Will Turkey and Russia become ‘strategic allies’ or sustain a ‘marriage of convenience’?
Mehmet Öğütçü and Dimitar Bechev
There is never a dull moment between Russia and Turkey. The last three years have seen a crisis triggered by a shot-down Russian warplane, a flurry of economic sanctions, signing multibillion dollar energy projects, coordinated diplomatic efforts in Syria, Ankara’s purchase of advanced Russian weapons systems, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin hugging, then fighting and then hugging again. Who knows what the future may hold?
History is no guide, to be sure. Ottoman Turks and the Russian Empire had a complicated relationship. From 1568 all the way to 1918, they fought many wars – 13 to be precise. But they also co-operated at times, as in the 1830s when the Tsarist military underwrote the survival of the Ottoman dynasty. Atatürk and Lenin were allies in the early 1920s. Then, during the Cold War, Turkey joined NATO to resist Soviet expansionism.
Under Erdoğan and Putin flourishing relations were buoyed by growing economic interdependence. Rapprochement survived a harsh test following the shot-down Russian jet at the Turkish border with Syria in November 2015. Putin slammed the incident as a “stab in the back” and described the Turkish leadership as “accomplices of terrorists.” But less than a year later, after the failed coup of 15 July, 2016, Turkey and Russia mended ties. Since then, Putin and Erdoğan have been side by side again, cutting one deal after another.
By reaching out to Turkey, Russia is hoping to drive a wedge inside NATO. Ankara refuses to join the Western sanctions against Moscow and its opposition to the annexation of Crimea is muted. Turkey is sending a strong message to the U.S. and the EU at a time when relations are hitting rock bottom. In September 2017, it rebuffed NATO’s warnings and finalized a deal to purchase advanced S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia.
Syria has turned from a bone of contention to a bridge between the two powers. Moscow assisted “Operation Euphrates Shield” while Ankara facilitated the handover of Eastern Aleppo to the Assad regime in December 2016. Together with Iran and Russia, Turkey has been seeking a negotiated settlement, sidelining the U.S. But Syrian Kurds remain a contested issue. Russia’s approach mirrors that of the U.S. Moscow is investing in links with local collaborators, including the Kurds, in order to serve its long-term goals: Countering the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL), preventing Western dominance and shoring up its influence and military presence in Syria.
Russia is also reaping commercial gains. Rosatom is set to build a $20 billion nuclear power plant in Akkuyu in southern Turkey, which may come online by 2023. The TurkStream pipeline has two strings to its bow, one shipping gas to Turkey and the other to the EU, and is scheduled for completion by the end of 2019. Those ventures will reconfirm Turkey’s heavy reliance on energy imports from Russia.
Yet could such tactical co-operation give rise to a strategic partnership? Is the partial overlap of security and economic interests and the pushback against what both Moscow and Ankara consider “a flagrant intervention in their neighborhood” by the U.S. enough to do the job?
Turkey and Russia have big ambitions in the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caspian region and Southeast Europe. They could find themselves on the opposite side of regional conflagrations – consider a new flare-up of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, for instance. Three-way co-operation with Iran over Syria has its limits too. They have now come to the fore with Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” campaign in Afrin and the Assad push against rebel-held enclaves such as Idlib and Eastern Ghouta.
Neither Erdoğan nor Putin are easy leaders. They do not trust each other, even if they know full well that another dip in relations is contrary to both their mutual national interests. One reason for Turkey’s cultivating closer ties to Russia is to increase its leverage vis-à-vis the U.S. and Europe at a time when it feels isolated. Yet it is unlikely to scrap its Customs Union with the EU to enter the Eurasian Economic Union, or trade NATO membership for the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization or China-dominated Shanghai Co-operation Organization.
The Turkish-Russian “marriage of convenience” has so far proven resilient despite all odds. But smart money is on the status quo. A strategic alliance is not in the offing. The relationship, looking opportunistic, is still fragile and could collapse if strong personalities and interests clash again. After all, what else should one expect from a multipolar world in which both Moscow and Ankara seek to triumph?