Turkey-Russia ties move beyond tactical
Relations between Russia and Turkey can be analyzed under three main chapters following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The first 10 years after 1991 witnessed tough competition between the two countries, particularly over influence on the newly independent Eurasian and Central Asian countries and their rich energy resources. Turkey’s efforts in this regard resulted in the signing and accomplishing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, thus establishing strong ties with Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Within the same spirit of competition, Russia’s indirect support to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and, in return, Turkey’s covert backing to Chechen rebels constituted major problems in ties.
But from the end of the 1990s, the two regional powers gradually decided to launch a new era in bilateral ties by replacing “competition” with “cooperation” in multiple fields. This decision came amid Vladimir Putin’s election as Russian president in 2000, two years before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power as the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Since then, Putin and Erdoğan have been steering Turkish-Russian relationship towards a unique model in international relations. In 2010, they launched a high-level cooperation council with the participation of multiple ministers from both sides in order to more securely institutionalize bilateral cooperation. As two pragmatic leaders, they never allowed political and regional differences to pose a problem to their will to develop economic, trade, energy and tourism cooperation.
The most important crisis between Ankara and Moscow - after Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015 – lasted for nine months and started to be resolved after the Turkish government expressed regret over the incident. That crisis showed the bitter truth - especially for Turkey - that the two sides have no luxury to break ties. It could be argued that this era of cooperation has served mostly to the advantage of Russia, as Turkey’s annual trade deficit with it is nearly $20 billion and it has become heavily dependent on Russian natural gas.
The third chapter in Turkey-Russia ties opened through the civil war in Syria, especially after Russian military engagement deepened in late 2015. Russian consent allowed Turkey’s first massive cross border operation into Syria, the Euphrates Shield Operation, in August 2016, while Turkey’s ongoing Operation Olive Branch was again only possible thanks to Moscow’s consent.
Dialogue between Erdoğan and Putin also paved the way for the establishment of the Astana and Sochi processes, with the participation of Iran, which aim to provide a ceasefire in the war-torn country and launch a platform for a political settlement.
This dialogue has had three main results so far: First, Turkey has had to accept the remaining of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, prompting a radical change in its policy. Ankara has also had to acknowledge that both Iran and Russia have put down their roots in Syria for a very long time, both politically and militarily.
Second, Turkey’s alignment with the Russia-Iran duo in Syria has led to a further souring of its ties with its traditional Western allies, namely the United States. Moscow’s permission for Turkey’s fight against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin worsened a crisis between Ankara and Washington, whose ties were already strained over several other sources of tension. Strong-worded criticisms also came from European powers, which have questioned the real motives of the Turkish military campaign in Syria. Despite these reactions, Turkey now feels freer to launch new operations in eastern Syria at the expense of further risking its ties with NATO partners. Turkey’s plans to procure S-400 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia should also be evaluated with this in mind.
Thirdly, cooperation with Russia paved the way for Turkey to become a hard power in its region. Turkish troops are currently in the Idlib, Afrin and al-Bab regions of northwestern Syria, with the government vowing that the next targets will be east of the Euphrates and even northern Iraq. It is a fact Turkey’s military vows are now taken much more seriously by world powers and regional countries. Erdoğan has repeatedly stated that this ensures Turkey’s place at the table when it comes to making decisions about the future of Syria.
Both history and geography dictate the importance of a good relationship between Turkey and Russia. Their cooperation is a very important asset for the stabilization of a vast region, from Eurasia to the Caucasus, from the Black Sea to the Middle East. The first two chapters of post-Cold War Turkey-Russia ties showed this, and the recent trend in ties tells another story: Considering that the normalization and stabilization of Syria will take years and that Turkey’s presence in the Syrian theater will endure accordingly, it could be argued that Turkish-Russian cooperation on regional security matters will go beyond being tactical.