The extraordinarily troublesome year 2020 tested many international institutions and bilateral ties, but few experienced sharper challenges than the complex and troubled relations between Russia and Turkey,which have a strong impact on crisis developments in Europe’s immediate neighborhood.
In the last two decades, Turkish foreign policy has undergone a remarkable transformation and Eurasianism, with its anti-Western and pro-Russian rhetoric, has become more visible in the foreign policy practices/activities of the JDP (Justice and Development Party) government.
The question regarding the nature of the relations between Turkey and Russia it seems so much contradictory today. On the side of a NATO member perspective, one could say that Turkey’s positioning is ”highly isolated and more broadly leads members to reflect on the positioning of its vis-à-vis the United States”, whose unilateralism is now giving rise to new alliances.
While closer relations bring several benefits with little cost to Russia, it is difficult to say the same for Turkey, particularly when it comes to the cost of these relations. One could make a long list of benefits that Russia gains from engagement or cooperation. Meanwhile Turkey has accrued some benefits—for example, by disrupting the plans of Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD in northwestern Syria—but this has come at a high price). Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile systems from Russia has led to its removal from the United States’ F-35 program and sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. In broader terms, its closer relations with Russia have generated heated discussions in the West regarding Turkey’s place in .
The tumultuous year 2020 tested and significantly degraded the always ambiguous Russian-Turkish partnership, which has become transactional at best and certainly not “strategic”. The foundation of economic ties, and first of all the export of Russian natural gas to Turkey, has seriously weakened. Even if both states experience an economic recovery in the coming months, which is by no means certain, the trade and investment flows would hardly recover. In the temporarily and disagreeably suspended Syrian and Libyan wars, Russia and Turkey are not only backing opposite factions but also manipulating the risks of a direct military confrontation. Turkish forceful interference in the Nagorno Karabakh war was decisive in securing the victory for Azerbaijan and devalued Russian security guarantees for Armenia.
This breakthrough was far more disturbing for Moscow than the official discourse reveals, and the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping force cannot restore the capacity to dominate security developments in the Caucasus. Personal ties between the two ambitious leaders suffice for finding a mode of deconflicting in these war zones, but their mutual irritation and mistrust are accumulating. Thirty years ago, Russia’s supremacy in the Caspian Sea was unquestioned. Even with the independence of new countries with their own navies in the early 1990s, Russia and its Caspian Flotilla had little to fear.
On June 26 of this year, the Turkish government began constructing the first bridge over Canal Istanbul, the huge waterway project designed to run parallel to the Bosporus Strait. Ankara has presented the megaproject as a strategic move that will turn Turkey into a logistics base and grant it geo-political leverage over both regional and international trade and transportation routes. However, Turkey’s political opposition considers Canal Istanbul to be a rent-seeking project designed to attract international – probably Chinese and Arab – investment in the hope of reviving Turkey’s deteriorating economy. The Canal may also affect the Montreux Convention, the decades old treaty that governs the Turkish Straits. Given the rivalry between the US and Russia, questions around the Montreux Convention will add another point of contention, increase tensions and may also present serious consequences for Turkey.
Russia, however, would be deeply concerned about any attempt to alter the status quo as the Convention constrains unwelcome Western presence in the Black Sea while also providing Russia an opportunity to develop an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. Arguably, the importance of the Turkish Straits for Russia has increased with the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
The maturing of autocratic regimes in Russia and Turkey does not facilitate their rapprochement in the security domain, as each ambitious ruler is more interested in exploiting the opportunities emerging from the conflict the other one is facing in relations with the West than in extending a helping hand to the fellow dictator-in distress. Also some observers suggest Ankara could see its drone sales to Ukraine as powerful leverage over Moscow in a number of regional disputes that are going on between the two.
A major problem for Turkey in its relations with Russia remains the asymmetry, even if interdependent, in favour of Moscow. Yet, the nature of asymmetry is dynamic and subject to change, as Turkey has engaged in what can be termed dependency reduction on Russia, both geopolitically and structurally (energy-wise).
- Eurasianism and Blue Homeland
With the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkey saw the emergence of a potential area of influence for itself in Central Asia. Supported by the West, its Eurasianism in this period meant Turkey could play a leading role in the affairs of the newly independent Central Asian and Caucasus states. Hence it was also premised on a competitive agenda with Russia. However, despite its early eagerness to take advantage of this epochal development, Turkey failed to cultivate a leading role in Central Asia.
Unlike the more geopolitically informed early forms of its Eurasianism in the post-Cold War era, Turkey’s recent turn to Eurasia, driven partially by its deepening discontent with the West, seeks to build closer relations with Russia and China. This latest form, present earlier among some military officers and marginal political groups in the early 2000s, carries a strong suspicion of the West as the constitutive ingredient of its political identity. Thus, the current Eurasianism is essentially an ideological disposition rather than a coherent geopolitical vision. Its most recent manifestation can be seen through the imprecise, nebulous, and unofficial Blue Homeland geopolitical concept.
