Russia accesses warm waters through Turkey
The expression of “the sick man of Europe” was coined by the Russian Tsar Nicholas I to describe the declining Ottoman Empire on the eve of the Crimean War in 1853. To get access to “warm waters” was adopted as a strategic policy of the Russian Empire over a century before that under Peter the Great, while in Soviet times, Josef Stalin was a follower of the same strategy. That is why the Turkish straits and the Turkish-Soviet border (as the north-east-southwest corridor down to Mediterranean) was considered a key strategic point of Western defense, following Turkey’s membership to NATO.
Putin can consider himself the successor to Peter the Great’s policy of having access to warm waters - that is, the Mediterranean Sea - not through war, but rather through cooperation for more trade. Russia may be losing a military base in Tartus with the failing Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, but it gains much more valuable outlets to southern markets through cooperation with Turkey. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his host in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, voiced a shared “strategic” view of Putin’s visit. That means something for the prime minister of a NATO country. (As the two were having their meeting in Istanbul, on the shores of the Bosphorus, the Deputy Undersecretary for the U.S. State Department Eric Rubin was telling reporters in the southern city of Adana – host to one of the largest NATO bases on earth - that his country was committed to the security of Turkey in the region.)
Erdoğan and Putin signed 11 cooperation agreements, from the opening up of Turkish and Russian cultural promotion houses to a $20 billion nuclear power plant that will be built in Akkuyu, on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Erdoğan said both countries targeted raising bilateral Turkish-Russian trade to exceed $100 billion dollars - from the current nearly $40 billion - over the next seven to eight years. Russia is already Turkey’s number one trading partner (on cumulative basis it is the European Union) and the main trade item in this balance is Russian gas and oil. Turkey is dependent on Russian gas in its electricity production more than Russians themselves, and this dependency might become deeper with the sanctions on Iran. Turkey is eyeing Russian gas and oil to compensate for the loss from Iran over the winter months.
With nearly 4 million Russian tourists rushing to Turkish Mediterranean resorts every year and ever increasing Turco-Russian marriages, this long-range relationship makes discrepancies over Syria, for example, smaller than they actually are. For the first time, Putin was very clear in saying that Russia was not an advocate for the regime in Syria, and one may expect a quicker decomposition of the Damascus regime following these words.
The spirit of the new Turco-Russian cooperation is to trade and to leave all problematic areas aside, (to be dealt with by diplomats later). The motto may not be “make war,” but rather “make trade.”