Turkey-Russia: With or without you
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are today scheduled to jointly lay the ground for Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in the Akkuyu district on the Mediterranean coast. The plant will also be the first Russian nuclear plant outside of Russia, as the dominant share of the $20 billion project are owned by Rosatom.
Through the plant, Russia is in a sense achieving its long-time goal of settling in the “warm waters” of the Mediterranean. Turkey is a member of Moscow’s rival NATO, and the plant will be located 190 kilometers southwest of the major airbase İncirlik, which is open to NATO flights including to those of the U.S. Akkuyu is an economic venture, not a military one, but one could suggest that Russia has already dipped its toe in “warm waters” through a deal for the logistical use of its ports with EU member Greek Cyprus, but that is another story.
Beyond the Akkuyu plant, Turkey and Russia are getting more deeply involved in military and political/military relations together, if not going so far as to provide bases. The military aspect of ties have two main aspects.
The first is Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems: Four systems for $2.5 billion according to officials. These are not interoperable with NATO systems, but Turkey has been impatient to buy the S-400s, especially since the July 2016 coup attempt. It has moved forward with the purchase while also entering into a contact with Eurosam for the joint production of Asper 30 NATO-compatible surface-to-air missile systems for the long term. In response to criticisms of the S-400 purchase, President Erdoğan has said he is not sure whether U.S. President Donald Trump will be able to approve the sale of NATO-compatible Patriot missiles as the U.S. Congress is blocking even the sale of police handguns to Turkey.
The second field of military cooperation can be observed in Syria. In fact, Turkey and Russia have been 180 degrees apart when it comes to Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad and Erdoğan’s strong opposition to al-Assad and his regime. But on supporting the territorial integrity of Syria they have come together in recent months. Without Russian backing it would have been difficult for Turkey to carry out military operations in Syria to secure its borders, first against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2016-17 and then against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2018. As the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the YPG is considered to be a terrorist threat by Turkey and as a “Kurdish U.S.-proxy militia” by Russia. In recent years the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has partnered with the YPG as a ground force in the campaign against ISIL.
Considering that relations between Ankara and Moscow almost came to a complete halt after Turkish jets shot down a Russian jet as it crossed the Syrian border into Turkey, killing two pilots in November 2015, it may be surprising to see the recent acceleration in Turkish-Russian cooperation. Relations were put back on track thanks to the mediation of Turkish businessman Cavit Cağlar and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev in June 2016, less than a month before Turkey’s coup attempt. Even the assassination of former Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov in December 2016 could not stop the two countries getting into deeper cooperation over Syria, together with Iran, starting with the meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana in January 2017.
But over centuries of history Turkish-Russian relations have always had ups and downs. In 1877, Russian armies came within 20 kilometers - somewhere near today’s Atatürk Airport - of the palace of then Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II in Istanbul. They were only stopped from seizing the Ottoman capital following an ultimatum from the British and Austro-Hungarian empires at the time. That incident came 100 years after the first major Russian move to secure access to “warm waters” through the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, which was signed at the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74, two years before the U.S. was even established.
In this region history flows in the present continuous tense, not in the past tense. The fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to join Erdoğan and Putin to talk Syria on April 4, a day after the Akkuyu ground-breaking, is just another sign of that.