The Blue Homeland concept effectively means three things. First, it represents an expanded vision and understanding of Turkey’s maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. Second, it is the navy’s call to reimagine and reposition the country as a maritime power. Third, the ideological concept—as exemplified by the narrative of its creators who believe that Turkish geopolitical interests are better served through realignment with Russia and China—signifies a reimagining of the country’s place in the world.
Syria is central to the current shape of Turkey-Russia relations. It offers a model of partnership for both countries in a context where their interests are competitive. However, the Syrian-centric cooperation between Turkey and Russia is also special and is thus unlikely to be replicated elsewhere due to structural constraints and contextual nuances.
Developments at the broader international level, a new administration in the US, and rising tension between Ukraine and Russia indicate that Turkey would face more constraints and higher costs for its geopolitical balancing act between the West and Russia.
In spite of the dynamism and developments in Turkish-Russian relations since 2015, analysts say that they cannot extrapolate that the same level of cooperation will continue, provided that Turkish-Western relations do not experience a rupture.
- The new instable geopolitical puzzle
To explain these increasingly close relations in recent years, the analysis mainly features Turkey’s motives. What is perplexing is not that Russia would want to form closer relations with Turkey regionally or bilaterally; the benefits of such engagements for Russia is clear. On top of economic and energy interests (including Russia building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant) and given Turkey’s membership in NATO, undermining NATO’s cohesion and creating more friction between Ankara and its NATO partners serve Russia’s interests. For instance, as a NATO member, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems confers more prestige on these systems and generates more tension between Turkey and the US – both of these developments serve Russia well.
Similarly, cooperation with Turkey gave more legitimacy to Russian-designed processes in the conflict zones, most importantly in Syria. The list of benefits that Russia has accrued from its engagements or cooperation with Turkey goes on. Plus, unlike Turkey, Russia does not have to pay a cost for forming increasingly close relations with Turkey. In contrast, from being removed from the F-35 fighter jet programme to the CAATSA sanctions to the deepening crisis in its relations with the West, Turkey has to pay a heavy price for its close relations with Russia and purchasing the Russian-made S-400 missile systems.
The concept of an “axis of excluded” has been utilised as one of the explanatory paradigms that has been adopted by certain analysts to account for the deepening of Turkish-Russian relations. The basic argument behind this approach is that, despite structural differences and contrasting worldviews between Turkey and Russia, both actors are opting for closer relations as a result of their shared frustrations with Western and US policies being directed towards them.
The state and health of Turkish-US relations has a direct impact on the nature of Turkish-Russian relations. At least, this is the case from Turkey’s perspective. Relatedly, the opacity of US policy – or the perceived loss of its strategic clarity – the nature of its local partnerships in Syria (particularly its evolving relationships with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the backbone of which is formed by the YPG, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK), and regional alliances (the US being highly supportive of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel’s regional designs and visions in recent years) have further driven wedges between Turkey and the US.
In this regard, Turkey’s governing elites often justify Turkey’s closer relations with Russia and China by referring to the fashionable, but largely nebulous, concept of searching for strategic autonomy in Turkish foreign policy.
It is also important to note that the natures of the political economies of Turkey and Russia are also constraining factors in bilateral relations. Russia pursues policies that will reflect the interests of a major energy-exporting country, whereas Turkey represents a major energy-importing country in its regional policy. Whereas Russia favours high energy prices, Turkey’s interests lie in low energy prices, particularly given Turkey’s huge current account deficit, which is partially caused by Turkey’s increasing energy needs. This incompatibility in the two countries’ political economies will have some implications on their regional policies and interactions.
Both of them, Turkey and Russia have had different standings on the regional status quo. At the regional level, after the Arab uprisings, Turkey operated as a revisionist power. It supported the overthrow of authoritarian regimes and the establishment of a new regional order, developing closer relations with the pro-change forces in the region. Despite the fact that in recent years, Turkey has adopted a much more cautious stance on the continuing waves of protests in the Middle East, this does not change the overall picture.
In contrast, Russia has operated as a status quo power in the region, displaying clear preferences for regional authoritarian strong men such as Sisi and Assad. It was suspicious towards the Arab uprisings and supported the incumbent regimes. Such a divergence of preferences as regards the regional status quo created a strategic incompatibility between the two powers’ regional visions.
However, to be honest, I don’t believe the fact that renowned think tanks keep pushing the scenario possibility that Ankara will leave NATO and pursue its own foreign/military policy. If there is one thing which will never happen in Turkey, that is the exit from this alliance. Never. For a simple reason: NATO is the ultimate shield protecting Turkey against nuclear powers in the proximity, especially against Russia.