternative to evacuate immediately and lose face or launch a ground operation.”
This showdown has sparked concern in Washington and Brussels as Turkey is a NATO member and can rely on support of other members if there is an attack on its soil, making the current situation potentially explosive.
“Even while expressing official support for Turkey, NATO will do all it can to restrain the Turks from any abrupt moves in Syria,” Golts said.
There is “a risk of the Syrian crisis transforming into a whole new one, a very dangerous level: direct military confrontation between the region’s states,” Nikolai Bordyuzha, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation made up of Russia and former Soviet states told the Interfax news agency.
“The consequences of such a turn of events are hard to predict.”