The pitfalls of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement

The pitfalls of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement

In retrospect, the failed coup on July 15 awakened the lone wolf instincts embedded in the Turkish political culture which had lain dormant for some time. 

The failure of Turkey’s Western allies to stand by the democratically elected government during the coup attempt inculcated a sense of betrayal and insecurity, while Western criticism of the state of democracy and human rights under the state of emergency led Turkey to reconsider its ties and seek alternative partnerships.

Against this background, Russia emerged as an ideal partner for Turkey, as it seemed eager to offer Ankara what the Western allies failed to deliver. 

Although Turkish officials frequently reiterated that Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia should not be considered as an alternative to its ties with the West, it is nevertheless perceived as such.

Indeed, rapprochement with Russia is not problematic in itself as long as a symmetrical, interdependent relationship is established between Moscow and Ankara, and a healthy balance between the West and the East is preserved in Turkish foreign policy.

Unfortunately, the reactionary anti-Western mood after July 15 prevents Turkish decision-makers from making a realist assessment of the gains and pitfalls of the strategic Turkish-Russian partnership.

Given the two countries’ political history that is laden with geopolitical rivalry and conflicts, disrupting its Western ties for the sake of a less-than-independent foreign policy poses grave risks for Turkey.

It’s true, Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first leaders to offer support to Ankara in the early hours of the coup attempt. The two countries, which have long been criticized for their authoritarian governance, built solidarity on the foundation of shared discontent with Western hypocrisy.

High-level visits in the aftermath of July 15 enabled both countries to largely reconcile their differences over Syria and thus pave the way for Turkey to launch its Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria in late August.

In the course of the Syrian war, Turkey’s ranking of threat perceptions shifted several times. Today, the main objective for Ankara is to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish corridor on its Syrian border. 

A tacit compromise between Ankara and Moscow allows Turkey to continue its operation in return for ceasing support for rebels in Aleppo. 

However, Turkey and Russia still do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to the Syrian Kurds or Bashar al-Assad. Notably, Putin pretended to hear about the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) office in Moscow for the first time during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit in August. But Russia’s decisions might change toward the final stages of the war, depending on the power configuration on the battlefield. 

As for al-Assad’s rule, recent statements – their subsequent rephrasing notwithstanding – by Erdoğan that the ultimate aim of the operation was to topple al-Assad exposed not only the inherent opposition against al-Assad, but also the limits of the Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria. The anonymous attack on four Turkish soldiers fighting in Syria on the anniversary of Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 should also be considered in this context.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s recent visit to Moscow displayed the gap between Turkish and Russian perspectives with regard to normalization. While Turkey demands an immediate lifting of economic sanctions on Turkish goods, Russia prefers a gradual process. 

Visa requirements, which were reinstated after the jet incident, remain in place. What’s more, Ankara’s demands for a decrease in natural gas prices have so far fallen on deaf ears in Gazprom.

Since the normalization process commenced, the Kremlin’s main focus has been to enhance energy cooperation. Looking closer, however, the enthusiasm over the Turkish Stream and the Akkuyu nuclear projects only serve to sugarcoat Turkey’s alarming energy dependency on Russia. 

Most recently, the issue of conducting trade with local currencies instead of the U.S. dollar has risen to the top of the agenda. The proposal aims to overcome “international conspiracies” set to undermine the Turkish economy through a currency crisis – a crisis for which many economists hold the government squarely responsible for delaying structural reforms.

In many aspects, Turkey requires time to recover from the trauma of July 15. But inflammatory rhetoric against the West is of no help. And if this anti-Western rhetoric eventually brings something concrete like a full rupture with the West – it will only play into Russia’s hands. 

What many ignore today is the fact that Turkey is surrounded by Russian defense systems in Crimea, Abkhazia, Armenia and Syria. It has only been months since Erdoğan complained about the Black Sea being turned into a Russian lake.

Geopolitical location dictates that Turkey must consider delicate balances in the foreign policy realm. And in this respect, Turkey’s power lies in its ability to pursue alliances in line with an active multilateral foreign policy.