Strategic partnership to strategic dependence
A few years ago, if you had come across a Turkish official talking about a strategic ally, you would not need to hear the beginning of the sentence to assume the official is talking about the United States.
This is no longer the case, as Russia has now replaced the U.S. as Turkey’s strategic partner, while the word “strategic” has been disappearing from the Turkish officials’ rhetoric when they talk about relations with Washington.
It is only natural to have trade between the two countries to increase, as there is a direct correlation between proximity and trade. Turkey’s dependence on Russia for oil and gas is also understandable to a degree when as an energy-hungry country Turkey finds it not so easy to diversify its suppliers when it has a big provider like Russia next door.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump understands why Turkey has felt obliged to purchase anti-ballistic missiles from Russia as it was unable to procure them from its Western allies. The same goes with nuclear power plants, as Russia remains the only country willing to go ahead with setting up Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
But in order to be able to define those relations as “strategic partnership,” the two countries need to see eye to eye on regional and international issues. They need to be on the same page when it comes to Syria for instance.
In this respect it is highly problematic to define Turkish-Russian relations as strategic especially when six Turkish soldiers have been killed and nine wounded in shelling by Syrian regime forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. The fact that this incident happened hours before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Ukraine - another issue where Ankara and Moscow are not on the same page - might be a coincidence, or not.
At any rate, developments in Syria are evolving in a way that further increases the economic, military and political pressure on Turkey. It is confronted with new waves of refugees and risks becoming a safe haven for fleeing anti-regime forces which might harbor fundamentalist terrorists among them. But more importantly, Turkish soldiers are surrounded by hostile forces, as two of its dozen of observation posts in Syria are already in regions captured by regime soldiers during the offensive they started in the summer.
Ever since August, regime forces have increased their territorial gains around Idlib and these gains have no doubt taken place with the coordination and full-fledged military assistance of Russia.
The blame of the loss of life of Turkish soldiers therefore cannot be put solely on regime forces. Moscow is also to blame.
If Turkish soldiers are killed as a result of a policy that is being pursued by one of Turkey’s partners, that partner cannot be defined as a strategic one.
The same applies to the U.S. Ever since Washington decided to partner with the YPG, which Turkey sees as the illegal PKK’s Syria wing, the two countries’ soldiers have at times faced a serious risk of armed confrontation. And the Turkish army suffered casualties from U.S.-supported YPG forces. But Turkey’s reaction to Washington and Moscow has differed in tone, the former being targeted with much harsher criticism.
There are two ways to explain the difference: What is perceived to be a betrayal hurts more when it comes from an old-time friend compared to coming from an old foe that turned into a new friend. Forget about the fact that the YPG has opened a political office in Moscow. When your old-time ally provides military equipment to a group that you see as an existential enemy, this is difficult to swallow. This would be the case with any government in power in Turkey.
The second explanation has to do more with the ideology of Turkey’s ruling elites. Ever since the coup attempt of 2016, Turkey’s elites believe they are faced by a U.S. administration that wants them out of power. In their eyes, Russian President Vladimir Putin is against Turkey’s certain policy choices but not against Erdoğan.
Whereas if you set aside Trump, they are convinced that the U.S. administration is specifically against Erdoğan’s rule. The same is valid for certain European capitals. Some EU envoys in Ankara are known to have said to some of their interlocutors that their governments are not against Turkey but against Erdoğan.
This has pushed Turkish leadership towards a more intensified relationship with Moscow, which the two sides call strategic. But it is only rhetorically strategic, since there is a very asymmetrical balance of power between Moscow and Ankara.
As seen in the case of Turkey’s latest military operation into northeastern Syria, where U.S. soldiers are deployed, Turkey succeeded in dictating its terms, whereas in northwestern Syria, it is the Russians who have been dictating their terms. In time with more Turkish soldiers being encircled by regime forces, the relationship risks turning into strategic dependence on Russia.